Robin Williams passed away earlier today at his Tiburon, CA home at the age of 63. The Marin County authorities have ruled his death an apparent suicide by asphyxiation. We’re as saddened by this news as everyone else here at The Addison Recorder, so a tribute to the man and his work is in order. A few of us will share our thoughts and memories. Feel free to leave your own in the comments.
It pains me to be writing another memorial column for The Recorder only six months after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s similarly premature death. Both Hoffman and Robin Williams, who we’re here to eulogize today, had out-sized impacts on me as a movie-goer (albeit at different ages). Hoffman was the consummate character actor who became an “uncool” icon for his portrayals of the unhappy or uncomfortable aspects of life, so I alighted on him as a teenager and into adulthood. But Robin Williams was probably my most beloved performer as a child. In fact, I’d guess that statement is true for almost anyone born between 1980 and 1995 or so. Despite being a gifted actor in every regard (it’s not for nothing that he won the Supporting Actor Oscar in 1998 for Good Will Hunting), he made an indelible impression on my generation through the manic comedic energy he enlivened so many movies with.
I saw almost all his movies from the 90’s that were appropriate for me, but I’m sure the one I saw most was Disney’s Aladdin. Williams magnetic voice-over performance as the Genie was simply irresistible as a child. The role was full of gonzo humor, relentless energy, asides and jokes I wouldn’t understand for a decade, and show-stopping musical numbers. It was a delight to watch, and I can still recall the anticipation of his first appearance even when I re-watched our VHS copy for the hundredth time. Even as I got older and grew out of my affection for that juvenile brand of humor, Williams remained an intriguing and entertaining actor in grown-up fare like Insomnia, One Hour Photo, and Louie. He’ll definitely be missed.
There’s one other thing I wanted to note in this space that makes today extra strange and sad for me: I might not exist if not for Robin Williams. My parents’ first date was going to a Robin Williams stand-up performance at the Royal Oak Music Theater. After some joke filled the room with laughter my dad yelled a rejoinder back at Williams up on stage. This behavior is perfectly in character for my jovial and active father; apologies to any stand-up Puritans who read this. Williams, also perfectly in-character, gave it right back to my dad and proceeded to heckle his good-humored heckler for the rest of the evening. I doubt he remembered that for long, but my parents have always loved telling that story. His films held a special place in our family because of it, but now that story is inevitably going to be tinged by sadness. The humor of Williams’ wit, energy, and charisma will still shine through, though. Just as it will whenever we watch a Robin Williams movie again in the future.
Usually when a celebrity I admire passes, I feel a slight sense of loss that is shaken off in a day or two because, obviously, I didn’t actually know the person in question. But seeing so many friends in Chicago and on Twitter and Facebook react to Robin Williams’s death made my own response turn into one of tears and gasping. It was almost as if I’d lost another of my uncles, or a family friend who was always around, for Williams WAS omnipotent in my childhood. Between Mork and Mindy reruns and so many trips to the movies and video stores, my life through high school was dominated by watching Williams. Aladdin will forever be the touchstone, but I also know I saw Jumanji at least twenty-five times. It was hilarious and full of non-stop action…and looking back, it was also the first movie I saw about a man or woman, recognizably as real as me and not animated, on an unexpected, unpredictable quest that leads to self-discovery amidst the adventure. That concept has been the basis for all of my storytelling in my literary career.
Robin Williams was a genius of a comedian, and I have learned from my own long and deep friendships with comedians that comedy is a fragile and perilous undertaking. The greatest comedy comes from telling the truth about a situation, revealing insights or aspects most people don’t think about or don’t want to think about. Being able to look the truth in the face all the time is both a gift and a burden. It may have proved too great a burden for Williams. But it was also the gift he gave to the world as he committed so fully to his art. It made his comedy special, it could lift up a terribly schmaltzy film (I have a soft spot for Bicentennial Man.), and it made him brilliant in serious movies.
On that note, when the Academy gave him his deserved Oscar, Good Will Hunting was the appropriate choice. He was just as great in Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, but in those films he is the bringer of intensity, the catalyst, the Williams we expect. In Hunting, the energy is carried by Matt Damon and his rowdy crew, while Williams is comparatively gentler, more restrained, using all his skill to step almost into the background but remaining no less captivating, no less loving. It was as if for that one film he became the wise, guiding family member we all secretly wished he was for us.
The boys have given you a wonderful retrospective above. We all know how talented Robin Williams was, and it’s hard to find words, so I’ll let someone more talented speak for me.
I didn’t see The Fisher King when it came out in theaters, or when it first moved to VCR format. I wasn’t even a teenager then. I knew Robin Williams from his standup on The Comedy Channel (y’know, before it was Central-ized). I knew Williams from his roles in Hook, and Popeye, and Dead Poets’ Society (and soon after, Aladdin & Toys). I also knew him from his cameo in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, because I discovered Terry Gilliams a lot earlier in life than I probably should have. Gilliam’s films reminded me of my uncle, a Catholic priest who loved Monty Python, a man I watched slowly lose his self-awareness & ability to communicate as an inoperable brain tumor claimed his life.
