Daily | Robin Williams, 1951 – 2014
In the past few years, he’d been telling us that he was in a dark, dark place. Updated through 8/23.
“Robin Williams died Monday at 63 of an apparent suicide,” reports the Los Angeles Times. “Dubbed ‘the funniest man alive’ by Entertainment Weekly in 1997, Williams brought audiences hours of laughter, putting his imaginative spin on characters in film and television. He was lauded for his serious roles as well, winning a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire, the therapist who counsels Matt Damon’s math genius in Good Will Hunting (1997), and receiving nominations for The Fisher King (1991), Dead Poets Society (1989) and Good Morning, Vietnam (1987).”
So that’s the hot-off-the-wires version. Over the coming days, we’ll see genuinely heartfelt appreciations of his performances in Awakenings (1990), Aladdin (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), One Hour Photo (2002) and in so many other films, and of course, his Mork, his deep kinship with Jonathan Winters and his stand-up alchemy. At this moment, though, a couple of reminders that, in the past few years, he’d been telling us that he was in a very, very dark place.
I think that the Robin Williams episode was fairly astounding to a lot of people. I knew he was capable of being very sweet and almost shy. But I didn’t know that he would talk as candidly as he did to me. I think that episode, in terms of showing or exploring or actually being present for someone who is a very public person and someone who is notoriously manic and elusive by virtue of bombastic improvisations and riffs, to hear him speak so quietly and candidly about his heart attack, about his drug rehabs, about divorce, about depression, and about stealing jokes was, I think, something that was just never imagined, quite frankly. [Laughs.] To deal with it in a relatively unfunny way…. I don’t know what he thought about it. I think he was happy with it.
In 2010, Decca Aitkenhead interviewed Williams for the Guardian:
Robin Williams’s new film, World’s Greatest Dad, is brilliant. Having starred in a lot of unspeakably sentimental dross in recent years, here he is at last in something clever and thoughtful; a dark, slightly weird comedy that touches on all sorts of interesting themes that I’m hoping he’ll talk about. Williams, however, has other plans. It is almost impossible to get anything coherent out of him about the film, or any of the issues it raises. He is vague, tangential and at times more or less incomprehensible—until the conversation turns to more personal matters, at which point he becomes lucid and forthcoming. What Williams really wants to talk about, it turns out, is his relapse into alcoholism, his rehab and his open-heart surgery.
HitFix collects immediate reactions. We’ll have more in the coming days and weeks.
Updates, 8/12: Dave Itzkoff in the New York Times: “The privileged son of a Detroit auto executive who grew up chubby and lonesome, playing by himself with 2,000 toy soldiers in an empty room of a suburban mansion, Mr. Williams, as a boy, hardly fit the stereotype of someone who would grow to become a brainy comedian, or a goofy one, but he was both. Onstage he was known for ricochet riffs on politics, social issues and cultural matters both high and low; tales of drug and alcohol abuse; lewd commentaries on relations between the sexes; and lightning-like improvisations on anything an audience member might toss at him. His gigs were always rife with frenetic, spot-on impersonations that included Hollywood stars, presidents, princes, prime ministers, popes and anonymous citizens of the world. His irreverence was legendary and uncurtailable…. And yet he never seemed to offend.”
“The paradox of Williams’s persona and talent is that he was capable of rich shading as an actor, but was drawn to the broad and loud as a performer,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “Much has been said of his tendency to pick mawkish projects—Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, Jakob the Liar—and of the relentless, manic mugging of his stand-up performances. He occupied a unique position in popular culture: a broad, aggressive, mile-a-minute stand-up who was equally successful as a screen actor capable of great subtlety, who radiated a natural warmth, but could also easily inhabit frustrated or chilly characters.” Williams’s is “one of the broadest bodies of work in American acting, with performances that range from cartoony to low-key, optimistic to sinister.”
“Watching him acting in earnest,” writes the NYT‘s A.O. Scott, “you could not help but be aware of the exuberance, the mischief, that was being held in check, and you couldn’t help but wonder when, how or if it would burst out. That you knew what he was capable of made his feats of self-control all the more exciting.”
“The line between Williams the man, Williams the stand-up comedian, and Williams the thespian weren’t always clearly defined, which may be why he didn’t always get his due as an actor,” writes Noel Murray at the Dissolve. “But he was beloved by the people who worked with him, who spoke of his generosity and his willingness to keep everyone on the set entertained. And Williams thrived in the spotlight, where he got to take everyone he’d ever met, every experience he’d ever had, and every spontaneous idea, and turn it into a performance. There’s never been another actor like him. There likely never will be again.”
