Memorials are the hardest thing to write in the world, but this is by far the hardest one I’ve ever tackled.
I remember a game of Truth (like Truth or Dare, but played in class, so the Dare part had to be left out) I played with some friends in high school, or maybe college. I don’t recall who I was playing it with, but I remember the question very well. “If you had to be stuck on a deserted island for the rest of your life with one famous person, who would it be?” I thought about my answer while everyone else was picking out the usual suspects of the time– Bret Michaels, John Stamos, the hot bass player from Def Leppard whose name I forget– and when it was my turn, I answered “Robin Williams.” There was a moment of utter silence, and then there was debate. Nobody else had thought of pure entertainment value, only good looks, and now everyone in the group wanted Robin Williams on their island, but I had dibs.
I can’t remember a world without Robin Williams in it. As a child, I loved his portrayal of the funny, befuddled alien Mork from the popular late 70’s-early 80’s sitcom Mork and Mindy, from the very moment he scrambled out of his egg-shaped spacecraft. It was the kind of broad slapstick comedy that appealed to kids, and for awhile it was my favorite show; I coveted Pam Dawber’s bouncy hair, and couldn’t stop laughing at Williams’ zany antics. There was a brief period when I answered every question with “Nanu Nanu,” which irritated the adults to no end but at least amused me. As I grew up, Williams’ body of work grew with me. As a teen I enjoyed his occasionally raunchy stand-up comedy, which may have lacked a bit of the shock value of Eddie Murphy’s but topped it in sheer oddball hilarity. By this time he had ventured into movies as well, from fun, silly romps like Popeye and Club Paradise to more serious work such as Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets’ Society, proving he had formidable dramatic chops in addition to his comedic skills, as befit a Juilliard alumnus. Throughout my college years and on into my early adulthood, his films were always the ones that touched me most. Whether the lovably sleazy car salesman of Cadillac Man, the dedicated doctor of Awakenings (the poster of which adorned the wall of my dorm room), or the wacky, delusional homeless guy of The Fisher King (also on the dorm wall), all of his roles were infused with a warmth and an intensity that was often absent in other leading actors, lending them a rare, relatable humanness that made his films instant classics, and cultural touchstones.
Williams was also known for his stellar, often improvisational voiceover work: from Aladdin‘s Genie to more recent roles such as Ramon in the Happy Feet movies, his notorious gift of gab translated perfectly to the medium of animation. His range was spectacular– he was equally believable as caring doctors (Good Will Hunting–for which he won an Oscar, Patch Adams) and chilling psychos (Insomnia, One Hour Photo), and played to all ages in family films (Hook, Jumanji, Flubber) and decidedly more adult fare (The Birdcage, Jakob the Liar, Death to Smoochy). Arguably his most memorable role was in Mrs. Doubtfire, as a father masquerading as a British nanny in order to spend more time with his children, a concept that sounded contrived but which he pulled off with humorous panache. Even in critically panned projects (RV, License to Wed) he was often the one ray of light in an otherwise lackluster production. He had a manner of fully inhabiting a role that made even the most outlandish situations ring true. Recently he had settled into a sort of niche portraying presidents, fitting for an actor who had become a sort of elder statesman of the craft– Dwight D. Eisenhower in The Butler, and Theodore Roosevelt in Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum movies, in which his final turn as the character is complete and scheduled for a holiday release this year. Williams had also returned to television with last season’s The Crazy Ones, in which he and erstwhile Buffy the Vampire Slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar played father and daughter advertising agents.
And yet none of those are even my favorites of his numerous roles. For a man I considered the world’s funniest, it’s perhaps ironic that his films that speak to me most are the ones that inevitably make me cry. Bicentennial Man is criminally underrated, and What Dreams May Come is a masterpiece. Both are beautiful, heartbreaking movies that I can watch over and over despite my reduction to tears on every viewing. That it’s even possible to rewatch such emotionally wrenching films at all is testimony to Williams’ brilliance, and knowing that his shoes can never be filled is an even more sorrowful circumstance.
Williams’ personal struggles were well-documented, and may have been fodder for the richness of many of his darker works, but while the living cannot fathom the depths of despair that would lead to the taking of one’s own life, we can, too, remember the laughter and joy that Robin Williams brought to countless millions. The world is dimmer for his loss, but brighter for his being here, and he will never be forgotten. Godspeed, Mr. Williams, and thank you for everything.