RIP Robin Williams (1951-2014)

Next door the tv’s flashing
Blue frames on the wall,
It’s a comedy of errors, you see,
It’s about taking a fall.
To vanish into oblivion
Is easy to do,
And I try to be, but you know me
I come back when you want me to.

–Elliott Smith, “Miss Misery”

Very few people would categorize Robin Williams as a fat actor, but as the blogger is a child of the 90’s, he deserves a brief memorial on CPBS.

Grief isn’t a zero sum game, and I know that people around the world from all generations are mourning today.  But Robin Williams has a special place in the hearts of many early millennials as one of the main actors of our childhood, our first celebrity.  He was one of the first to make that connection in my mind between movies and real people, the idea that a person could make a life out of playing make-believe.

When I was in second grade, my “boyfriend” was a huge fan of Mork and Mindy.  Our romantic life consisted of me giving him a smooch on the cheek, to which he would respond “Nanoo nanoo!”.  I wonder how he’s doing today.

I remember the excitement when Aladdin came out, that Robin Williams was the voice of the Genie, a casting choice that ushered in the era of stars lending their voices to animated features as a norm.  I remember the excitement about seeing Hook in theaters because Robin Williams was playing Peter Pan, also there was some guy named Dustin Hoffman in it who my parents liked.  I didn’t even know that Steven Spielberg directed it until a few months ago, if you were clinging to any delusions about me being any kind of authority on film.  His performance in Mrs. Doubtfire holds similar nostalgia for me, making me reluctant to admit its problematic areas as a grownup feminist.

I started high school and started taking acting lessons and getting interested in Deep Art Films around the time that Good Will Hunting came out, and Robin gained attention for doing a spate of more serious roles.  I didn’t know about his earlier films like Good Morning Vietnam at that point, but it felt like a cultural shift that paralleled my own sudden moodiness and dissatisfaction with the world I had been dropped into.  I never got around to seeing One Hour Photo, but just knowing that the silly, wacky guy from my childhood was now an obsessive weirdo felt appropriate on a cosmic level.  And then I saw Dead Poets Society, which told me that I could find an internal freedom through art, and as the detainee of a Catholic high school, that means everything.  (On a similar note, his grounded and warm performance in The Birdcage was one of the first gay characters I saw who was neither a hollow stereotype nor a sterilized victim.  I tend to have political reservations around straight actors portraying queer/trans characters, but that film was a very welcome respite during a time when I was trying to sort through my own sexual and gender identity while being steeped in cis/heterosexism.) 

In my sophomore religion class, two classmates of mine had written on the chalkboard: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may/ Old time is still a-flying/ And this same flower that smiles today/ Tomorrow will be dying”.  I wonder how they’re doing today.

I didn’t know about his struggles with mental illness.  It’s scary to be living with a mood disorder and see someone else who is successful and talented and “supposed to” have more reasons to live succumb to their illness.  I felt that shadow cast by my own mind when Elliott Smith died, and I feel it today.  Many other people who live with mood disorders feel that way today; if you are one of them, and you’re struggling, please reach out to friends or family.  It can be difficult to share your pain, but please believe that there are people in this world who want you in it, and listening to you vent or being there while you cry or helping you distract yourself are tasks they do willingly.  If you feel like you may harm yourself and don’t know who to talk to, please consider calling a number from this list of suicide hotlines.  If you want to express concern and support for a loved one who is depressed, advice blogger Captain Awkward has some ideas for how to do so.

In response to news of Robin Williams’ death, film critic Keith Phipps referenced the old joke about the man who goes to a doctor because he’s depressed.  The doctor recommends he take his mind off his worries by going to the circus to see the famous clown Pagliacci.  “But Doctor,” the man replies, “I am Pagliacci.”  It’s so easy to see people in one dimension, to see them as means to an end, to shoehorn them into our expectations.  The comedian who must always be in a joking mood, who exists for our entertainment (and only one specific type, as we express surprise that a funny person would be able to give a competent dramatic performance).  The person who says they’re depressed; I don’t see what there is to be so sad about, they should cheer up.  The fat character whose pathetic antics make the slim protagonist look better by comparison.  The black youth who must be up to no good, whose lives are regulated and terminated by law enforcement “just doing their job”.  This mentality is the slippery slope to alienation and oppression, and it affects all of us sooner or later. I’m not saying that his public persona drove Robin Williams to die by suicide, but I can only imagine that it must have been lonely inside that persona at times.  

Robin Williams was a man of great talent, and gave the world decades of work to appreciate and enjoy.  As we remember him, let’s think of a blue genie and an alien and a Southie psychologist, but above all, let’s think of a human being who struggled and triumphed and failed and carried on and loved and was loved.  

Was deeply loved, even if we didn’t realize how much so until yesterday.

A Selection of Articles Memorializing Robin Williams:

Please share your memories of Robin Williams in the comments.


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