After his family moved to Marin County, Williams began his career doing stand-up comedy shows in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970s. His first performance took place at the comedy club, Holy City Zoo, in San Francisco, where he worked his way up from tending bar to getting on stage. In the 1960s, San Francisco was a center for a rock music renaissance, hippies, drugs, and a sexual revolution, and in the 1970s, Williams helped lead its "comedy renaissance," writes critic Gerald Nachman. Williams says he found out about "drugs and happiness" during that period, adding that he saw "the best brains of my time turned to mud."
He moved to Los Angeles and continued doing stand-up shows at various clubs, including the Comedy Club, in 1977, where TV producer George Schlatter saw him. Schlatter, realizing that Williams would become an important force in show business, asked him to appear on a revival of his Laugh-In show. The show aired in late 1977 and became his debut TV appearance. Williams also performed a show at the LA Improv that same year for Home Box Office. While the Laugh-In revival failed, it led Williams into a career in television, during which period he continued doing stand-up at comedy clubs, such as the Roxy, to help him keep his improvisational skills sharp.
Williams traveled to England in the early 1980s where he was a relatively unknown US TV actor. He dropped in to the London Comedy Store unannounced, and its regular comedians Alexei Sayle and Andy de la Tour decided to let Williams perform first to warm up the audience.
Williams has credited other comedians with having influenced and inspired him, including Jonathan Winters, Peter Sellers, Nichols and May and Lenny Bruce, partly because they attracted a more intellectual audience by using a higher level of wit. He also liked Jay Leno for his quickness in ad-libbing comedy routines, and Sid Caesar, whose acts he felt were "precious."
Jonathan Winters became his "idol" early in life; Williams first saw him on TV when he was eight, and paid him homage in interviews throughout his career. Williams was inspired by Winters's ingenuity, realizing, he says, "that anything is possible, that anything is funny. . . He gave me the idea that it can be free-form, that you can go in and out of things pretty easily."
During an interview in London in 2002, he told British television host Sir Michael Parkinson that Peter Sellers was an important influence, especially his multi-character roles in Dr. Strangelove: "It doesn't get better than that." Williams owned a rare recording of Sellers's early radio Goon Shows British comedy actors Dudley Moore and Peter Cook were also among his influences, he told Parkinson.
Williams was also influenced by comedian Richard Pryor's fearless ability to talk about his personal life on stage, with subjects including his use of drugs and alcohol, and Williams added those kinds of topics during his own performances. By bringing up such personal matters as a form of comedy, he told Parkinson, it was "cheaper than therapy," and gave him a way to release his pent up energy and emotions.
Televised live performances
Williams won a Grammy Award for the recording of his 1979 live show at the Copacabana in New York, "Reality...What a Concept". Some of his later tours, after he became a TV and film star, include An Evening With Robin Williams (1982), Robin Williams: At The Met (1986), and Robin Williams Live on Broadway (2002). The latter broke many long-held records for a comedy show. In some cases, tickets were sold out within thirty minutes of going on sale.
After a six-year break, in August 2008, Williams announced a new 26-city tour titled "Weapons of Self-Destruction". He said that this was his last chance to make jokes at the expense of the Bush administration, but by the time the show was staged, only a few minutes covered that subject. The tour started at the end of September 2009 and concluded in New York on December 3, and was the subject of an HBO special on December 8, 2009.
Hardships in performing stand-up
Williams stated that partly due to the stress of doing stand-up, he started using drugs and alcohol early in his career. He further stated that he never drank or did drugs while on stage but occasionally performed when ill with a hangover from the previous day. During the period he was using cocaine, Williams said it made him paranoid when performing on stage.
Williams described the life of stand-up comedians like himself: It's a brutal field, man. They burn out. It takes its toll. Plus, the lifestyle—partying, drinking, drugs. If you're on the road, it's even more brutal. You gotta come back down to mellow your ass out, and then performing takes you back up. They flame out because it comes and goes. Suddenly they're hot, and then somebody else is hot. Sometimes they get very bitter. Sometimes they just give up. Sometimes they have a revival thing and they come back again. Sometimes they snap. The pressure kicks in. You become obsessed and then you lose that focus that you need.
Some, like critic Vincent Canby, were concerned that Williams's monologues were so intense it seemed as though at any minute his "creative process could reverse into a complete meltdown." Williams felt secure he could not run out of ideas as the constant change in world events would keep him supplied. He also explained that he often used free association of ideas while improvising in order to keep audience interest. Williams noted that the competitive comedy club atmosphere could cause problems. For example, some comedians accused him of intentionally copying their jokes, although Williams strongly denied ever doing so. Whoopi Goldberg explained that it is difficult for comedians to not pick up and reuse another comedian's material, and that it is done "all the time." He later avoided going to performances of other comedians to deter similar accusations.
