Sure, Robin Williams, who has been found dead at his home aged 63, had his demons with drugs, drink – and like so many comedians – depression.
But that certainly doesn’t mean his death is any less shattering or was generally met with disbelief when it was the first thing that met my eyes and ears as I awoke to the news. Famously, he cites the death of fellow comedian John Belushi as a wake up call to his drug consumption and he freely admitted that if The Blues Brother hadn’t died then it probably would have been Williams next.
Like many, I grew up with him, first on my TV screen on Mork and Mindy, then on several of his live shows and of course his big screen antics way before he hit it big in Good Morning Vietnam in 1987, which seems like a lifetime ago, but seemed to capture the persona of Williams perfectly – the zany comic against the establishment and the thoughtful man that cared for others. Williams was both of these and pretty much the rest of his output moved between the two with great success in the likes of Aladdin, Mrs Doubtfire and even Dead Poets Society.
He’ll, of course, always be remembered for his manic style – an interviewers dream and nightmare no doubt – and his amazingly fast comedic processor that saw improv with hilarious results in such classics as Aladdin, Good Morning Vietnam and Mrs Doubtfire, that just shows his sheer diversity there.
But these were tempered with more thoughtful performances in Dead Poets Society, Moscow on the Hudson, and in one of my own personal favourite films, Awakenings. Not to forget his best supporting actor Oscar nod for Good Will Hunting of course, Williams also received nominations for the afore-mentioned Vietnam, Society and The Fisher King.
There was often sadness in this clown’s eyes during his performances, whether that be the desperate father to see his children, the doctor who couldn’t help in Awakenings or the ‘little boy lost’ or ‘boy who never grew up’ figure in the likes of Jack, Jumanji and of course Hook as Peter Pan himself. And in the latter, for me, it was the grown up Peter in the real world that bookended the film that was the most interesting element of that film.
And his performances in darker material such as Insomnia, this time acting against Pacino, and One Hour Photo just showed the man’s range and ability to act, he was no one trick pony. And that range was matched by the diverse range of films and genres that he found himself leading audiences, of course there were always the comedies but I’ll remember him as much for his dramatic roles, roles such as that in What Dreams May Come where he finds himself looking for his wife in the afterlife – which has never looked so vivid and rich – after she has committed suicide. It’s poignancy elevated beyond belief now of course, it is a beautiful film to look at and certainly won’t be easy viewing when it is next watched.
One of his last films to be released will be Night At The Museum: Secret of the Tomb, scheduled for a Christmas release, again its release will be cloaked in sadness at the talent we have lost. Ironically I was watching the first film the night before his death and he is brilliant as Teddy Roosevelt (essentially in that he is the elder statesman of comedy) and he fills his supporting performance – always making it feel bigger than it actually is – with what makes a Williams performance great, full of warmth, humility and fun. He of course played another President, Eisenhower, in the recent The Butler (2013).
It’s pleasing (if that is the right word) to see that Sky, the BBC and Channel 4 are all remembering the talent of Williams with a selection of his most beloved films. All, for one reason or another, will be difficult to watch because of the man and the talent that we have lost and many of his performances will now resonate more loudly and deeper than they ever did before.
The ‘zany character’ of Robin Williams that we saw on the big screen, on stage or on the chat show was just that, a character and he played it well and brought so much joy to others of all ages. My favourite ever story though is that when Steven Spielberg was making the harrowing Schindler’s List he’d come back from an emotionally draining day of filming and speak to Williams via video link up who would just cheer him and other crew up, bringing some sunshine back into the darkness. I’m sure all of us who have been made to laugh or been moved by one of his performances just wished that we could have done the same for him.
His light might have dimmed but his power to make us laugh and cry, or even cry with laughter, has just been forever heightened.