Robin Williams, 1951-2014

I remember watching Happy Days on the first night that an episode entitled “My Favorite Orkan” aired. I didn’t know that was the title of the episode. I only knew it was like nothing I’d ever seen on the nostalgia-driven sitcom. It was remarkable enough that the program focused on a space alien who visits the Cunningham home, but the actor playing that extra-terrestrial was an absolutely astounding force of nature, bending off oddball jokes at a rate that raced ahead of the speed of thought. I was seven years old, and I was prepared to tell everyone it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen on television (and lest that seem like faint praise given my relative lack of available viewing years, please know that I watched a lot of television back then). That decisive statement of unparalleled excellence lasted until the following fall, when the spin-off Mork & Mindy debuted. Positioned in the present, it was little more than a showcase for that actor who’d made the sort of explosive debut on the public consciousness that has few matches. The new series was so clearly positioned to exploit and celebrate his uniquely rapid mind that the writers were famous for leaving large portions of the script blank except for variations on the instruction “Robin does his thing.”

For years, when I was a kid and even later, I readily named Robin Williams as both my favorite comedian and favorite actor. I listened to his album Reality…What a Concept until it was as embedded in my memory as the Pledge of Allegiance (for no reason whatsoever, I ran through a sizable chunk of “Kindergarten for the Stars” in my head the other day while busy with chores), and I swear I watched An Evening with Robin Williams nearly every time it aired on HBO in the early-to-mid-eighties. If later efforts didn’t enrapture me as thoroughly, there were still delirious comic highs no one else could have delivered, such as his speculation on the genesis of golf. When I’m asked about my first concert, I automatically respond with the name of the first band I saw live, but that’s not really accurate. My first concert was Robin Williams at the Madison Civic Center, a gift for my twelfth birthday.

As an actor, Williams was nominated for the Academy Award four times, finally winning for Good Will Hunting. The look of excitement on his face when he finally gripped that trophy remains one of my most joyful moments as a devoted viewers of the awards. I worry that the retrospective view of his win is that it was an undue reward for one of the overly sentimental and simplistic performances he could sometimes default to, like the following year’s Patch Adams was the title etched on the base. I maintain he absolutely deserved to win, an example of the Academy giving the prize to the right performance, in both the year and the career. Williams brought an embittered gravity to psychology professor Sean McGuire, a weight of grinding disappointment constantly at odds with an instinct to help, to share his own highs and lows as a mean to helping this troubled Southie genius who’s been put before him. Williams had a blazing mind, and it was often interesting to see him channel it into characters that were close to him but perhaps represented a different path than the one he’d taken. It was easy to imagine him as the battle-wearied soul sharing wry jokes to indifferent students somewhere. Maybe that’s not giving Williams enough credit, though. Maybe he’s the one who made it easy to imagine it.

Filmmakers often wanted to employ Williams’s own creativity, to position him to “do his thing.” That sometimes worked wonderfully — as in Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, even voicing the Genie in Aladdin — but I generally preferred the instances when he tamped down that energy, bringing his whip-smart mind to bear on a role in different ways. That happened as early as The World According to Garp, and continued on into later, often underrated endeavors such as Awakenings, Insomnia, and World’s Greatest Dad. Williams was an actor who would have benefited greatly by regularly partnering with a challenging, relentlessly complex director, if his professional entanglements with Peter Weir, Mike Nichols, or indeed Gus Van Sant had extended across five or six strikingly different films. That wasn’t to be, but the peaks still came often enough that there’s no shortage of excellent work to choose from. Many of them have greater delicacy and nuance than is widely acknowledged. His turn in Nichols’s The Birdcage was promoted with the very Robin exercise of aping the styles of several well-known dance figures in mere seconds, but the whole portrait of a gay man trying to support his son in a ruse while internally seething at the perceived need for a retreat into the closet is an inspired balancing act. Williams keys in on the character’s need for control — he’s a club owner and director, remember — as a way to properly understand his motivation. He’s frustrated by the disguise, but more so by the fact the he can’t quite get this damn orchestration to happen correctly. On top of it all, Williams is terrifically funny.

He spoke, unguardedly it seemed, about the demons that dogged him, most notably alcohol and drug addiction. I was mesmerized when he performed a sort of monologue on an episode of Marc Maron’s podcast, delivering the internal debates that accompanied a relapse low point. It could have been something he’d previously developed, but it came across as spontaneously invented right then and there as he ruminated on the problems he couldn’t quite shake. In all my years of following Williams, it was one of the most artistically daring things I’d ever heard from him, a piece on par with the raw confessionals of Richard Pryor.

Williams joined the various worlds of social media in the past couple of years, and his last dispatch on that front provides a good way to remember him. It’s a photograph of him holding his daughter Zelda when she was a mere toddler, posted to celebrate her twenty-fifth birthday. Especially given the evident circumstances of his death, it’s an irresistible enticement to find Williams in his times of pure joy. Even his most recent sitcom, the flawed but interesting The Crazy Ones, provided some of that, largely in the episode-ending bloopers that stood as a questionable gimmick except in those glimpses of Williams taking great delight in the act of playing. It’s a mark of his generosity as a performer that it was clear in those outtakes that he was at his most overjoyed when someone else was surprising him, when a co-star was making him unleash that cannon blast of a laugh.

To find the purest moment I can recall of Williams feeling ecstatic onscreen, I reach back again to Mork & Mindy. Specifically, it was a season three episode that cast Jonathan Winters in a guest-starring role, playing an uptight relative of Mindy who was loosened up by a bite of Orkan veggies. (It was the following year that Winters joined the regular cast, playing Mearth, the offspring of Mork and Mindy.) I didn’t understand all the particulars that made it so, the heavy influence the legendary Winters had on Williams, but I could clearly see that my favorite actor was having the time of his life. Late in the episode, when the outer space produce finally gives Winters a narrative excuse to riff, the pleasure on Williams’s face as he watches his hero kick into gear is a thing of beauty, as is his clear antsy anticipation as he waits for the invite to join in. When the time comes from the two of them to improv together, whether it stands as one of Williams’s finest moments as a performer is immaterial. I’m betting it was one of his happiest. Tonight, that’s the memory I want to hold onto.