During a Playboy interview in 1992, he was asked whether he ever feared losing the ability to speak openly about those kinds of events and subjects, and admitted that he would, "if I felt like I was becoming not just dull but a rock, that I still couldn't spark, still fire off or talk about things." While he attributed the recent suicide of novelist Jerzy Kosiński to his fear of losing his creativity and sharpness, Williams felt he could overcome those risks. For that, he credited his father, who he said gave him self-confidence, telling him to never be afraid of talking about subjects which were important to him.
After the Laugh-In revival and appearing in the cast of the short-lived The Richard Pryor Show on NBC, Williams was cast by Garry Marshall as the alien Mork in a 1978 episode of the hit TV series Happy Days. Williams impressed the producer with his quirky sense of humor when he sat on his head when asked to take a seat for the audition. As Mork, Williams improvised much of his dialogue and physical comedy, speaking in a high, nasal voice. Mork's appearance was so popular with viewers that it led to a spin-off hit television sitcom, Mork & Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982; the show was written to accommodate Williams's improvisations. Although he played the same character as in Happy Days, the show was set in the present, in Boulder, Colorado, instead of the late 1950s in Milwaukee. Mork & Mindy at its peak had a weekly audience of 60 million and was credited with turning Williams into a "superstar." According to critic James Poniewozik, the show was especially popular among young people, as Williams became a "man and a child, buoyant, rubber-faced, an endless gusher of invention."
Mork became an extremely popular character, featured on posters, coloring books, lunchboxes, and other merchandise. Mork & Mindy was such a success in its first season that Williams appeared on the March 12, 1979, cover of Time magazine, then the leading news magazine in the U.S. The cover photo, taken by Michael Dressler in 1979, is said to have "[captured] his different sides: the funnyman mugging for the camera, and a sweet, more thoughtful pose that appears on a small TV he holds in his hands" according to Mary Forgione of the Los Angeles Times. This photo was installed in the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution shortly after Williams's death to allow visitors to pay their respects. Williams was also on the cover of the August 23, 1979, issue of Rolling Stone magazine, with the cover photograph taken by famed photographer Richard Avedon.
Starting in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Williams began to reach a wider audience with his stand-up comedy, including three HBO comedy specials, Off The Wall (1978), An Evening with Robin Williams (1982), and Robin Williams: Live at the Met (1986). Also in 1986, Williams co-hosted the 58th Academy Awards.
Williams was also a regular guest on various talk shows, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman, on which he appeared 50 times. Letterman, who knew Williams for nearly 40 years, recalls seeing him first perform as a new comedian at the Comedy Store in Hollywood, where Letterman and other comedians had already been doing stand-up. "He came in like a hurricane," said Letterman, who said he then thought to himself, "Holy crap, there goes my chance in show business."
Williams's stand-up work was a consistent thread through his career, as seen by the success of his one-man show (and subsequent DVD) Robin Williams: Live on Broadway (2002). He was voted 13th on Comedy Central's list "100 Greatest Stand- ups of All Time" in 2004.
Williams and Billy Crystal were in an unscripted cameo at the beginning of an episode of the third season of Friends. His many TV appearances included an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and starred in an episode of Law and Order: SVU. In 2010, he appeared in a sketch with Robert De Niro on Saturday Night Live, and in 2012, guest-starred as himself in two FX series, Louie and Wilfred. In May 2013, CBS started a new series, The Crazy Ones, starring Williams, but the show was canceled after one season.
Williams's first film was the 1977 low-budget comedy Can I Do It 'Till I Need Glasses?. His first major performance was as the title character in Popeye (1980); though the film was a commercial flop, the role allowed Williams to showcase the acting skills previously demonstrated in his television work. He also starred as the leading character in The World According to Garp (1982), which Williams considered "may have lacked a certain madness onscreen, but it had a great core". Williams continued with other smaller roles in less successful films, such as The Survivors (1983) and Club Paradise (1986), though felt these roles did not help advance his film career.
Williams's first major break came from his starring role in director Barry Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), which earned Williams a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film takes place in 1965 during the Vietnam War, with Williams playing the role of Adrian Cronauer, a radio "shock jock" who keeps the troops entertained with comedy and sarcasm. Williams was allowed to play the role without a script, improvising most of his lines. Over the microphone, he created voice impressions of people including Walter Cronkite, Gomer Pyle, Elvis Presley, Mr. Ed, and Richard Nixon. "We just let the cameras roll," said producer Mark Johnson, and Williams "managed to create something new for every single take."