Years later, in high school, I used my ability to rent PG-13 movies to catch up on my Gilliam viewing. I’m glad I saw The Fisher King at this point, and not earlier. I needed to be able to understand the use of meta-narrative, of psychological war between fantasy and reality, of the effects of death upon the living, of mythology and religious storytelling… I also needed to have seen Groucho sing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” to understand the quiet beauty of Robin Williams singing it in this movie. I needed to be able to laugh at a guilt-ridden Jeff Bridges drunkenly ask a broken Pinnochio toy, “You ever read any Nietzsche?”
The film wasn’t just influential to my own worldview, writing, and ability to deal with life not being a fucking picnic. It also reminded of my uncle. The wise fool. And it clarified the importance of being able to confront and accept loss, as we do now. It still hits me, seeing Robin Williams’ character finally moving past the psychological wounds from his loss: “I really miss her, Jack. Is that okay? Can I miss her now?”
Robin Williams has reminded me of my dad my whole life: Making my child self laugh as Genie and Peter Pan, and offering wisdom, enlightenment and release to my adult self, as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting and as John Keating in Dead Poets Society. My dad Gary Williams is 60, and Robin Williams departed at 63. I grieve for his family this week because to lose a parent is like few other things to have to endure.
Losing Robin Williams is, all too sadly, a true marker for the Millenial generation (and on multiple other generations – Mork and Mindy will never be forgotten by those coming of age in the 70’s). It might not be one of those moments where we remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news, but we will remember the outpouring on Facebook, Twitter, and all other social media platforms frequented by those who first came to know about the manic energy of Williams by way of the madcap Genie in Aladdin. We’ve lost part of our childhood, and in one of the most devastating ways possible. Innocence dies again.
I could talk about any number of movies, but one in particular comes to mind again and again. I only came to Dead Poet’s Society in high school by way, as many surely do, of English class. It’s an easy cop-out to teach the Romantics…if only because it nearly catches their indelible spirit and quest for beauty so perfectly. As a suggestion for a teaching style, John Keating’s mantra to “seize the day” is probably not the most advisable to use…but it certainly leaves an impression on the young minds watching Robin Williams both in the movie and in homes/classrooms/wherever across the world. It is his energy (as cited above) that fuels the soul of the movie, giving it a sense that the world is what we make of it, and we are masters of our own destinies.
Most particularly, John Keating reminds me the most of my mother’s energy in the classroom. I had the privilege of sitting in on one of her English Composition classes when I was twelve. Like any twelve year old, I was angsty, and not particularly inclined to really give a damn about what a teacher was saying…let alone when it was my mother saying it. However, as I sat in the back working on my reading homework, I couldn’t help but take notice that none of her students were tuned out. She was not doing anything particularly insightful, instead choosing to rant about some insipid baseball column Rick Reilly had written for Sports Illustrated that week. After class, one student went up to her and exclaimed “I didn’t think nobody could ever get me to care about baseball like you did!” I could see her grimace at the grammatical errors of the phrase, but she did offer the most profound thanks for everything.
What I’m saying – trying to say – is that Robin Williams got kids to care about poetry. He got us to believe in magic, in Neverland and magic lamps. He served as a spokesman for St. Jude’s. He inspired soldiers in Vietnam, he cross-dressed as a nanny to be with his children, he traveled through space and time, he even tried to murder a guy dressed as a rhino. But above all, he was a captain throughout our childhood, one who made me appreciate my mother all the more.
O Captain, My Captain.
(As a coping mechanism, try standing on your desks at home. It honestly helps a little.)
There is a storytelling cliché: the man who has everything except the thing he needs. I hate this cliché. It’s simple and tidy and asks me to empathize with a person who has more than I ever will, to want to save him when so many others with less need saving. It is difficult for me to connect with people. Sometimes to help, I imagine humanity as a giant brain, every person a neuron, every relationship a synapse – a connection – that forms a sprawling, heaving mass of humanity. Imagine how many synapses we just lost. And at the center of this dark area, imagine a man who loved to laugh, who worked almost desperately to make those around him laugh. Imagine that man, synapses wrapped within him and without him, trying manically to grant wishes, like a genie, but trapped – crushed – inside a tiny, gilded lamp.
– – – – –
None of us knew how to end this post – the hurt is real. After a while, we came up with this. Hug your loved ones. Ask if they’re okay. Find them help if they need it. Smiles don’t mean “I’m okay”. Don’t expect them to go it alone. If you are hurting, if things feel overwhelming, and most especially if you ever find yourself considering suicide, please let somebody know. Call someone. We need you in this world.
“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” – Robin Williams, 1951-2014