“There were flashes of anarchic joy in his grimmest roles, and moments even in his most outwardly featherweight performances when it seemed as though a cloud had passed across his face,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. “He never seemed to be having to imagine his way into the mindset of people who had numbed themselves with chaos (like his character in The Fisher King, who lost his wife in a random shooting and became convinced he was a knight on a holy quest) or routine (like the meek doctor in Awakenings, or the title character in The World According to Garp, whose opening credits song, ‘When I’m 64,’ will pierce more deeply now). Despite Garp, a lovely adaptation of a book some thought unadaptable, it took a while for him to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor, and an equally long time for one of his films to hit big. He crossed both achievements off his list after 1987’s Good Morning Vietnam… The film was the perfect merger of formulaic Hollywood comedy-drama beats… and Williams’s by-then-patented brand of riffing (director Barry Levinson reportedly left many of [Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer] booth scenes blank, save for once sentence: ‘Robin does his thing’).”
“Barry Levinson’s film was perhaps the nearest a feature film came to representing his standup style and his subversion,” suggests the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw.
“The man didn’t need to play a sitcom alien to seem as if he had his own extraterrestrial energy field,” writes New York‘s David Edelstein. “Williams gave tremendous performances in a handful of movies, but it was Williams bottled and, in most cases, domesticated. It didn’t have that free-form, unfettered genius. That said, his nattering sailor in Robert Altman’s messy Popeye was musically dazzling. Even more musical was his performance in Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson, in which the sadness of not being able to perform was right there in his eyes. Was he Russian in another life? The combination of mania and melancholy tapped something beautiful in him.”
“The first thing I thought of when hearing about his tragic demise was not his work in film,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies, “but his numerous UK chatshow appearances which seem to be peppered, beacon-like, across my lifespan. Images of Jonathan Ross bent-double, choking on laughter, pummelling his fist on the desk as Williams blithely free-forms without breaking a sweat, switching accents and perspectives, joke after joke after joke after joke, non-stop. It wasn’t a case of wind him up and watch him go, as Ross would barely even have a chance to do the winding before Williams was off. Were it not for TV scheduling, curfews or the fact that tomorrow is another day, you felt that he could’ve carried on forever in some quicksilver comic feedback loop.”
Time‘s television critic James Poniewozik: “Mork was weird—popping-out-of-an-egg, rainbow-suspenders, scat-riffing-about-the-Shah-of-Iran weird. And he communicated an idea that I hadn’t seen in noncartoon pop culture before then: that weirdness was O.K. No, it was great. It was energy. It opened up worlds.” And Richard Corliss: “Why does a clown want to play Hamlet? Maybe because he thinks he is that melancholy soul whom others find amusingly odd.”
Also writing for Time, Alan Alda asks, “While the whole country, and much of the world, feels this moment of sadness at his death, can we turn the loss of this artist we loved so much into something that pushes back against the ravages of despair?”
Joe Leydon has “two vivid memories of Robin Williams—one funny, one less so.” The LAT‘s Steven Zeitchik looks ahead to the six films featuring Williams that will be rolling out to theaters in the coming months. And Longreads gathers five interviews.
Glenn Kenny for Vanity Fair: “There are a lot of people out there, myself included, for whom Williams was a hero not just for his incredible talent; whatever he was up to at any given time, the guy who hit T.S. Garp out of the park was still lurking behind his eyes. He was also a hero for the moral courage he displayed in the frankness with which he talked about his own struggles. Because he eventually lost the battle with one of the things he struggled with does not, I think, make him any less of a hero.”
Updates, 8/13: David Simon (The Wire) tells an amazing story about the one and only time he met Robin Williams. So many people have them, it turns out. Norm MacDonald‘s is just as remarkable. And Chris Gethard recalls the night he did improv with Williams: “He comes onstage and I get to introduce him, and the crowd goes apeshit. This is a show that Amy Poehler does regularly, that Jason Sudeikis and Bobby Moynihan and Seth Meyers and Rachel Dratch and Horatio Sanz and so many other stars of current comedies do. And the crowd loves them. But the crowd loves seeing Robin Williams, passionately, with a connection that goes back to their childhoods.”
“The chaotic clarity that lashed like an electric cable, that razzed and sparked with amoral, puckish wonder was in fact harvested madness,” writes Russell Brand in the Guardian. “Is it melancholy to think that a world that Robin Williams can’t live in must be broken? To tie this sad event to the overarching misery of our times? No academic would co-sign a theory in which the tumult of our fractured and unhappy planet is causing the inherently hilarious to end their lives, though I did read that suicide among the middle-aged increased inexplicably in 1999 and has been rising ever since. Is it a condition of our era?”
In the Los Angeles Times, David Ng reminds us that Williams “was a classically trained artist whose craft was honed at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York.” He emails Diane Venora, who was in his class, notes that Jessica Chastain would never have been able to attend without the scholarship Williams established, and looks back on some of Williams’s best theatrical performances.
