The sudden death of Robin Williams yesterday set everyone thinking about what his work meant, and what performances we considered to be his defining work. Here, each of us contributes a short remembrance.
Scott Tobias: Last night, I watched World’s Greatest Dad, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, one of Williams’ closest friends. (“I’m the otter to his bear,” Goldthwait once told Time Out London.) It’s not the easiest film to watch under any circumstances, and doubly so in the wake of Williams’ suicide; after all, it’s about a father who loses his ill-mannered son to autoerotic asphyxiation, re-stages the scene to make it look like a suicide, and uses the attention from a made-up note to polish the kid’s legacy. Williams was originally going to play a small supporting role in an effort to help Goldthwait secure financing, but he took the lead instead and gave one of his best performances. The accident doesn’t happen until the end of act one, and Williams offers an alternately caustic and poignant take on what it’s like to be a single parent to a boy who’s both bitterly disappointing—he calls everyone and everything “fag,” and trolls the Internet for gross fetish porn—and a desperate loner not unlike himself. His motives for creating a fiction around his son’s embarrassing death are not exactly noble: He wants his boy to be remembered more fondly, and like many a failed writer, he seizes the opportunity to get some attention for work. But Williams plays the role with unfathomable grief behind his eyes, and Goldthwait, in his typically unvarnished style, accesses reserves of emotions that the actor rarely expressed on the screen.
It’s odd to think about an actor as exuberant as Williams holding anything back, but there are times in both his manic comedic roles and his subdued dramatic ones where he seemed totally inaccessible to me. As an entertainer, he was eager to please in both directions—as the wacky improvisor of Aladdin and Patch Adams, and as the glum center of Awakenings or Jakob The Liar. But as Noel wrote in his obituary yesterday, he was best when he could be “both funny and sincere.” World’s Greatest Dad accesses the full range of his talents, but it seems to access him, too—not as a clown, not as a tears-of-a-clown type, but as a lonely man seeking to connect with a son and a world that eludes him.
Matt Singer: The Genie from Aladdin was the part Robin Williams was born to play. He contained everything Williams loved to do—frenetic improvisation, hilarious non-sequiturs, uncanny mimicry, and unabashed sentimentality—in one mercurial blue package. His early scenes leap off the screen with infectious energy; his final ones, when Aladdin grants him his freedom, brim over with genuine emotion. Early in the film, the Genie tells Aladdin he’s never had a friend like him, and he was right. Few characters in the history of film, before or since, have taken such full advantage of the animation medium’s potential for invention, artistry, and undiluted creativity.
I was 11 when Aladdin came out in 1992. At that age, half of Williams’ riffs went over my head; I didn’t recognize Ed Sullivan, or Señor Wences, or almost any of his celebrity impressions. It didn’t matter. The exuberance of the character and genius of Williams’ performance transcended its pop-cultural references.
Williams’ later career was spotty, but I’m sure I speak for most people of my generation when I say that Aladdin, and particularly the Genie, was a major touchstone of my childhood. (So was Mrs. Doubtfire, which came out the next year and whose restaurant finale, where Williams dashes back and forth between two different dinners and two different personas, is a masterpiece of screwball suspense.) It’s devastating to think that a man who brought millions of people joy struggled so hard to find it for himself. When I was 11, it didn’t seem physically possible to me that one man could be that funny, and do so many different voices. Twenty years later, the Genie still feels less like acting than alchemy, as if the character’s real magic came not from a lamp, but from Williams’ unearthly comedic talent.
Genevieve Koski: Last night, while struggling to process the news of Williams’ death, I composed a tweet that read, “Williams was the first comedian I remember thinking of as my favorite.” Then, after thinking it over, I deleted the word “comedian” and replaced it with “actor.” Because not only was Williams the first performer I remember inspiring the thought, “He’s my favorite,” he was the performer that made me really consider what acting was. I came of age during Williams’ most prolific period in mainstream Hollywood: Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire are both significant, important parts of my childhood, and they both maintain a nostalgic draw for me. But two films that came shortly after those, Good Will Hunting and especially The Birdcage, are what cemented the idea that Williams wasn’t just a spectacularly funny guy, capable of tossing off silly voices and yammering at the speed of light; he was creating characters. I was around 12 at this time, and just coming to the realization that acting was more than reading lines from a script and being on magazine covers, and Williams was a big part of that realization. How could this same man be the Genie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Sean Maguire, and Armand Goldman? Not just Robin Williams playing those characters, but those characters. Because he was an actor, and that’s what actors do: They don’t just parrot lines in exchange for gobs of money, they create human beings (or big blue genies) to live inside over the course of a movie. Williams isn’t the first, last, or best actor to do that, but he is the one who inspired that small but significant realization.
Because of that, the Williams moment I keep coming back to in the wake of this news is my favorite scene from The Birdcage, where Williams’ Armand Goldman is directing rehearsals for a drag show, trying to inspire a bored extra to create a character instead of just standing there looking pretty and chewing gum. Williams’ performance in The Birdcage is borderline campy and not without its problems (though he benefits from serving as the toned-down straight man, such as it is, to Nathan Lane’s much more outré caricature). But the moment when he “dance-directs” the gum-chewing lout to do “Fosse-Fosse-Fosse, or Martha Graham-Martha Graham-Martha Graham, or Twyla-Twyla-Twyla, or Michael Kidd-Michael Kidd-Michael Kidd, or Madonna-Madonna-Madonna... but you keep it all inside”—that, to me, is Williams in a nutshell. Spontaneous, physical, and willing to Fosse-Fosse-Fosse his heart out to entertain an audience... but he could also keep it inside if that’s what was right for the character. That’s not just comedy, that’s acting.
