The tragic news of Robin William’s death at the age of just 63 years old is only made more difficult to know that a man who made so many people laugh for so many years, killed himself after a long battle with depression. We will never know all the horrible details of his tragic death or cause, nor should we. It simply isn’t possible to grasp such despair unless you are unlucky enough to suffer from similar thoughts. And he leaves behind a family who knew him not as a brilliant comic or actor, but husband and father.
But he also leaves the world with decades of work which stand on their own. From stand-up to movies and TV, Williams had a resume which made him a true living legend of comedy. Even this year he starred on a his first regular series in more than 30 years, his small screen follow-up to Mork and Mindy, the series which launched him as one of the greats of American comedy. As Mork, the alien in love with an earthling girl, Williams was so appealing and oddly lovable, creator Gary Marshall reworked the character first introduced in Happy Days from aggressor to childlike innocent. And the 4 year series made Williams a household name…and allowed him to reintroduce a generation to his own ideal, Jonathan Winters (who played his son).
Considering the remarkable, inborn talent Williams had, he was the first to discuss the influence of idols such as Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor, and show gratitude for those who gave him opportunities such as director Barry Levinson and John Houseman, his acting teacher. Houseman taught the Julliard trained Williams the dramatics, but even he had to admit that Williams seemed engineered for comedy. Williams was the Bruce Springsteen of stand-up; exhausting, unpredictable, and the enemy of any closer.
But like so many tragic clowns, Williams ambitions were to go beyond his inborn talents.
Watch the performance he gave in Good Morning Vietnam, and the way he shifts from Robin Williams comedy to character moments and you can see a comic developing his skills as an actor using innate talents and learned skills. A decade later, in The Birdcage, the blend of comedy and drama remains, but the shifts are almost seamless transitions as an actor. He embraced blending the two, to increase the emotional reactions he could tap into for audiences. Films such as Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Fisher King, and The Awakenings were all films which benefited from having a dramatic character played by a comic who could bring that little something extra to characters.
He was warm and fatherly, stopping our conversation only when his dog bit and broke the pen in his hand…
That voice on the phone is what I hope to remember about Williams, that and the comedy and performances he gave to the world in his all too short time. All this despite now knowing he was dealing with , and ultimately lost, a long battle with inner demons of depression. Because he did leave behind a remarkable collection of joyful, thoughtful, and exhaustive work which he put heart and soul for others.