Monday, August 11, 2014

His Untimely End

Years ago, Robin Williams saved me many times over from my own depression.  That being said, I hated Happy Days and its spawn of Satan, Mork & Mindy.  I thought it was the stupidest premise for a television show:  an alien from another planet comes down and lives among us.  In Colorado, no less.  It is only too fitting that Happy Days began the long tradition of TV shows “jumping the shark.”  Literally, Fonzie jumped over a shark in an episode, and fans claim that was the beginning of the end for Richie Cunningham and friends.  Mork & Mindy might be a case where a show “jumped the shark” in its first episode.  Adding comedian Jonathan Winters to the mix as a baby only made the show more ridiculous.  It was a popular show, Mork & Mindy; shows you how much I know.

As a lonely, dateless high school misfit living in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s, Robin Williams saved me with his comedy, specifically, his stand-up.  I had a cassette tape of performances he did at the Copacabana in New York City and at The Boardinghouse in San Francisco.  The collection was called Reality…What A Concept (1979), which was a kind of signature line for Williams.  When times were tough and I was feeling particularly down, I’d listen to his routines over and over again until I knew them by heart.  I was living in a trailer in my parents’ driveway, trying to be a musician and pay my way through private Catholic high school and later, state college.  When I could not study anymore and felt as if there was no point anyway, I’d pop on Williams and laugh until the tears came.  I’d still be laughing the next day as I walked across campus to class.  People probably thought I was nuts, but I didn’t care.

What attracted me to Williams’ brand of humor was the lightning fast way he improvised.  People in the audience would shout words or phrases out, and he’d volley them back with an outrageously funny line.  He did voices, impersonations, full characters, even Shakespeare.  I got his references, and they ran deeper than the comedians of my parents’ generation:  Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Jerry Lewis.  (Lewis, I still do not get, although my wife loves him.)  I enjoyed watching Bob Hope’s specials and the Tonight Show, and Ladies’ Man (1961) is amusing to me, but Robin Williams put me on the floor.  I laughed so hard, it hurt.

Later, I realized what a talented guy he was, having attended Juilliard, the performing arts conservatory in New York City.  His acting sometimes had him playing versions of the stand-up characters he created:  the Russian in Moscow on the Hudson (1984), or the gay nightclub owner in The Birdcage (1996).  However, he excelled in numerous other roles where pure acting chops were required.  My favorites:  The World According To Garp (1982), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Awakenings (1990), What Dreams May Come (1998), and most especially, his cameo in Hamlet (1996).  When I looked up his full history, I could not believe how many films Williams has done.  So many great moments in American cinema.  Some of them he might have done just for the money, but he was never boring on screen.  He brought something to every character and left an indelible mark on the viewer, at least on this viewer.

I also enjoyed his other stand-up concert films over the years, although for sheer, coked-up exuberance, nothing beats that long ago cassette tape now lost to history and a hundred different moves through a series of apartments.

Artists create a world that offers respite from the all too painful and tragic real world.  They take us outside of ourselves, and in their characters, their music, their sheer being, we see the world differently and their art makes our lives more livable, more bearable.  Unfortunately, Robin Williams had nobody to do this for him in the end.  Suicide is the bravest cowardly act one could commit.  Brave, because it takes courage to force a life to its conclusion; cowardly because one quits before the game is done.  But it is not for us to judge.

If I could have sent a message to Williams, it would be this snippet of dialogue from Awakenings.  In it, Leonard Lowe, played memorably by Robert De Niro, tells Williams’ character, Dr. Sayer, why it is important for people to realize the gift of life:

Leonard Lowe: We've got to tell everybody. We've got to remind them. We've got to remind them how good it is.
Dr. Sayer: How good what is, Leonard?
Leonard Lowe: Read the newspaper. What does it say? All bad. It's all bad. People have forgotten what life is all about. They've forgotten what it is to be alive. They need to be reminded. They need to be reminded of what they have and what they can lose. What I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!
Certainly, the light of this life is a little dimmer tonight, and it will take time before we will laugh again.  Goodbye, Robin, and Godspeed.

Robin Williams in the film, What Dreams May Come (1998)

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