It’s startling how the loss of someone you’ve never met can have such an effect on you. I only knew Robin Williams through his work, but now, just hours after the news of his death, I still feel like I’ve been punched in the heart.
I suppose part of it has to do with our ages, both his and mine. The arc of Robin Williams’ career aligns almost exactly with my life as an active, voracious consumer of the popular culture. When Williams broke on to the scene on MORK & MINDY back in the 1970s, I was a little kid, sitting cross-legged in front of a wooden-cabinet picture tube watching him burst out of a flying egg or freeze the Fonz with his finger. As Williams made the leap from television to film, I was developing my own appreciation for the movies, and seeing someone I’d watched so avidly as a child go on to such success was a real pleasure.
And in those tricky teenage years, I got something else from Robin Williams, too. I remember reading magazine profiles and interviews with Williams in places like ROLLING STONE and ESQUIRE, in which he’d often mention avidly reading comic books and buying Japanese robot toys. I vividly remember thinking, in the face of all that adolescent peer pressure, “gee, maybe I don’t have to give up these things I love.”
And it was just tonight that I realized something else, something I’d never consciously understood before. Some of my absolute favorite performances of Williams’, in films like THE FISHER KING, DEAD POETS SOCIETY and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, I’ve only ever seen once, in the theatre upon their original release. I’m someone who will watch favorite films over and over again, for years and years. Why haven’t I watched those again? Why don’t I own them? There’s something in those performances that rings so true to me, the pain and the emotion, that as much as I loved the film, I kind of can’t bear to experience it again.
Luckily, there are so many of Robin Williams’ performances I will get to enjoy again in the years to come, from the underrated charm of Altman’s POPEYE to the creepy tension of Chris Nolan’s INSOMNIA to the absolute genius of his vocal work in Disney’s ALADDIN, perhaps the single best performance in any of Disney’s animated features, at once both hilarious and heartbreaking.
It’s hard at the moment to think about Robin Williams and not dwell on the tragedy of his life, that an artist so loved by so many could find himself convinced he could no longer go on; such is the agonizing cruelty of depression – your own mind and heart lying to you, convincing you that the world would be better off without you.
But when I think of Robin Williams, this is the way I’ll try to remember him:
Here he is in THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP in 1982. Young, talented, his whole career ahead of him, with the world just beginning to realize the depth of his gifts. Alongside him here as the referee is novelist John Irving, whose novel the film adapted.
In THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, Irving writes, “Life is sadly not structured like a good old-fashioned novel. Instead, an ending occurs when those who are meant to peter out have petered out. All that’s left is memory.”
And so, sadly, it is tonight, as it will be someday for all of us. Although we have his lifetime of work to cherish, all that’s left is memory. For those who knew and loved Robin Williams, it’s not enough. How can it be?
And for those of us who were so touched by his work and had hoped for happiness for him in return, it’s little comfort as well.
But I guess it’s something.