The sudden passing of comedian and actor Robin Williams leaves us understandably thinking about his presence in our lives and in our childhoods. It’s hard to accept the premise that someone as vibrant as he was could have slipped away from the living world while we had our heads turned away, our attention diverted by the day-to-day.
It’s still hard to accept. In our memories he is so alive and that brightness is so immediate, so easy to recall, that it is forever woven into our minds. His joy was the joy of being unreservedly weird, and it’s a gift he gave over and over.
We all have a Robin Williams story to tell, don’t we? Here are some of ours.
Katharine Duckett: Just yesterday, I was talking with my fiancée about Robin Williams, and specifically about Dead Poets Society, which I watched over and over as a teenager. I’ve heard several people make similar comments in the day since his death: “I was just talking about him. I was just watching The Birdcage, or What Dreams May Come, or Good Will Hunting. I was just…” These coincidences happen with every death, I suppose, but I think this phenomenon is particularly widespread with Robin Williams because of his particular place in our culture, because of the countless iconic characters he played, because of the way his voice and laugh and mannerisms echo throughout other films, influencing generations of other performers as they strive to reach the heights of his originality and spontaneity.
Though the Genie and Peter Pan/Banning are favorite roles for me, too, it was Williams’ performance as John Keating in Dead Poets Society that gave me the most comfort and inspiration at a time when I needed it. As a kid who didn’t fit in at all at a conservative prep school, I longed for a teacher to come along and shout at us to leap up on our desks, to break the fourth wall between instructor and student, to bring the power back into the verses I loved, the ones deadened by rote and official interpretations. “What will your verse be?” he asked, and I took the question seriously. I learned to sound my barbaric yawp, just as Williams had, and tried to seize the day as joyously, as madly, and as fully as he always seemed to do.
Leah Schnelbach: I was really into stand-up comedy as a kid, and I managed to get copies of An Evening with Robin Williams, An Evening with Bobcat Goldthwait, and some Comic Relief specials. I did my best to memorize them. This was during the weird couple of years when my parents owned a restaurant and my mom worked as the bartender, so after school I’d sit at the bar and do my homework—they figured it was better than turning me into a latchkey kid. So, once my homework was done, I’d spend happy hour telling drunk middle-aged men Robin Williams routines, carefully edited so my mom wouldn’t get pissed at me. (I have to say, knowing his bits really did help me navigate the coke-addled cooks at the restaurant…)
So, when The Fisher King became my first Terry Gilliam movie, I wasn’t there for Terry Gilliam. I went into The Fisher King expecting a wacky adventure comedy with my manic stand-up comedy hero. Instead I got a mix of real adult drama and fantasy, male nudity, homelessness, a raw, complicated relationship between Jeff Bridges and Mercedes Ruehl, a horrifying Red Knight, an ambiguous miracle. This is a film that tells you that Williams’ character, Parry, lost his mind when his wife was murdered in front of him, and later shows you a piece of her brain flying into his mouth. This is also a film that stops time so people can waltz through Grand Central Terminal. And maybe it sounds stupid to say it, but none of that balance would have happened without Robin Williams. Don’t get me wrong, Jeff Bridges is a rock, and Mercedes Ruehl deserved the Oscar, but without Robin Williams hitting every note you don’t have a movie. He has to be able to show us grief, mania, religious obsession, romantic obsession, sorrow—it all has to be real, or the whole film falls apart. He has to give Jeff Bridges a good foil, he has to be wacky and fun, but then he has to turn it just enough so that he’s truly crazy. Scary crazy. He has to be willing to get brain in his mouth.
To say that the movie changed me sounds hollow—it gave me a framework for a new kind of magical realism. It introduced me to Gilliam, and to the Fisher King story, and to the concept of the Holy Fool, which led to studying medieval literature, Grail romances and Andy Warhol and helped (along with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) to spark my interest in religion, which led to…the rest of my life so far? All through high school, when shit got bad, I’d sneak off to a field out back and try to move clouds with my mind. After a couple years, when I was one of the older kids watching shit get bad for the freshmen, I’d teach them to do it, too.
Emily Asher-Perrin: Oddities of the universe: I was watching The Birdcage directly prior to hearing the news of his passing. Sometimes coincidence is just a bit too much. Robin Williams has been strangely omnipresent in my life; as a kid I watched Mork and Mindy on Nick at Nite when it was well past my bedtime. I remember that the idea of an ordinary-looking human being able to play an alien with no prosthetics to inform the performance completely captivated me. I also remember hearing the story about how he got the part—arriving to the audition and sitting in a chair on his head, as though he didn’t know how the piece of furniture worked. That always stuck with me.
I enjoyed many of his performances, but being a kid who grew up on early 90s Disney, I had a special relationship with his portrayal of the Genie in Aladdin. My dad and I used to quote that movie back and forth throughout my childhood, and I performed “Friend Like Me” in a school talent show at the tender age of nine. (I also danced to it in a tap class once, in a blue sequined leotard. One does not forget these things.) So I’d say that his particular brand of humor informed a lot for me, and certainly gave me a love for impressions that I would not have received any other way. It’s hard to imagine that voice suddenly removed from the world, so I suppose I’ll just have to conjure an image from the film’s finale of him heading off on that prolonged vacation—finally granted freedom and ready to explore a new frontier. Bangarang.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (TTY 800-799-4TTY). This number can be dialed from anywhere in the United States 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
“It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” – Stephen Fry