By now you've all heard about the untimely death of the gifted Robin Williams, and so I felt compelled to weigh in; I'm aware of the circumstances of his death, of course, but unlike CNN last night--who (I thought unwisely) brought on people like "Dr. Drew" Pinsky to speculate on the how and why of Williams’ demise--I have no desire to put Williams on the couch. I've always resented it when people have tried to psychoanalyze me, and I hope--if I died--people would focus on my work, my reporting and the things I've written. So, I'll extend him the same courtesy, especially because he leaves behind such an eclectic and marvelous resume.
Most know him as a manic comedic performer, but he was adroit in serious roles, as well--indeed, he won a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance in "Good Will Hunting." He won that award for unforgettable scenes like recounting Carlton Fisk’s transcendent home run in game six of the 1975 World Series, warning an insolent Matt Damon “I will end you,” and eventually breaking through the kid’s considerable barriers by repeatedly telling him, "It's not your fault, Will, It's not your fault.”
He was superb in a little movie it seemed nobody but me saw called "The Night Listener," an unsettling psychological thriller. He was the height of creepy as a supermarket photo technician who becomes more-than-a-little-too-attached to a family in "One Hour Photo" (yes, kids, you used to have to take actual film to someone and have them develop it for you to get pictures), and he was almost as psychotic as a murdering writer going toe-to-toe with Al Pacino's detective in Christopher Nolan's masterful "Insomnia" (a movie I really love.)
I adored Williams, and the rest of the cast (Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Hank Azaria, Dan Futterman, Calista Flockhart, and Dianne Wiest), in Mike Nichols' hilarious "The Birdcage." Williams played straight man to Lane's flamboyance, but he got to let his own freak flag fly when he was opposite straight-edges like Hackman and Wiest, all in the same picture.
He was smart to star opposite other excellent thespians, which always raises one's game, acting with aplomb alongside of Damon, Pacino, and the sterling "The Birdcage" cast as mentioned above. But, he also played with Jeff Bridges in Terry Gilliams' wonderful "The Fischer King" (Williams was won a Golden Globe and grabbed an Oscar nomination) and as the doctor trying to cure catatonic patients like Robert De Niro's character in the sad but worthy "Awakenings" (another Golden Globe nom. for Williams). He snatched a Golden Globe and an Oscar nom. in Barry Levinson's "Good Morning, Vietnam," the film that made him a movie star. Like in "The Fischer King," it was a performance of vibrancy, vivacity, and boundless energy, like he was living under the fast forward button on his own remote control.
People in my generation will always remember him for "Dead Poets Society" (his students standing on their desks and saluting him with "O Captain,!My Captain!”), as the genie in "Aladdin," and, of course, in the uproarious "Mrs. Doubtfire"--a performance I can honestly say I can't see any other actor pulling off with the elan he did, which, come to think of it, is probably the best compliment one can give or receive.
He was a sublime talk-show guest; he always brought it and always came ready to perform. Unlike some, he was never shy with his gift; he was more than happy to make you laugh, and he’d work indefatigably to do so. He was also one of the most unforgettable guests on "Inside the Actors Studio." In fact, viewers voted his as their favorite interview of all-time in a special show just a few weeks ago--which seems all the more poignant now, of course, after his death.
I caught him doing standup from someplace in New York City on HBO a few years ago, and I pulled muscles laughing. Like he'd shown in so many films, he depicted truly incredible stamina, working himself into a lather along with the crowd. He does a bit on the utter futility of golf that--and I say this as a devoted golfer--ranks right up there with George Carlin's famous monologue on the differences between football and baseball in the annals of sports comedy.
Yes, in recent years he was most often flailing away in ill-chosen scripts, and his return to TV was unceremoniously cancelled after only one season. No matter, though; the work he did before stands on its own, and, because of that, I have no doubt he'd have returned to form--had he lived. And that's sad. His death deprives us--and himself--of even more memorable performances.
Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” plays an integral role in Peter Weir’s “Dead Poets Society,” with the English teacher played by Williams using it--and almost any other means necessary--to inspire his charges, and he eventually becomes their captain. Now, after his real-life death, it plays as a sad coda.
“O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,//The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,//The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,//While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;//But O heart! heart! heart!// O the bleeding drops of red,//Where on the deck my Captain lies,//Fallen cold and dead.”
Ryan Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan