Comedy is acting out optimism.”
The abrupt, shocking death of Robin Williams, which appears to be a suicide, is a harsh, cruel reminder of what mental illness is capable of. Robin Williams will be remembered as one of the greatest comedians of the past thirty, forty years. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1997, in addition to either winning or being nominated for a host of Golden Globes, Emmys, Grammys, and countless other accolades. It is impossible at this moment in time to visit any of your preferred social media hubs, and not find countless tributes and recollections of his work from fans and others. My own Facebook newsfeed is filled to the brim as of this writing with people who have one or more favorite Robin Williams roles. These aren’t people searching for an excuse to comment on a celebrity death. This isn’t some form of morbid fascination. Robin Williams’s career is filled with moments of blinding brilliance, questionable choices, and performances that deserve far more credit than they ever got.
Williams had to have been aware of what his work meant to so many people. He had a family, career highlights that were bound to continue, and the knowledge that he had made people from all walks of life happy. None of that could save him from the symptoms of depression and addiction. If anything good can come out of his passing, it’s the reminder that mental illness does not discriminate. Money and success will not stave off the sadistic chemicals in your brain forever. Williams had the money and resources to seek the finest help in the world. He did, but it still wasn’t enough. That’s not because he’s a failure. That’s what depression is capable of doing. It can destroy everything in the time it takes to count to three very quickly. As people celebrate his career and mourn the empty space in film and comedy he left behind, they will also hopefully understand that depression is something that deserves a more serious, empathetic eye than it is currently getting.
But we can’t dwell on these aspects of his private life, or on the subject of depression. It’s not fair to what Robin Williams accomplished over the duration of his remarkable career. It’s certainly not fair to those of us who wish to focus for now on all the art he left behind.
Although he found a great deal of his success with comedy, which in many cases tried to appeal to the whole family, Williams frequently ventured beyond the safety of the film genre that brought him the most success. His Oscar win came from playing a character who was decidedly different from movies like Mrs. Doubtfire or Hook. Critics and audiences sometimes responded with hostility, or worse, indifference, but he persisted in trying as often as possible prove he could do more than imitate Elmer Fudd and make up hyperactive observations on the spot. For me, he succeed more often than not, even if the rest of the movie wasn’t as good as he was.
There is no denying that Williams had a style that was so distinctive, it was impossible to confuse him with anyone else. It was a style that in a broad sense, was easy to parody. Yet he found versatility within that fact in such movies as Insomnia, One Hour Photo, World’s Greatest Dad, Death to Smoochy, Moscow on the Hudson, The World According to Garp, The Night Listener, Awakenings, What Dreams May Come, Shrink, Cadillac Man, the 1996 film version of Hamlet, The Fisher King, The Survivors, and several others. All of these films feature an actor who is unmistakably Robin Williams. At the same time, a closer look at those roles will reveal characters who are either partially or completely dissimilar from one another. You might know who Robin Williams is from popular, enduring films like Aladdin or Mrs. Doubtfire. You may also know about movies where he looked exhausted trying to salvage a terrible script with the kind of performance he thought people expected of him. But honestly, are the characters in those films really the same as the people he played in Good Will Hunting, Death to Smoochy, or Moscow on the Hudson? Of course not. While appearing in countless films of varying quality, Williams constantly sought opportunities to showcase a far greater range than movies like RV, Old Dogs, License to Wed, or Patch Adamssuggested. He got those opportunities, even if the movie wasn’t well-received or received at all. His career as a comedian and an actor is filled with highs and lows. As someone who has loved and admired his style and his work for most of my life, I’m glad I can find far more highs than lows.
Williams had a diverse, consistently successful career. He began his career by taking one of the stupidest premises for a sitcom ever conceived, and turning it into a vehicle for his brilliant, chaotic approach to humor. Mork and Mindy didn’t last for a particularly long time, but enough people loved it and remember it to this day that it has something of a cult status. One that persists long after other shows from that era have been forgotten. Looking back, it’s still a silly premise. If you’re a fan of Robin Williams however, it’s a goldmine of potential that got his film career started. A few years passed before Williams found projects that could showcase him properly, but by end of the 1980s, he was moving back and forth between frenzied comedies and dramas that seemed to impress even the most hardened cynics. He continued this through the 90’s, playing a significant role in so many childhoods with family movies and Disney films, but he never settled into these roles for long. He was so good at playing manic characters because he seemingly possessed that quality himself. Never settling into a role type for very long, he seemed eager, desperate even to never stop working, or finding roles that could prove what he was capable of.
