Late yesterday afternoon, the machine of perpetual motion that was comic Robin Williams finally stopped.
As most writers are, I’m often given to hyperbole – in this industry, you have to be. Emotions need to be trumped just a little, statements and opinions sometimes need to be a little bolder than they need to be. That’s just how it works. But hyperbole is the only way to discuss Robin Williams.
As you know by now, Williams was discovered unconscious and breathing in his California home yesterday afternoon, allegedly due to suicide by asphyxiation. It was a complete shock; even this morning it doesn’t seem like it could truly be possible – how could a man whose life appeared to be one constant stream of comedy harbor a pocket so dark it could prompt him to take his own life?
Williams’ struggles with depression, bi-polar disorder and substance abuse had long been documented, but Williams’ comedy always seemed to spring from a place of creating happiness in others. He has revealed in interviews that although he was born into a wealthy family he developed his comedy skills to please his mother; this desire for attention seemed to also apply to Williams’ relationship with his audiences as it became standard that Williams would go over time on television interviews with his rapid-fire improvisations. I recall one morning, when I was in high school, being late for school because a morning show interview with Williams evolved into a nearly 20-minute tirade of impressions, observations and interactions with everyone from the hosts to the camera operators. Nobody stopped him. How could you? Why would you? That interview, which should have only been a standard 4-5 minutes, remains one of the most fascinating stream-of-consciousness performances I’ve ever seen.
But that was Robin Williams. He was never dialed down. He was always bigger than the room. Director Garry Marshall once hired a fifth camera – outside of the four cameras typical to film a television sitcom – just to follow Williams at all times on the set. He was a comedic cyclone, uncontainable.
A look at Williams’ films denote his many facets. Films like Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage showcased his incredible comic gifts while Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society framed Williams as a mentor figure. Jack, Hook and Jumanji saw Williams play childlike characters, while Moscow on the Hudson and The Fisher King presented Williams as the disenfranchised outsider. Later roles like Insomia and One Hour Photo would present darker sides of the comedian, in retrospect perhaps to give a voice to the quieter sides of Williams’ struggles.
Williams won an Oscar, four Golden Globes, two Emmys and five Grammys, but his philanthropic side bore as much weight as his acting chops. A longtime and active supporter of the USO and co-founder of HBO’s Comic Relief efforts, charity was always important to the actor. He even famously parted ways with Disney after he felt the corporation slighted him – he recorded the voice of the Genie in 1992’s Aladdin for only $75,000 with the caveat that Disney not use his name or voice to sell anything additionally, something he felt the Mouse welshed upon.
On a personal level, it’s very difficult this morning for those of us who grew up with Robin Williams to realize he’s gone. For generations like mine, there has never been a time when Robin Williams wasn’t one of the greatest comics in the world; there has simply never been a world without Robin Williams. Unlike other actors, Williams made a special connection – there was a personal level to his relationship to us, the audience, that was sweet and endearing. He lived to please but, in the end, couldn’t please himself. Perhaps there was nothing in his world that could give him what he very selflessly gave us. Such is the nature of depression – and hopefully his death will call attention to the many who suffer as well.
It is no hyperbole to say that the loss of Robin Williams is one of the greatest to the comedy universe in many, many years. He was completely unique. The world had never seen anyone like Robin Williams before and the world will never see another person like him. Like Aladdin’s Genie, he was almost ethereal in his genius. He will be long missed but long loved. In the end, Robin Williams was an unstoppable force who would only be contained by himself.