Many of his later roles were in comedies tinged with pathos. Williams's roles in comedy and dramatic films garnered him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (for his role as a psychologist in Good Will Hunting), as well as two previous Academy Award nominations (for playing an English teacher in Dead Poets Society (1989), and for playing a troubled homeless man in The Fisher King (1991)). In 1991, he played an adult Peter Pan in the movie Hook, although he said he would have to lose twenty-five pounds.
Other acclaimed dramatic films include Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Awakenings (1990), and What Dreams May Come (1998). In the 2002 film Insomnia, Williams portrayed a writer/killer on the run from a sleep-deprived Los Angeles policeman (played by Al Pacino) in rural Alaska. Also in 2002, in the psychological thriller One Hour Photo, Williams played an emotionally disturbed photo development technician who becomes obsessed with a family for whom he has developed pictures for a long time. The last Williams movie released during his lifetime was The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, a film addressing the value of life. In it, Williams played Henry Altmann, a terminally ill man who re-assesses his life and works to redeem himself.
Among the actors who helped him during his acting career, he credits Robert De Niro from whom he learned the power of silence and economy of dialog when acting, to portray the deep-driven man. From Dustin Hoffman, with whom he co-starred in Hook, he learned to take on totally different character types, and to transform his characters by extreme preparation. Mike Medavoy, producer of Hook, told its director, Steven Spielberg, that he intentionally teamed up Hoffman and Williams for the film because he knew they wanted to work together, and that Williams welcomed the opportunity of working with Spielberg. Williams benefited from working with Woody Allen, who directed him and Billy Crystal in Deconstructing Harry (1997), as Allen knew that Crystal and Williams had often performed together on stage.
His penetrative acting in the role of a therapist in Good Will Hunting (1997) deeply influenced some real therapists, and won him an Academy Award. In Awakenings (1990) Williams played the role of Oliver Sacks, the doctor who wrote the book. Sacks later said the way Williams's mind worked was a "form of genius." Williams played a private school teacher in Dead Poets Society in 1989, which included a final emotional scene which some critics said "inspired a generation" and became a part of pop culture. Looking over most of Williams's films, one writer is "struck by the breadth of Williams' roles," how radically different most were.
Terry Gilliam, who co-founded Monty Python and directed Williams in two of his films, The Fisher King and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), noted in 1992 that Williams had the ability to "go from manic to mad to tender and vulnerable," adding that to him Williams was "the most unique mind on the planet. There's nobody like him out there."
During his career, he starred as a voice actor in several animated films. His voice role as the Genie in the animated, musical fantasy film, Aladdin (1992) was written specifically for Williams. The film's directors stated that they took a risk by writing the role, and successfully convinced him to take it. Through approximately 30 hours of tape, Williams was able to improvise much of his dialogue and impersonated dozens of celebrity voices, including Ed Sullivan, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Groucho Marx, Rodney Dangerfield, William F. Buckley, Peter Lorre, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Arsenio Hall. At first, Williams refused to take the role since it was a Disney movie, and he did not want the studio profiting by selling toys and novelty items based on the movie. He accepted the role with certain conditions: "I'm doing it basically because I want to be part of this animation tradition. I want something for my children. One deal is, I just don't want to sell anything — as in Burger King, as in toys, as in stuff." The film went on to become one of his most recognized and best loved roles, and was the highest grossing film of 1992, winning numerous awards, including a Golden Globe for Williams; Williams's performance as the Genie led the way for other animated films to incorporate actors with more star power for voice acting roles.
Williams continued to provide voices in other animated films, including FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), Robots (2005), Happy Feet (2006), and an uncredited vocal performance in Everyone's Hero (2006); he also voiced the holographic Dr. Know character in the live-action film A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). He was the voice of The Timekeeper, a former attraction at the Walt Disney World Resort about a time-traveling robot who encounters Jules Verne and brings him to the future.
In 2006, Williams starred in The Night Listener, a thriller about a radio show host who realizes that a child with whom he has developed a friendship may or may not exist; that year, he starred in five movies, including Man of the Year, was the Surprise Guest at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, and appeared on an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that aired on January 30, 2006.
He was portrayed by Chris Diamantopoulos in the made-for-TV biographical film Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy (2005), documenting the actor's arrival in Hollywood as a struggling comedian.
Williams appeared opposite Steve Martin at Lincoln Center in an Off-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot in 1988. He made his Broadway acting debut in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on March 31, 2011. He headlined his own one-man show, Robin Williams: Live on Broadway, that played at The Broadway Theatre in July 2002.