In 1996 alone, he appeared in Hamlet, The Birdcage, and Jack. He was believable, humorous, and multi-faceted in all of them. In all three of those performances, he accomplished those things in very different ways, while always remaining an instantly recognizable voice and presence. I have always been amazed at the fact that he consistently displayed that talent throughout his career. He also found the time in that specific year to return to the role of the Genie in Aladdin and the King of Thieves, a role that people have been associating with their childhoods for over 20 years. Those people are taking the death of a man most of them never actually met to heart in very personal ways. I can’t say I blame them.
The success he enjoyed in high-profile roles during the 80s and 90’s made it difficult for some to accept him in films that have never found the audience they deserve. Death to Smoochy featured a performance that seemed to be at least partially fueled by a need to create as much distance between Williams and characters like Genie and Mrs. Doubtfire as possible. Some people saw the distinction, and recognized Williams’ flexibility, and others didn’t. As the 2000s rolled on, movies like RV and Old Dogs only seemed to prove what his detractors claimed to have known all along. He wasn’t funny anymore, and he had worn out his welcome
But I would venture to say that he never stopped being funny, or stopped finding ways to express his singular style. His return to standup in 2002 and 2009 proved he was still a formidable comedian, and that his powers of observation and free-form expression had not left him. It’s true that there have been stories of Williams taking material from other comedians, that’s something that shouldn’t be ignored in the wake of his passing, but in the same way that Williams could craft his own unique approach to a screenplay that someone else had written, his comedy is far more the product of his own creativity, than jokes he took from other comics. No one should forget those transgressions, but I would strongly advise anyone who wants to dismiss his work in that arena for those reasons to watch his 2002 Live on Broadway special. You can also cite the 1986 A Night at the Met as an example of his timing, his delivery, his energy, and his fearlessness. He would say anything, and he was willing to make a fool of himself. From those things, he crafted a marvelous, hysterical collection of original material.
He applied that fearlessness to his acting career to the very end. He only had a small role in the 2009 Kevin Spacey film Shrink, but his brief portrayal of a depressed, anxiety-ridden alcoholic haunted me as much then as it does now. His struggles with addiction and depression were well-documented by that point. There was something about the way he slipped into that character as though he was doing a TV interview as himself. Something about that made me uncomfortable and sad, and I am thinking about his scenes with Spacey far more than I would like to right now. I would rather focus on the Russian doctor from Nine Months, or the look of determination and joy on his face, as he runs towards the swimming pool at the end of World’s Greatest Dad. I want to think about the way Mrs. Doubtfire is a lot funnier than it has any right to be, and how all of that is because of him. I want to remember that Dead Poets Society and Good Morning Vietnam, and The Fisher King have been amongst my comfort movies for most of my life, all of which feature some of the best performances of his career. If possible, I want to include Awakenings, which saw him easily handle acting alongside a top-of-his-game Robert De Niro, on that list, as well.
I can actually put quite a few on that list. As much as I admired his talents as a comic and an actor, there has always been something about Williams that was comforting. Perhaps it was his enthusiasm. At least publically, at least in terms of many of his performances, he displayed a constant optimism that things were somehow going to be okay. That appealed to me as a kid, and it still does. Although he was afforded a great deal of professional and financial success in his lifetime, I am capable of believing that he never stopped wanting to make people happy. There was a kindness to him that transcended his celebrity status. That sounds absurd, but those are the thoughts that are running through my head right now. Perhaps one of the reasons why he was so successful for so long was because he came across as that sort of person to a lot of people.
Several years ago, when I was stuck in Amarillo, Texas for sixteen hours, I met someone who claimed to have met Williams when they were a child. They told him that they had watched Hook(which he is also wonderful in) on VHS so many times, the player had eaten the tape. According to the story as it was related to me in that Greyhound station, Williams gave them a piece of paper that he promised could be redeemed anywhere in the world for one VHS copy of the film. He signed this piece of paper, and gave it to them. This person then told me they spent the next two years trying to find a store that would accept the coupon.
I want so badly to believe that story was true. I’m pretty sure it is.