Robin Williams is one of the first comedians that I have any memory of. Mork & Mindy debuted when I was two years old and while I don’t remember when I started watching it, I was immediately drawn to the silly man with the rainbow suspenders. I don’t think I pieced together that Mork was an alien on my own; all I knew was that Robin Williams made me laugh. A lot. I was also a big fan of Popeye back in the day and would always stop to watch it anytime that it was on TV.
Williams was my introduction to stand-up comedians; I don’t think I even knew that was an occupation before him. The first time that I saw him on a stage – not acting, but simply telling jokes – it kind of blew my mind. He was so crazy, running all over the stage and seemingly going off on tangents at a moment’s notice. It was like watching someone’s train of thought in real time and was totally unpredictable and wacky. We didn’t have HBO in my house growing up, but I would look forward to catching part of the Comic Relief specials that he hosted with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg when I went over to friends’ homes.
If I’m being completely honest, as I grew older I became less enamored with Robin Williams the comic. The zaniness that made him attractive to me as a kid felt more exhausting as I matured. When his energy was not properly focused or harnessed, it didn’t necessarily work for me. But when he found the right outlet for his talent, there was still no one better. Williams on his game was pure hysterics and while his comedy career was a little uneven, he still could blow you away when he found the right project. While his choices might not have always resonated with me, one thing was obvious – that man loved to make people laugh. More than that, I think he needed to make people laugh.
It is ironic that though I was first drawn to Robin Williams because of his sense of humor, most of my favorite Williams’ performances were his dramatic efforts. Perhaps I enjoyed the restraint he needed for these roles, the natural antecedent to the mania that he was famous for. In comedies, he always had to be “on,” chasing that next laugh. When he slowed things down, you saw the depth of his emotions – his sweetness, his vulnerability. Not a lot of actors can drift so seamlessly between comedy and drama, but Williams was one of them. One movie he’s crack you up and in another he’d break your heart. It’s hard to do one of these well, but Williams excelled in both arenas.
When I heard the news of Williams unexpected passing, I was shocked. He always seemed so full of life that it’s hard to imagine that he’s gone. Once I processed the news, I immediately thought of my most memorable and favorite Williams’ roles. These are the ones that first came to mind:
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
This is probably my favorite of his comedies; if I find it on cable, I’ll always stop and watch it for a while. A sweet movie about the length that a father will go to in order to connect with his children, but that was also heavy on the laughs. Such a classic movie that Arrested Development played homage to it with Tobias’ delightful turn as Mrs. Featherbottom
One Hour Photo (2002)
This psychological thriller wasn’t perfect, but I thought that Williams was really terrific as lonely photo processor Seymour. Williams had already won an Academy Award for his role in Good Will Hunting, but this film was him continuing to stretch his range. Not only is there a physical transformation, but his portrayal of Seymour is so fragile yet so potentially menacing that it was unlike anything that he had done before.
Williams was like a human cartoon character, so it was only natural that he’d be a perfect fit in an animated movie. I was a teenager when Aladdin came out and most of my peers fancied ourselves too cool to be seeing Disney movies, but Williams’ turn as Genie was so funny and great that it made it OK for us to admit that we dug it. His jokes and references came so fast and furious that I still don’t know that I caught all of them.
“Barney/Never,” Louie (2012)
Given the circumstances, an episode where Louie and Robin bond over the death of a club owner takes on a completely different significance. But even when it aired, it was a thoughtful vignette about two men come together to attend the funeral of man they despised, simply because they couldn’t stomach the idea that no one else would mourn him. It was only half an episode, but it was a reminder of the quiet work that Robin was capable of doing.
Dead Poet’s Society (1989)
This was the film that first made me think about becoming a teacher; seeing the influence and effect that Mr. Keating had on his students was powerful and inspiring. This may have been my first introduction to Williams in a dramatic role and he was just pitch perfect. I quote “O Captain, My Captain” on a regular basis in reference to Derek Jeter, but it’s also a tribute to a movie that I love.
I never met Robin Williams, but from all accounts he was a kind and wonderful guy. He spent countless hours giving to charity and I’ve yet to read any accounts of anyone having an unpleasant encounter with him. One of the things that I respected about Williams was how open he was with his struggles with his demons. His suicide and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s recent death are reminders of the power of addiction and depression. As someone who has dealt with her own mild bouts of melancholy, I have some slight insight into how crippling and overwhelming those feelings can be. Williams’ passing is also a reminder that there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy and the person who is laughing the hardest on the outside may be in pain on the inside.
Robin Williams may not have always been my cup of tea, but I always respected him as an artist and a person. His passing leaves a giant hole in the world of comedy, a fact that is evident by the number of stand-up comics working today that cited him as their inspiration. I’m sorry for his family and friends and disappointed that he won’t continue to surprise me with his interesting dramatic choices. He had a lot more to give and I’m so saddened that his depression didn’t allow him to see that. Rest in Peace Robin. You will be missed.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. If you or anybody you know needs help, call. You matter.