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Robin Williams: Comedian, actor, former high school wrestler

The late Robin Williams as a Detroit Country Day wrestler (right) and as an actor
The late Robin Williams as a Detroit Country Day wrestler (right) and as an actor
Both photos courtesy of National Wrestling Hall of Fame, used with permission

Robin Williams, comedian and award-winning TV and film actor who was found dead in his Marin County, Calif. home Monday of an apparent suicide at age 63, was once a high school wrestler in suburban Detroit in the late 1960s.

Williams, who among his varied roles played a wrestling coach in the 1982 movie “The World According to Garp” (based on wrestler-coach John Irving’s novel), wrestled in high school at Detroit Country Day, a private school located in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Robin McLaurin Williams, born in July 1951 in Chicago, relocated to suburban Detroit with his mother and father, a senior executive with Ford Motor Company, when he was a youngster. Williams recalls growing up in a 30-room mansion in Bloomfield Hills, a house that he said his parents rented.

Fellow Detroit Country Day alum Steven Stone remembers Williams as a “completely zany, off-the-wall character,” reported the “Macomb Daily”, a suburban Detroit newspaper.

According to Stone, students at the school were required to play a varsity sport. Stone said Williams chose wrestling because he was close to the coach, history teacher John Campbell.

“His relationship with the wrestling coach … really extended into his portrayal in one of his movies, ‘Dead Poets Society,’” Stone said.

Campbell’s daughter, Sue, shared her recollections of how her father remembered one of his student-athletes who went on to become a major star.

“When Williams was in high school at Detroit Country Day School, my dad, John Campbell, was his wrestling coach. As a kid, Williams was scrawny but strong, ‘squirrelly’ and also very smart, my dad would recount,” Sue Campbell told “Forbes”.

Once Williams became an established star, he paid tribute to Sue Campbell’s father on an episode of the TV series “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” saying that he had based his role as Professor John Keating in the 1989 drama “Dead Poets Society” on “my very idealistic and liberal father.”

“It’s not surprising that Williams looked to his own private school experience and pulled from it to play a teacher in a strict, conservative environment who encouraged students to seize the day, find themselves and go against the grain,” Sue Campbell told “Forbes”.

Williams’ appearance on the James Lipton-hosted series led to a reunion between the actor-comedian and his former instructor-coach. “It was a tough time for my father,” according to Sue Campbell. “He’d been fired from his job, left his family and hit bottom. Williams didn’t judge his former teacher. He got him tickets to a comedy show he was performing in Detroit and met my dad afterward to reminisce.”

“That meeting, and the accolades from Williams, became a highlight of my father’s life — a validation of sorts for his career and his 15 glorious minutes of fame.”

Sue Campbell concluded her tribute to Robin Williams by saying, “It’s wrenching to see a much-loved, funny, talented actor succumb. Beyond his talent, Williams was a generous and caring person — he lent that helping hand when my dad needed it most.

“For Williams’ decency and kindness, I’m forever grateful.”

A “Washington Post” tribute to the late comedian-actor shared Williams’ own memories of his time at Detroit Country Day, compiled from interviews with various newspapers over the years.

In a 1996 interview with the “Detroit Free Press”, Williams said of his time at the private school, “’No, no, I was PRESIDENT OF THE CLASS,’ pronounces Williams, giving the honor the deep-ringing reverence it deserves. “I loved school, maybe too much really. I was summa cum laude in high school. I was driven that way. I can’t say it was easy to fit in. I just went out of my way to fit in. It was a private boys school, Detroit Country Day, and I played soccer. I was on the wrestling team. Mr. All-Around, you know?’“

Five years earlier, Williams told “The Oklahoman”, “I wasn’t also exuberant. I spent about three years in an all-boys school (near Detroit). It was almost like the one in “Dead Poets Society.’ Blazer. Latin motto. I was getting pushed around a lot. Not only was there like physical bullying, but there was intellectual bullying going on. It made me toughen up, but it also made me pull back a lot. I had a certain reticence about dealing with people. Through comedy, I found a way to bridge the gap….”

Williams did not finish his high school career at Detroit Country Day. His father was transferred to the San Francisco area, and the Williams family relocated to Marin County. “When I came out to California to go to high school, it was 1969,” Williams told “The Oklahoman” in 1991. “I went to this gestalt high school, where one of the teachers actually took LSD one day. So you walked in and you hear (whispers), ‘I’m Lincoln.’”

Life after Detroit Country Day

The move west was a life-changer for Robin Williams in a number of ways. It was at Marin County’s Redwood High School where he joined the drama club and became involved in theater. Then he enrolled in Claremont Men’s College in Claremont, Calif. (now Claremont McKenna College), where he studied political science. While studying political science at Claremont, Williams took a class in improvisational comedy that changed the course of his life. He won admission to the Juilliard School in New York on a scholarship and trained under John Houseman, among other prominent stage actors and directors. Among Williams’ classmates at Julliard: Christopher Reeve, William Hurt and Mandy Patinkin.

After three years, Williams left Julliard to concentrate on a career as a stand-up comedian. He was among 50 actors to audition for a guest role as a space alien on the popular 1970s sitcom “Happy Days” which then led to a series of his own, “Mork and Mindy” which debuted on ABC-TV in 1978, rocketing Williams to stardom.

In the early 1980s, Williams focused on film roles such as “Popeye”, “The World According to Garp”, and “Moscow on the Hudson.” He moved from comedies to dramas seemingly with ease. Among his biggest roles: “Good Morning, Vietnam”, Mrs. Doubtfire”, “Dead Poets Society”, “Patch Adams”, “The Fisher King”, and “Good Will Hunting”, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor in 1998. Williams also lent his voice to a number of animated classics such as “Aladdin” and “Happy Feet”.

In the past year, Williams had appeared in the movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and was the star of the CBS sitcom “The Crazy Ones” playing a partner in a Chicago advertising agency. Williams has a handful of movies slated for release after his death, including “Night in the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.”

Williams is just one of a number of former high school and college wrestlers who made names for themselves in TV and movies. Other prime examples include Mark Ruffalo, who plays Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Dave Schultz in “Foxcatcher” to be released this November, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Oscar for “Capote”, and Tom Cruise, all high school matmen, and ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, who wrestled at Columbia University.