Robin Williams: A comic actor with classical training

Actor Robin Williams on the set of the play "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York in 2011.
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Robin Williams, who died of an apparent suicide on Monday at the age of 63, was an actor of prodigious comic gifts both on stage as a stand-up comedian and on-screen as an actor. What many of his fans may not know or remember is that behind his hyper and manic comic persona was a classically trained artist whose craft was honed at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York.

As a member of the drama department’s Group Six, Williams was in the Juilliard class that included actors Kelsey Grammer and Diane Venora.

“We were in the same class for four years,” Venora recalled Monday in an email. “He was brilliant and complex, deeply sensitive, possessing a vulnerability and humility that gave his work tremendous power. I loved him very much.”

While at Juilliard, Williams met another aspiring actor named Christopher Reeve and the two became lifelong friends. Williams would later come to Reeve’s aid after the “Superman” actor became paralyzed following a horse-riding accident in 1995.

Williams began his studies at Juilliard in 1973 but left the school without graduating in 1976. In 1991, Juilliard presented him with an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Degree.


“Robin’s genius for comedic improvisation, which quickly surfaced at Juilliard, was matched by his deep understanding of the actor’s art and how to touch his audience in meaningful ways,” said Juilliard president Joseph Polisi, in a news release on Tuesday.

Williams later established a scholarship at the school that has provided financial assistance to a student each year.

One such beneficiary was Jessica Chastain, who graduated from Juilliard in 2003. Chastain wrote on her official Facebook page on Monday that Williams’ scholarship “made it possible for me to graduate college. His generous spirit will forever inspire me to support others as he supported me.”

Though his stand-up and screen careers took him to Hollywood, Williams would occasionally return to the kind of classical acting that he studied at Juilliard. He appeared in a Mike Nichols-directed production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” that opened at Lincoln Center in New York in 1988.

Williams played Estragon, one of the two tramps, alongside Steve Martin as Vladimir. Williams also put in a brief appearance in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version of “Hamlet” by playing Osric, the courtier who invites Hamlet to the climactic duel.

Williams’ most recent stage role, and perhaps his most significant, was in the 2011 Broadway production of Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” In the wartime drama, a heavily bearded Williams improbably played a captive tiger that is killed after it mauls an American soldier.

The playwright recalled on Monday that Williams stuck to the script despite his well-known tendency to improvise. “Sometimes I wish he would have,” Joseph said in an email.

“Once he asked me if I listened to music while I was writing the play, and I told him that for ‘Bengal Tiger,’ I listened to a lot of Tom Waits,” Joseph recalled.

“This delighted him, and he suddenly sprung into an incredible, absolutely perfect imitation of Waits, using actual Waits lyrics mashed up with lines from my play. I still can’t believe it. I still can’t believe the way he was able to connect things on the fly, how he could take the most disparate ideas, and make them one.”

Here’s the full Times obituary on Williams.

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT