I don’t normally get all bent out of shape when a celebrity dies. Sure it’s sad (especially if they go unexpectedly or too young) but I tend not to develop emotional attachment to people I’ve never met. That being said, I am capable of understanding when other people do; the characters we love and the performers who portray them are intrinsically linked in our minds. Still, in the grand scheme of my life not much changes when a household name takes their final bow.
But the news of Robin Williams’ passing last night is a tough pill to swallow. My usual initial reaction has built into genuine sadness for the loss. He was a towering figure in comedy, and someone who successfully showed us that the clown makeup can conceal a gifted dramatic artist. But he’s also more than that.
My first exposure to Robin Williams is probably the same for many people older than I, namely Mork and Mindy. I remember watching Nick at Nite as a child after my parents thought I’d gone to bed and stifling laughter generated by the weird alien man. I couldn’t tell you the plot to a single episode, nor could I even tell you the name of his costar, but I vividly remember Mork’s confusion about how to use an armchair. I also have a vague memory of seeing a standup routine he performed back in the seventies or eighties as I use to watch a lot of Comedy Central when pretty much all they aired was recordings of standups doing their thing. Maybe it was one of the many Comic Relief shows or maybe it was a recording of him at the Improv.
Shortly thereafter came a handful of kids movies, some that I loved and some that I just loved Williams’ part. I remember watching FernGully and telling my parents that the bat was my favorite character, “the one who was Mork”. To this day I occasionally quote Hook, and while I’m not an adult fan of children’s movies Aladdin might still be my favorite Disney animated feature, nearly entirely on the broad blue shoulders of the Genie. Then came Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji, two movies well loved by most but particularly so by my generation.
I don’t remember exactly when I first saw Dead Poets Society, other than to say it was in class, but I remember the feelings I was experiencing as the credits rolled before the teacher flipped on the lights. First, was the desire to have a teacher who could inspire me that way. But quickly thereafter was shock. That was Mork. Mork was being serious. And even though I hadn’t given any thought to what a good or a bad actor looked like at that point, I knew that Williams was one of the good ones. Mork no longer.
By the time I was in high school he was taking on roles in movies that didn’t interest me much at that age, but I do recall making a point of seeking out more of his standup and laughing myself silly at the dirty jokes that I had no idea he loved to tell. I also reluctantly saw Patch Adams and realized that, while I wasn’t partial to the “feel good” genre, I enjoyed watching him in more grown-up roles.
During college, when my circle of friends became more eclectic and my tastes shifted towards the existential, I found some of my all-time favorite films of his. I still watch The Birdcage at least twice a year, which was a viewing decision made on a whim at the time. My future wife introduced me to To Wong Foo and his small part early in the movie is one of the highlights in a film that I find funny and heartwarming from end to end. I probably watched What Dreams May Come ten times in my year in the dorms, and yes, I cried the first time.
It wasn’t until more recently as an adult that I’ve made a point of going back and sampling the films that I’ve missed. Good Morning, Vietnam and Good Will Hunting seemed like glaringly blank checkboxes, so I crossed those off my list fairly early. I recall being pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Man of the Year after watching it as a random rental with the whole extended family one holiday. And there are still a fair few that I need to make a priority. Movies like Insomnia, Cadillac Man, Jakob the Liar, World’s Greatest Dad, and Toys. Movies that make people gawk and say rude things when I admit that I’ve never seen them.
As I look back at my own life and contemplate his body of work I realize why I’m so bothered by his death: Robin Williams had been there the entire time, a constant figure in my perception of pop culture. Someone who was unendingly entertaining and unexpectedly wholesome to a young and impressionable mind, who appealed to the immaturity that I embrace to this day, and who could strike a more intellectual chord and tug on the heartstrings that I find grow more sensitive with age.
But there won’t be any more chances to see how he’ll delight us in his next performance. No more cartoons drawn by animators trying to do justice to his vocal performance. No more crass jokes about boob jobs and his abundance of body hair, and no more characters who make us dig deep to think about what we have and what we’ve lost.
I feel for his family, and I hope that they find a way to cope with this new void in their lives sooner rather than later. This is no small thing that they face, but I hope that it’s some small solace to know that he was loved by so many, perhaps more than he ever realized.
You will be missed, Mr. Williams.