This week, the world lost two of the biggest Hollywood legends in two consecutive days–comic genius Robin Williams and golden-age diva Lauren Bacall. I will talk about Lauren in my next post, so this is all about the former.
The circumstances surrounding Robin Williams’ death hit very close to home–he committed suicide by hanging himself with a belt because he was struggling with severe depression. As you readers may know, my brother also took his own life because of a similar condition. People (like myself) speculate about what led him to this, besides the fact that he has been battling this all his life (along with cocaine addiction in the 1980s and alcoholism). We can say it might be a combination of the Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, plus pressure to meet alimony payments, failing to sell off a sprawling estate, and the recent cancellation of his TV series, The Crazy Ones, but whatever the reason, just like my brother the only thing that really matters here is that depression is such a pervasive, all-encompassing condition that if help didn’t get to reach them in time, these types of tragedies would happen. It’s just sad that we miss a man who by all accounts is a warm, giving, and generous person to others, who brought the world so much joy. He exuded a zest for life that it is ironic that it belies an apparently bottomless well of sorrow and despair.
I would rather remember and celebrate the wonderful things he left behind in this world, so let me go back to when I first learn of this guy–via the TV series Mork & Mindy, as the kooky alien Mork with Pam Dawber as the human Mindy. His nutty humor and rapid fire free associations kept me in stitches when I was a kid. I didn’t quite remember most of the sitcom now, but when I search Mork and Mindy clips on You Tube, I was flooded with memories of my favorite part of the show–when Mork reports to Orson with his observations of human life–they can be funny, but they can be reflective, and now when you look at it, they may even now resonate even more deeply after his death. I’ll share a couple of those “Mork calling Orson” clips:
Robin always had his eyes set for a film career, and in between his Mork & Mindy heyday he debuted in the live action version of Popeye. I know I was looking forward to this as a kid, but when I watched it, though I tried to like it, I knew there was something missing–I remembered finding Robin’s Popeye a bit too mumbly and less of the gritty-sounding voice I could remember from the cartoons of my childhood. It was a box office disappointment, and this film is actually just a blip on what was to come.
After Mork & Mindy was cancelled after four seasons, Robin plunged full-time into film, earning critical acclaim for The World According to Garp in 1983. I never saw that film but reading through my mom’s old imported magazines (MacCall’s, Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping) when I was a teenager, I recall the indelible image of John Lithgow (playing a transsexual) hugging Robin Williams’ Garp.
Robin hit his peak in the late 1980s-mid 1990s with a slew of indelible characterizations starting with his largely improvised role as Vietnam War radio DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam (1987) which revived the popularity of Louis Armstrong’s version of “What A Wonderful World”.
His next legendary role was as the unconventional teacher John Keating inspiring a class of all-male prep school students with poetry in Dead Poets Society (1989). “Carpe Diem” and “Oh Captain My Captain” are immortal catchphrases to this day. Marvel at a young Ethan Hawke defying the headmaster in the finale to salute the departing John Keating…
Awakenings (1990) is not typically regarded as one of Robin Williams’ top performances, but it was one indelible movie that I saw in the last year of college–Robin Williams played Dr. Oliver Sacks in this drama who treated a group of catatonic patients who temporarily became lucid and active for a while before reverting back to their original state. Robert de Niro was of course riveting as a patient who enjoyed a new lease of life until the disease came back as the treatment turned out to not be permanent, but Robin Williams as the doctor was likewise effective in this heartbreaking film.
Robin followed that the following year with an Oscar-nominated role in The Fisher King, as a loopy homeless man who helped down-and-out radio DJ played by Jeff Bridges, who realized the cause of the homeless man’s plight was due to the murder of his wife from the radio DJ’s psychotic caller.
In what most people would regard as the quintessential role in Robin’s career, he then voiced the Genie in Disney’s mega-hit animated movie, Aladdin (1992). I so agree with the acclaim, as his performance as the Genie was a wonder to behold, with his comic and improvisational prowess in full bloom. Such a shame the Academy do not know how to evaluate and salute voice performances (just like the issue with Scarlett Johansson’s performance in the Spike Jonze film Her recently). Check out “Friend Like Me” below, and how the animation embodies what might be on the brilliant, fast-paced mind of Robin Williams:
The following year, we were treated to Robin Williams in drag as the desperate dad who wanted to spend more time with the children from his divorced wife by dressing up as an old British nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). I loved the transformation scene, while the climactic scene where Robin Williams tries to juggle a TV pitch meeting and joining the kids as the nanny on the mother’s birthday dinner was a screwball classic. Of course most people remember the cooking scene…
The Birdcage (1996) is one of my all-time favorite movies. Robin played the more reserved gay partner Armand Goldman while Nathan Lane was the more flamboyant drag queen. My favorite scene was towards the end with Gene Hackman (playing a conservative senator) in drag. But the more memorable Robin Williams-centric scenes were the choreography lesson and his attempts to teach the fey Nathan Lane on how to act more masculine.
Then, there’s his Oscar-winning role as Matt Damon’s psychologist in Good Will Hunting (1997). It’s a dramatic role, and Robin is uncharacteristically restrained but still terrific. Most audiences remember the park bench scene and the line “This is not your fault”.
Robin still received good notices in later years, with box office hits with Patch Adams (1998) and the Ben Stiller-led Night at the Museum franchise (with the third installment about to be showing in the US later this year) as Teddy Roosevelt, plus his “dark trilogy” with Insomnia (2002), Death to Smoochy (2002), and One Hour Photo (2003). I was rooting for him to succeed in his return foray to television with The Crazy Ones last year, but after good initial ratings, the network executives were not convinced of its staying power so it cancelled it after one season.
A nice little bonus is a little factoid I discovered about him being best buddies with eventual Superman Christopher Reeve when they were both in college in Juilliard, and their friendship endured until Christopher’s death in 2004. They make such an interestingly odd pairing, but it’s a pairing I root for. I loved the fact that Christopher related in his memoir Still Me about after he was operated upon on his life-changing injury back in 1995, Robin cheered him up by showing up as the doctor from the Hugh Grant film he earlier appeared in, Nine Months (1995). I hope he is reunited with his buddy up in heaven.