“I didn’t know Williams personally,” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir, “but like many other people who spent time in San Francisco nightclubs in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, I saw him in public on numerous occasions. He was a voracious music fan and a fixture in the city’s punk, new wave and post-punk music scene during those years, often seen standing by himself at the back of the crowd in all sorts of divey establishments. I can remember lurking by the door for a Monday-night show in the legendary I-Beam on Haight Street, sometime around 1986—my memory claims the headline band was the Jesus and Mary Chain, but I won’t swear to it—and gradually becoming aware that the older guy standing next to me was Mork from Ork. It seemed almost as implausible then as it does now.”
Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Time Out New York‘s Joshua Rothkopf on The Fisher King: “When the city becomes too much for me, or when I see someone lost in their haze of muttering (as we all do), I try to remember that film’s tenderness for the damaged. Williams’s art was a gift of sympathy.”
For Buzzfeed‘s Alison Willmore, the lead in Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad (2009) “may be the Williams role that I love best of all. It’s also one that is, for many reasons, almost unbearably sad to revisit now, not the least because it deals with themes of suicide, but also because its emotional epiphany is so hard-fought and so uncompromised, directly dealing with how people mourn and how we sanctify the dead.”
The Dissolve‘s writers each offer a few paragraphs of remembrance. At Vulture, Bilge Ebiri looks back on some of Williams’s best performances. Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s posted his 1991 review of The Fisher King and his 1993 review of Mrs. Doubtfire. Rolling Stone has posted Jeff Giles‘s 1991 profile. Time‘s preparing a commemorative issue.
And there’s an unusual petition out there: “Because of his presence within our community, we the players of World of Warcraft are asking Blizzard to kindly create an NPC within the game that memorializes the actor/comedian.”
Updates, 8/14: “Williams got to the movies right at the very end of an era in which an actor could be a star who also looked like he could be your mechanic or your taxi driver, in which guys weren’t limited to character parts or villain roles because of their ethnicity,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. In Robert Altman’s Popeye, Williams “wasn’t playing the cartoonishness of his seaman (the engorged body parts, the pipe, the squinting). He was playing the salt, the profanity…. He had a good run of dramas and serious comedies in the 1980s, going nose-to-nose with Walter Matthau in The Survivors (1983) and then doing Saul Bellow (Seize the Day), one of those Harold Ramis antiestablishment farces (Club Paradise), and sentimental sports comedy with Kurt Russell (The Best of Times) in 1986. Good Morning, Vietnam the next year made him a movie star, and it made sense. It was the first of his movies to let his stand-up act in on the action.”
In the Financial Times, Gautam Malkani argues that “this week’s outpouring of tributes following Williams’s death reflected not just widespread appreciation of his comic genius, but also a deep and collective recognition that this was a man who, in two of his more serious roles, tutored and inspired a generation. As the schoolteacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989) and as the college lecturer Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting (1997), Williams assumed the improbable role of silver screen shepherd. A mentor to those for whom scout leaders had been replaced by Super Mario.”
David Schwartz has posted his 1995 appreciation, written on the occasion of a gala salute at the Museum of the Moving Image.
Updates, 8/16: “It’s hard to love someone so desperate to be loved,” writes the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek. “Once Williams became a juggernaut star of blockbuster comedies, it was easy to forget how wonderful he’d been in small, often throwaway comedies, like 1986’s The Best of Times, in which he played a small-town banker who just can’t forget the time he botched a pass during a crucial high school game, or as a Queens car salesman with a passel of troubles in 1990’s Cadillac Man…. Williams, for years, has tormented some of us: We’ve wanted to enjoy him, to laugh at him, to be on his side, and sometimes he made that impossible. But it couldn’t have been easy being Robin Williams. He did all the heavy lifting. All we had to do was laugh.”
Vulture‘s Bilge Ebiri talks with Terry Gilliam about a rough night filming the “Red Knight” scene in The Fisher King: “Robin was tearing his guts out emotionally. The interesting thing about Robin in all of those scenes was that he always wanted to do another take. He felt he had even more anguish and pain to spill out of the character. And I had to really stop him. I had to say, ‘Robin, you’ve reached a point here, way beyond what we expected. We’ve got what we needed. Now you’re just hurting yourself.'”
“The Fisher King is a film about trauma,” writes Niles Schwartz, “but it’s clothed in a theatrical buoyancy, so as to obscure—and flee from—reality’s petrifying disorder. Rarely in large Hollywood films is a chiasmus of tragedy and comedy so successfully drawn; The Fisher King has hilarity and romance clinging for survival through the scoriae of aching hopelessness.” And “it hinges on Robin Williams’s performance. Parry could have simply been a clown—’Williams doing Williams,’ as he did in Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning, Vietnam, even Dead Poets Society—but the character gradually simmers to a boil of bristling insecurities, terror and agonizing internalized pain.”
