Robin Williams at the 6th Annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit concert for veterans in 2012 | IMAGE: CHARLES SYKES/INVISION/AP/ASSOCIATED PRESS
I’m still processing the loss of this giant of a man/entertainer (along with countless others, no doubt)…
It was the smile that did it — that toasty-warm, utterly genuine smile. Watching it spread across his face, impossibly wide, bringing out the rose in his cheeks, setting those blue eyes to twinkling, was one of the greatest joys of watching Robin Williams perform.
When Williams smiled, you couldn’t help but smile, too. That his jokes were likely to make you bust a gut — this was icing on the cake. But the smile was always there, bursting out even in his serious work. Look at John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society: filled to the brim with love of poetry and pride in his freethinking pupils, smiling even when he is forced out of his classroom.
There’s a moment at the end of Bobby McFerrin’s music video for Don’t Worry, Be Happy, which starred Williams, in which he looks straight at camera and lifts the sides of his mouth, very slowly, until his whole face is beaming. It’s no shame to McFerrin to say that this one moment of infectious joy from Williams conveyed the message of the song far better than the song itself.
Now that smile is gone forever, and it’s almost too much to bear. As was the case with many of the greatest comedians, that smile could mask depths of despair, depression and doubt that the audience, rollicked with laughter, could hardly begin to guess at.
In her statement about her husband’s untimely death, Williams’ wife Susan Schneider begged us to focus on “the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.” But it’s no disservice to also remember that much of Williams’ tremendously diverse body of work seemed driven by a certain dissatisfaction, a restlessness, a desire to find out what ills of mankind — and of his own — his talents could address next.
Hilarity, sadness, anger, thoughtfulness, all of it turning on a dime: these were all part of the whole Robin Williams’ package. Turned out we loved it all, the whole mercurial grab-bag. If he had left us a century from now, it would have been too soon.
Many comedians would have been happy to be where Williams found himself in the late 1970s and early 1980s: the star of a sitcom, Mork and Mindy, that was wildly popular and accessible to kids and adults alike. Spun off from Happy Days on the strength of his performance, written entirely around his improvisation, Mork was a plum role for a thoughtful comedian. It required him, week after week, to catalog the strange behaviors of mankind, even if he did have to bust out a catchphrase every now and then and put up with canned studio laughter.
For Williams, it wasn’t enough, and thank goodness.
Many comedians would also have been happy to stay on the road, touring with one of the greatest stand-up routines in history. To watch Williams’ HBO special A Night at the Met (1986) is to see a comedian at the absolute height of his powers.
Thejokes and impressions come so thick and fast you’d be advised to have an asthma inhaler to hand, even now. Though the subject matter includes Ronald Reagan, South African apartheid and Dr. Ruth’s sex advice, the performance has not aged one bit. Nobody has ever done madcap scattershot stand-up better than this. No one is ever likely to.
Still Williams wasn’t satisfied, and thank goodness.
His movie career blossomed when he refused to be limited to wacky comedy roles like Popeye (1980). With The World According to Garp (1982) and Moscow on the Hudson (1984), he tentatively branched out into the type of movie generally known as comedy-drama, but better described as uncategorizable — like life itself.
Good Morning Vietnam (1987), which garnered Williams his first Oscar nod, was a classic of that genre. In playing a desperately funny man who was desperately angry about the hypocrisy of war, Williams certainly made some viewers uncomfortable when the jokes vanished towards the end of the film. As for the rest of us, dare I say the majority, he made us think. DJ Adrian Cronauer may have sounded a little like Mork on the air, but Mork this was certainly not.
But it was Dead Poets’ Society (1989), Williams’ first fully serious role, that really made us think. The film introduced me to Walt Whitman and the concept of carpe diem; it opened my eyes to the possibilities of education; it was my first hint that not all teachers were rote-learning sadists.
Indeed, if there is to be a national day of mourning for Robin Williams (and I hope there is), let us all stand on desks and recite “O Captain, My Captain.”
The serious roles came fast from there. Williams’ stunning turn as a damaged homeless man in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991) not only earned him his second Oscar nod, but also made us think differently about homelessness and mental health (plus, it taught us how to turn champagne tops into miniature chairs). But just when you thought he was getting too serious, he surprised you with Aladdin (1992) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).
Sometimes the roles got too serious, too intense, too worthy. Though I love the whole concept and the special effects of What Dreams May Come, Williams’ husband, scouring heaven for his late wife, was a one-note character. But for every Bicentennial Man there was a Birdcage. We may have rolled our eyes at Jakob the Liar, but he blew us away in Good Will Hunting, for which he was finally — almost criminally late — awarded an Oscar.
Actors would have killed for just one of these roles. Comedians would tie themselves in knots to get one-tenth of the laughter. This was a life well lived, an astonishing array of characters and thoughts investigated and propagated. Every one of them was filled to the brim with joy and passion, laughter and tears, with sheer soul.
We can only thank this man, this legend, for his prolificness, for sharing so many of those smiles. Though the original may be gone forever, the memories of that infectious grin will live on forever.