Robin Williams died this week. When I saw the news, I started to cry.
Three days ago, I sat sniffling in front of my computer, wiping my eyes, trying to absorb what I was reading — that he was dead, and how it was that he had died. I was in shock and deep sadness for this man that I’d never met, and in the last couple of days I have been trying to understand why. We’ve all been witness to the passing of other significant people. Why does this feel different? I’ve never cried for anyone else.
My formative television-watching years were in the mid-to-late 1970’s, with shows like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and the Dukes of Hazzard. I loved Happy Days, and have even been called “a Richie Cunningham” more than once over the years. It was during this time I first became acquainted with Robin Williams, this odd little man who played a strange space alien on Happy Days. The premise was very peculiar – the plotline never really worked for me – but the manic energy of this Mork guy was undeniable and intoxicating.
Later we had full-on Mork & Mindy (I loved Mork, and had a crush on Mindy), and after that we began to see his standup comedy showing up in places like HBO, where censorship was not an absolute requirement. He worked hot, fast, and blue, and he was not concerned about offending anyone, because there was never anything terribly mean-spirited about his comedy, even when it was so sharp and so edgy.
I thought back to the first movie I ever saw him in. It must have been The World According to Garp. I honestly don’t remember very much about the movie, except for the scene where his wife bites his penis off (what man could forget that?), and seeing John Lithgow in drag. Now seems like a good time to go back and watch it again.
I loved Good Will Hunting. It was one of the most subdued roles of his career, weaving in a whiff of comedy here and there. It is a movie I will always stop and watch if it happens to be showing on TV. He most deservedly won his Oscar that year, and I was very pleased to see that acknowledgement of his work.
GWH was a great movie, but it was the trio of movies in the late 80s/early 90s that really hooked me and made me begin to understand the depth of this man’s talent. It started with Dead Poet’s Society (1989), followed by Awakenings (1990), and ending with what I believe is his finest cinematic achievement, The Fisher King (1991). He had other great movies over the years (even Mrs. Doubtfire, which I think is a movie where his performance is actually underrated) but it was this trio of films that defined and showcased his genius, and really set the table for the Oscar he would receive several years later.
Why do I love The Fisher King so much? Because it fully encapsulates all of his genius in one film. He does not play “more dramatic” or “more comedic” in this film – he goes deep down both rabbit holes in this movie. The movie alternates between the horrifying and the sweet, the sad and the touching, and the deeply moving and the humorously outrageous. It is a fable – a dark, twisted fantasy – where two men (RW and Jeff Bridges), both deeply broken by the same traumatic event, having experienced the event from opposite perspectives, come to a have a shared catharsis, leading them on a path together that will provide the respective redemption that each of them needs. It is extraordinary touching, awful, wonderful, and satisfying. Parry is the character that Robin Williams was born to play.
As I’ve been reflecting over the last few days, I have tried to think of any other actor – anyone – who has the ability to pivot between comedy and drama so effortlessly and so effectively. Many actors can play both sides, but always tilt one way or another. We have never seen another as fully developed and competent as both a comedic and dramatic actor as Robin Williams. It was this combination, that ability to take you to a very dark, sad place, and quickly turn it to a laugh-out-loud moment, that was the source of his true power. It was this ability to do happy and sad at the exact same time that drew people to him and made his so compelling to watch. Can you think of anyone else that can do this so well? You can’t, I promise.
What we know how is that happy and sad were not meaningful distinctions for him. There were not two rabbit holes, just one. I also know now that this one rabbit hole is what connected me to Robin Williams – that ability to make me feel something so deeply, and then in an instant, laugh about it. This genius is what drew me to him, is what unravelled him, and is what I now mourn.
Rest in peace, my good Knight Errant.