Teaching Profession

Robin Williams—a Teacher, a Genie, and a Nanny—Dead at 63

By Ross Brenneman — August 11, 2014 2 min read
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Prolific actor and comedian Robin Williams, who taught princes about love and inspired students to seize the day, was found dead Monday evening at the age of 63.

A statement from his publicist said that Williams had been battling depression; media reports indicate the cause of death to be suicide. In a separate statement, Williams’ wife, Susan Schneider, said, “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

Williams was born in Chicago in 1951. Numerous sources offer a similar biography for a man so resolutely unique: He became a national sensation after playing Mork (from Ork) on the popular sitcom “Happy Days,” in what ended up being a backdoor pilot for “Mork & Mindy.”

Williams catapulted into film stardom with his role in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” and then never stopped, stealing the limelight in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Aladdin,” “The Fisher King,” “The Bird Cage,” “Jumanji,” and pretty much everything else worth owning on DVD. (His voice acting was so good as the Genie in “Aladdin” that some actually say it caused the downfall of trained voice actors in animated works.)

Robin Williams played a teacher, too, in “Dead Poets Society,” a movie that teachers either love or hate for Williams’ character, English instructor John Keating, who seems to have a near limitless level of autonomy and a similarly unbound zest for life:

As wet blanket Kevin Dettmar wrote for The Atlantic in February:

If the Welton School officials and parents suspect that Mr. Keating is leading his students astray, Pied Piper-like, there is at least something to that charge. Or rather, he’s sending them astray, without ever really leading them.

Professor Caroline Hagood, in Huffington Post, had a different grasp of Keating:

He touches previously uncaressed places in their minds, spaces once free of the tickle of thought or reflection. He turns a whole class of pimple-faced doctors, lawyers, and businessmen-to-be so high on hormones they can barely see straight into the unspeakable—poets and free thinkers.

As Hagood admits in the comments, Society” is a cautionary tale; Keating gets fired, after all. But he also brought that kind of verve to teaching that many students may secretly hope for, even if no teacher should probably be expected to have (or at least be able to display—again, Keating had a lot of freedom).

But Robin Williams’ performance nevertheless carved out for Keating a seminal place in the pop culture history of education, right up there with Escalante and Barrett. (Incidentally, watch Williams’ interview with David Letterman during the promotional tour for the film; it’s arguably better than the movie.)

Throughout his life, Williams lent support to a number of education-related causes, including early education, youth vaccination, student engagement, improved school funding, and youth literacy.

It’s hard to grieve for Williams, though, because every sad tribute alternates with one that shows him at his best:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.