Williams was a lifelong Republican who once accused President Barack Obama of “following Marxist theory.” But he acknowledged experimenting with LSD, opposed the Nixon administration’s efforts in the 1970s to deport John Lennon and in 1968 was an energetic supporter of Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
When Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968, just after winning the California Democratic primary, Williams sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at his funeral.
“We chose that song because he used it on the campaign trail,” Williams later said of Kennedy, who had been a close friend. “He had a terrible voice, but he loved to sing that song. The only way I got through singing in church that day was by saying, `This is my job. I can’t let emotion get in the way of the song.’ I really concentrated on not thinking about him.”
After giving up touring, he settled in Branson, with its dozens of theaters featuring live music, comedy and magic acts, and was among the first wave of national entertainers to perform there regularly.
When he arrived in 1992, the town was dominated by country music, but Williams changed that with his classy, $13 million theater in the heart of the entertainment district, where he did two shows a night, six days a week, nine months of the year. Only in recent years did he cut back to one show a night. His most popular time was Christmas.
Not everyone in Hollywood accepted his move to the Midwest. “The fact is most of my friends in LA still think I’m nuts for coming here,” he told The Associated Press in 1998.
He and his second wife, the former Debbie Haas, divided their time between homes in Branson and Palm Springs, Calif., where he spent his leisure hours on the golf course when Branson’s theaters were dark during the winter months following Christmas.
Retirement was not on his schedule. As he told the AP in 2001: “I’ll keep going until I get to the point where I can’t get out on stage.”
Williams is survived by his wife and his three children.
Thomas reported from Los Angeles. AP Entertainment Writer Nekesa Mumbi Moody contributed to this report from Nashville, Tenn.