In the fall of 1987, I had a few delusions of becoming a stand-up comedian. I had a few pages of material drawn up, and in those days, it was a lot easier to get into places like the Dallas IMPROVISATION when you were in your late teens. This is how I wound up at the Improv on a Monday night, waiting my turn to get on stage at Open Mic Night, to try out some new material.
The manager comes up to me very early on, and tells me “You’re not going on tonight, but you should really stay here and see what happens.” He was right. The emcee welcomes the sparse crowd to the Open Mic Night, then announces some bogus name (I think it was Myron Grombaucher from Euless). A figure bounds up onto the stage…
…and it’s Robin Williams. I found out much later that he was in town doing junket interviews for GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, and was looking to keep his improv skills sharp. Once the applause dies down, he looks out at the crowd, and says, “Okay, someone give me a topic. Anything. First thing that –”
A voice from the audience: “Religion.”
And off to the races. Robin riffed on religion first, then that flowed into a 90-minute free-association routine that was just there, for us. There were identifiable pieces from a few of his previously released shows, like the Met or the Hollywood Bowl, but watching him work, at the height of his comedic powers, was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. It was our gift, just for being there.
Robin Williams is gone, now. In the coming months, we’ll second-guess why he decided to take his own life. We’ve done it before, with other talented actors. Too many times. What winds up happening, sadly, is that the suicide becomes the story. “How selfish.” “He still had so many years to give us amazing performances.” “Why couldn’t he have reached out for help?” “Why are we talking about one man’s death when we have so many things we need to fix in the world…” On and on.
When someone with the tag “celebrity” dies, for whatever reason, we have to break up their life into little bite-size notions and shovel our own experiences on top of it. It’s the easiest way to tell a story to an audience: give it a context that mirrors our own lives. What this tends to do, sadly, is diminish the person’s lifetime body of work into a handy punchline. Catchphrase.
Never mind that Robin Williams was one of the world’s most recognizable actors and comedians for the better part of four decades. He studied at Juilliard’s College of Marin for theatrics alongside Christopher Reeve, and was hand-picked by John Houseman for advanced studies. His films, his roles, are touchstones for four generations of moviegoers and television watchers.
As the days turn to weeks, and TMZ finally latches on to the next celebritragedy, please try to not lose sight of that.
Even with all of the outstanding comedic roles Williams had – Mrs. Doubtfire, Peter Pan, Popeye, the King of the Moon – it was his dramatic roles that caught my attention. Go back and watch INSOMNIA, Christopher Nolan’s coming-out party, and see how unnerving Williams could be with a role that was just edgy enough to get under your skin and make you itch. For hours. We saw that edge with THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, which walked an odd line between absurdist comedy and suburban pathos.
There were three times Williams had a performance good enough to win an Academy Award, if it had just gone in a different year – GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (lost to Michael Douglas for WALL STREET), DEAD POETS SOCIETY (Daniel Day-Lewis, MY LEFT FOOT) and THE FISHER KING (Anthony Hopkins, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). Of all the performances in that period, THE FISHER KING is my favorite, the one I’ll watch at least once a year. The joy on Williams’ face as he speaks to Jeff Bridges about his would-be love, Lydia, is transcendent.
Robin Williams’ performances bounced back and forth between the boundaries of utter lunacy. Bliss and pathos, in equal measure. To be able to relay that on camera, on stage, you have to know both in equal measure.
Two weeks ago, he posted a vintage pic on Instagram celebrating his daughter Zelda’s 25th birthday:
At some point after that, the pathos took over.
Devin Pike is the Entertainment Lead for Movies at The Scoop. Follow him on Twitter at @JustDevin.