Robin Williams: 1951-2014
Robin Williams makes an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, October 14, 1981.
Credit: Gene Arias / NBC / Getty Images

Robin Williams: 1951-2014

Over the decades of laughter and tears that Robin Williams brought to audiences around the world, the thing that might be most irreplaceable was his style. That’s because, in the end, we never really had a way to describe it. It’s hard to tag what Robin was, in part because his "look" was so tethered to talent and energy that no one had seen.

We’ve heard the terms: zany, manic, unique. They’re all words for when no one knows what the common thread is. Fact is, the common thread was just Robin.

Robin Williams played the man-child, but not the sad doofusy slob we see so much of today. His characters were unfettered and endearing. He was everywhere and everyone on the charts. The early years started with a playful clash of horizontal stripes and rainbow suspenders in Mork and Mindy that became synonymous with the lovably innocent alien Mork from Ork. He could play the role in anything, though, from a kid wearing sneakers and jean shorts in Jack, to a young man using a red suit and bowler hat to act adult in Toys, to the tights-clad embodiment of "never growing up" in Hook.

He was the cartoon character, both live-action (Popeye) and animated (Aladdin). But he brought the same energy crammed into stuffier wardrobes. Some of those performances were the most impactful. Adding a red nose and clown shoes to a lab coat changed the way some look at doctors. In drag for Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams created two lovable characters in one film: a rare quantitative expression of his talent. There was something rebellious, too, in his unkempt Good Will Hunting beard and the tweed jacket he wore in Dead Poets Society, the film that launched a thousand English majors. In a two-hour window he did more to make reading cool again than any presidential campaign for literacy ever has.

He wasn't an icon. Icons can be mass-produced and trend for the season. Robin Williams never created a look, he put things together that fed off his energy and personality.

He must have known the rules, but like his first Tonight Show appearance, he broke them, wandering off the beaten path quite literally — and cracking up Carson in the process. No one ever asked what in the world he was wearing: they were already too busy laughing. But that was the brilliance of it all. Williams never took himself too seriously.

That's what made him untouchable.