Also at RogerEbert.com, a collection of remembrances from contributing writers.
“Seize the Day, directed by Fielder Cook and scripted by Ronald Ribman, has the faint bloom of ‘quality’ television,” writes Peter Rainer in an excerpt from Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “But the actors are really on to something. Robin Williams, as the despairing, throttled Tommy Wilhelm, and Jerry Stiller, as Dr. Tamkin, are at each other’s nerve-endings, like a great vaudeville team, and Joseph Wiseman, as Dr. Adler, is on hand to deliver the coup de grâce over and over again.” But Williams has “brought the inner man, the pained, failed dissimulator, right to the surface. His vulnerabilities are shockingly, comically evident.”
At Movie Morlocks, David Kalat‘s reposted his piece on Popeye: “Almost without exception, every creative decision that went into its manufacture was catastrophic. Yet while any one of these horrible ideas could have completely derailed the whole thing alone, once you stack them one atop another you get a critical mass that starts to cancel itself out. Eventually, it cycles around the back of wrong and comes out the other side as imminently watchable. How is Popeye a glorious mess? Let me count the ways.”
Updates, 8/17: “Robin was a perfectionist.” Terry Jones‘s Absolutely Anything will be out next year and, in the Observer, he explains why Williams was only satisfied with his third go at voicing Dennis the Dog. “Above all, what I remember about Robin was his humility.”
Plus, Nigel Planer (Neil on The Young Ones): “Backstage, in the dressing rooms, on the stairs, the stream of consciousness continued. The jabbering multitude of voices, the need to make everyone around him laugh, all the time. He wouldn’t be happy until the furniture was laughing. He had a bad case of what we in the business call ‘Comic’s Disease.’ This is such a gift to the rest of the world but, as we saw last week, it can be a heavy load to bear.”
And the Observer also posts remembrances from six American comedians.
Updates, 8/18: “Ater Robin Williams ended his singularly pyrotechnic life last week, his friend Penny Marshall’s phone kept ringing. All the old gang—Carol Kane, Julie Kavner, Robert De Niro—were calling, in shock.” She talks with Tad Friend for the New Yorker, basically improvising a beautiful remembrance.
“It’s often unwise and irrelevant to connect actors to the roles they play,” writes Keith Phipps at the Dissolve, “and yet something about Williams’ suicide has invited it. He often played men struggling with darkness, sometimes without success, frequently men who used verbal agility and unbridled energy as weapons in the fight. Few movies put that struggle to the fore as prominently as The Fisher King.”
Matt Menachem Feuer on Jacob the Liar: “Perhaps Williams took to the role of Jacob because he—like other authors of the schlemiel and actors who played the schlemiel—wanted to preserve innocence and found comedy to be the best way of preserving hope. However, he knew that the only way to do this, after the Holocaust, would be to lie…like the character he played, Jacob. For without this hope and without this lie, there can only be the belief that history wins and that comedy, after Auschwitz, is impossible.”
Updates, 8/19: “Robin had thousands of voices, and faces, and personae,” writes Oliver Sacks for the New Yorker. “He could become Lon Chaney, Hamlet, Dr. Strangelove, Mae West—or all of them in a single sentence. Indeed, he could become any animal. When we had lunch together a few months ago, we got to talking about reptiles—Robin had had a pet iguana—and he combined a zoologist’s knowledge of lizards and turtles with an inner understanding of what it was like to be them, and he could imitate their postures and behavior to perfection. Imitate is too mild a word; he became them as, in Awakenings, he became me.”
Mara Wilson, who played little Natalie Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire (three years later, she’d take the title role in Matilda), has posted a remembrance at her site: “Robin was so on so much of the time that I was surprised to hear my mother describe him as ‘shy.’ ‘When he talks to you,’ she told her friends, ‘he’ll be looking down at his shoes the whole time.’ I figured he must have been different with grown-ups. I wouldn’t see that side of him myself until a few years later, when I was invited to be part of a table read of What Dreams May Come. He came alive in the reading, and had us all laughing at lunch, but my strongest impression came when we saw each other for the first time that day. Robin crossed to me from across the room, got down to my level, and whispered ‘Hi, how are you?’ He asked how my family was doing, how school was, never raising his voice and only sometimes making eye contact. He seemed so vulnerable. ‘So this is what Mom meant,’ I thought. It was as if I was seeing him for the first time. He was a person now.”
Update, 8/23: At the Playlist, you can listen to Terry Gilliam‘s long out-of-print commentary for Criterion’s laser disc release of The Fisher King.