I was introduced to that bundle of seemingly uncontrollable, comic energy that was Robin Williams as a child watching the Mork and Mindy Show in the late ‘70s. From then on he was a star to watch and obviously a lot of people felt the same way over his long career in stand-up comedy, television, and movies. The man could make us laugh and he could (and would) perform anywhere to do so.
However, there was something unique about him to me. Through all the laughs, there was something that made me take notice of him from all other comedians. In 1994, one of the TV crime dramas I watched weekly, Homicide: Life on the Streets, Mr. Williams was a guest actor. The episode was “Bop Gun” and I remember thinking at the time, “this is Mork?” It was a dark episode, a married couple visiting America and the wife was murdered; Williams played the surviving husband. I saw, for the first time, that he was a great dramatic actor too. I saw more of his dramatic talents in other roles, most notably in Terry Gilliam’s the Fisher King in 1991 with Jeff Bridges—which I hadn’t seen originally in theaters, but later. Here he played an incredibly damaged character made so from an absolutely horrific event that happened to the character. In other movies, such as Insomnia (co-starring with Al Pacino) or One Hour Photo, some dark, some creepy, I felt that the mask of tragedy fit this great performer better than the mask of comedy. It’s no coincidence that he got the Academy Award for a dramatic role, in Good Will Hunting.
I had always thought that a person capable of making people laugh non-stop—a truly wonderful gift—had to be completely made up of joy, every cell and every atom. But watching Mr. Williams, I started to suspect that it might be the opposite. Living in the land of Hollywood, I have met quite a few comedians and many, sadly, I’d have to characterize as miserable people. I do not ascribe that to Mr. Williams at all, whether true or not, is not my point. It is that a lot of people have problems and just because we may “live” with them in front of the camera and enjoy their work, doesn’t mean we know them. Ironically, despite their fame and fortune, they are still strangers. We must resist the impulse to make all kinds of assumptions about them and only judge them based on all we do know about them—their work.
I don’t know the particulars of Mr. Williams’ struggles with depression or substance abuse or any other factors that led to his suicide, and frankly, in deference to his family, it’s none of my damn business or anyone else’s. His widow has revealed that he was also suffering the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, but again the public should back off and be respectful. All I would say is that we will all always remember him and he has an impressive body of work with such movies as the Dead Poet’s Society and Good Morning Vietnam, the whimsical Jumanji, “small” roles like playing President Theodore Roosevelt in Night at the Museum with Ben Stiller, and many others.
Robin, we’ll miss you.
Robin Williams: August 11, 2014 to July 21, 1951 (Died at age 63)
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