Comedy Legend Robin Williams Battled Disney, Depression, and Picasso
How a sour dispute turned the late comedian into an unwilling art collector.
The announcement on August 11 that comedian and actor Robin Williams had committed suicide at age 63 was greeted by an outpouring of emotion worldwide. Hollywood stars including Mia Farrow and Bill Cosby took to Twitter to express their sadness. Even President Obama released a statement: “He was one-of-a-kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien—but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry.”
Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1951, Williams studied at the Juilliard School in New York and first came to fame playing an extraterrestrial character in the 1970s TV show Mork and Mindy. He is now best-known for his roles in films such as Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and the genie’s voice in Disney’s animated blockbuster movie Aladdin (1992). Complications around this production considerably damaged his relationship with Disney, which led the studio to give Williams a painting by Pablo Picasso estimated at the time at $1 million. The comedian, who by then had three children, had agreed to play the genie on the understanding that his voice wouldn’t be used to sell merchandizing.
His role in Aladdin was to be small, and he agreed to be paid $75,000 instead of his usual fee of around $8 million. Once in the studio, he took to his role with so much gusto, improvising all the way, that Disney fleshed out the genie, which became a lynchpin of the entire movie. Aladdin went on to gross over $200 million. The comedian claimed that the studio also used his voice in advertising. “It wasn’t as if we hadn’t set it out,” Williams told New York magazine in 1993. “I don’t want to sell stuff … It’s one thing I don’t do … The voice, that’s me; I gave them my self. When it happened, I said: ‘You know I don’t do that.’ And they apologized; they said it was done by other people.”
Disney then sent the Picasso painting, a self-portrait of the artist as Vincent van Gogh. It didn’t go down well. According to New York magazine: “In the Williams living room, the painting has all the charm of a fright wig, clashing with the animal cages, the children’s furniture, and the mood of the owners.” Friend and fellow actor Eric Idle even suggested that Williams went on TV and burn the Picasso live as a form of protest.
If the Picasso wasn’t to his liking, the actor was nonetheless a visual art champion. In 2006, he was part of a group of donors who helped secure from the Polish Ministry of Culture the permanent loan of an installation by artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, now displayed at Grant Park in Chicago.
“On behalf of Robin’s family, we are asking for privacy during our time of profound grief,” said the actor’s wife, Susan Schneider, in a statement. “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.”
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