Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In Memory of Our Clown: Robin Williams

I was on my way to conduct a shiva minyan when I received the text update about the death of Robin Williams. Like so many, I wished it to be one of those internet pranks. But in my heart, I knew it was true.

Like so many Generations X-ers, Robin Williams has been a part of my life since I was little. I remember watching bits of Mork and Mindy where Robin had the chance to work with his mentor and icon in Jonathan Winters. I didn’t really get the jokes, but I loved his manic energy.

I enjoyed seeing Williams on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I always stayed up too late watching the show on my little black and white TV in my room. He was hilarious on Comic Relief which he co-founded with Billy Crystal and Whoppi Goldberg, who I later fell in love with as Guinan on Star Trek the Next Generation.

Also as a kid, I so enjoyed Robin as Popeye. I used to watch that movie over and over. I was not even aware there was a comic strip nor cartoon series about Popeye. For me, Williams was my Popeye.

I watched Robin on HBO. I may not have memorized his bits like I did with Eddie Murphy, but I was often mesmerized by his manic energy.

And then came the movies. Robin was my Captain in Dead Poets Society. I so wanted all my teachers to be like him. He was the one helped to teach me about the profound nature of love in Good Will Hunting. Not the big romantic gestures portrayed in most movies, but about those quiet moments in our lives that are so impacted when we have someone to fill up the spaces in our hearts.

I must have seen Aladdin half a dozen times when it first came out. I remember as a freshman in college going to a movie theater in Austin, and just so enjoying Genie. On a more recent note, my children have now fallen in love with Williams’ Genie as well. His songs by Ashman and Menken are a very popular request in our rides to and from school.

Of Williams’ filmography, I have probably seen 2/3 of them. I recall seeing The Fisher King, though like most of Terry Gilliam’s films, I remember more about the emotion than the story line. I memorized much of Williams’ improvised shtick in Good Morning Vietnam. And quotes from that movie still bring a smile to his face.

I also learned about middle age from Hook. At its heart, the movie is really about Steven Spielberg and Williams along with Dustin Hoffman exploring what it means to give up parts of yourself to live life as a grownup. And that you can never really go back to childhood, but we should never truly let go of what it means to live in the world with a passion and childlike curiosity.

Unlike some others, I also enjoyed the movie Toys. I remember Williams working so diligently to promote his movie wearing a gadget laced jacket on all of the morning shows. My favorite scene from that movie was when LL Cool J proclaimed, “I can't even eat. The food keeps touching. I like military plates, I'm a military man, I want a military meal. I want my string beans to be quarantined!” I still think of that quote whenever I prepare meals for my kids.

There was of course Jumanji, Patch Adams, A.I., Robots, Mrs. Doubtfire, and so many others. Though perhaps one of my favorite rolls was when Williams tackled the real life character Dr. Malcolm Sayer in the movie Awakenings. There was no attempt at manic humor; just a caring nebbishy soul trying to help his patients.

Like so many from my youth, I will admit, I have lost touch with Robin Williams. I haven’t seen many of his movies lately nor his most recent standup routine. Though I have enjoyed his portrayal of a waxy President Theodore Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum series. As with many actors who die in an untimely manner, there is still one more Night at the Museum coming out later this year.

I was aware that Mr. Williams battled with drug and alcohol abuse along with marital difficulties having gone through two divorces. And, though sad, I was not surprised to learn that he succumbed to his inner demons. For you could tell behind those wild eyes, lingered tremendous hurt.

As a fan, his loss is painful, but it is not a tragedy. It is a tragedy for his wife and his kids. It is a tragedy for his friends. For the rest of us, it means simply that the world will be filled with a little less laughter and a little less infectious mania. Which in today’s world, is something we could all use a little more of.

And if there is something we can take out of this, there are many who are silently struggling with the great all-consuming beast of depression. It can strike the most successful and outgoing of us. And if you or you know of someone who needs help, please reach out. For no matter how much their lives are filled with love and adoration, to live in the pit of despair, means they need lifelines now more than ever.

Fare thee well Robin Williams. Your genius, your humor, your laughter, and your love will be missed by so many including me.