Keith Phipps: In the outpouring of tributes on Twitter last night, critic Matt Prigge posted a clip from a film I’d nearly forgotten, Christopher Hampton’s 1996 adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Though a studious, faithful adaptation, Hampton’s film doesn’t have that much to make it memorable apart from a Philip Glass score, some good work from Bob Hoskins in the lead, and Williams. Especially Williams. As The Professor, an anarchist and explosives expert, Williams plays a man walks the streets wearing a bomb, dreams of finding “the perfect detonator,” and supports mass destruction as a means to a political end. Published in 1907, the novel foresaw the years to come, one in which extreme ideologies could muscle onto the world stage via a willingness to shed innocent blood. Williams’ perceptive, and uncredited, performance—which gets a little overwhelmed by the way the editing in the YouTube clip foregrounds Glass’ music—understands that. He plays The Professor as a man who’s learned to rationalize madness, talking clearly about why he’s become okay with unthinkable acts. It’s a straight performance with just enough of a glimmer of firecracker energy to give it a charge. That’s the Williams I liked best on screen: the actor who brought the history and improvisatory energy of his comedic work and used them as tools to shape thoughtful portrayals. Often they were of men trying to battle a tireless sense of desperation, battles they didn’t always win.
Noel Murray: When I was growing up, Robert Altman’s Popeye had a reputation as a depressing waste of time for nearly everyone involved, which is why I avoided it for many years, even as I watching nearly every other Altman film I could find. When I finally caught up to Popeye, I was amazed by how well it worked: as an Altman film, as a Harry Nilsson musical, as an adaptation of the source material, and as a showcase for Robin Williams. In 1980, there was something perverse about taking as wacky a comedian as Williams, casting him as a cartoon character, and then directing him to mumble nearly unintelligibly for two hours. After Williams had a few decades of varied screen performances under his belt, though—and not all of them like his stand-up act, or like Mork From Ork—his turn as Popeye made more sense. It’s a character part, and Williams gives himself over to it fully, playing the intensity of Popeye’s love for Olive Oyl and his hatred for Captain Bluto. He’s not playing it Broadway broad; he’s doing his version of the Fleischer Studios Popeye cartoons, with their only half-comprehensible asides. Williams sometimes took that intensity too far in his movies, as though he was afraid he’d lose the thread of his performance if he included that side of himself that was quick-witted and kind. But Popeye was the model for the kind of fully realized movie role that he didn’t come around that often in Williams’ early years in Hollywood. Perhaps if the perception of the film had been different, Williams would’ve gotten more opportunities to play more Popeyes. Instead, he mainly only played those kinds of characters when he was doing glorified cameos as favors for some of his friends. There’s always going to be a lot of what-might’ve-been to Williams’ career; but I personally wonder what direction he would’ve gone in had Popeye been a hit.
Tasha Robinson: My fond memories of Robin Williams go back to childhood, when I used to watch Mork & Mindy on TV with something like awe: I was used to hangout shows that largely took place on a few sets and featured comic actors and laugh tracks, but there was nothing else on TV at the time as shapeless, shaggy, funny, and downright weird, and it all centered on the motormouthed central comedian, who often delivered his lines in a rush, as though he was trying to get them out before anyone could interrupt, or take the show away. As I got older, I did what people so often foolishly do with things they love in childhood: I lumped him in with “kid stuff,” and decided I was too sophisticated for silly humor like his. Worse, there was always a slight sense of desperation about Williams’ comedy, a sense of wanting to be liked, of desperately craving attention and approval, and that kind of thing is bait to one kind of teenager, who sees it as weakness and moves in for the kill, and poison to another kind of teenager, who sees it as weakness and doesn’t want to be anywhere near it, in case it stains them. I saw the obligatory Williams films—Good Morning, Vietnam; Popeye; Moscow On The Hudson; Dead Poets Society—but for years, I was out of sync with the work he was doing, and a little unnerved by the seeming need behind it.
The Fisher King brought us back in sync, not because that performance was any less needy or class-clown-hyper, but because the film so perfectly channeled those aspects of Williams’ persona into a story where they became painful assets. That character feels built around Williams—his tendency for sentimentality, his manic delivery, his ingratiating humor, his naked yearning for connection and affection. By framing all these things in the character of Parry, a homeless, delusional man who represented Williams at his most naked and desperate—and then creating a protagonist so awful, the only thing that can redeem him is becoming an audience avatar, just as fixated on saving Parry as the viewers are—The Fisher King tapped into something personal and powerful. And it started me seeing him again not as a dancing clown, but as someone driven by demons, and capable of artistic perfection in the right setting.
Still, my favorite roles are the ones where he drops the shtick and plays against type, brutally and efficiently—The Final Cut, Insomnia, One Hour Photo, The Night Listener—and uses a lifetime of comedic acting and comedic stand-up as a weapon against the audience’s expectations. Seeing Robin Jokester Williams drop the smile and reveal himself as a serial killer or an obsessive madman was literally like a nightmare, the kind where a friend or a loved one turns out to have been a monster all along. He didn’t take many of these roles, but they never failed to mesmerize me when he did. And in part, they made me feel like the only-just-barely-grown-up kid from Mork & Mindy had grown up, too. Which obviously proved he’d always be around, just becoming more sophisticated and more capable of broadening his range and his skills every year. One of the many reasons this is so devastating is because he’s been such a part of our comedic lives for so long. And another is because there was always a sense that he could still be surprising, and still break the mold—so who knew what he might do next? As with any death, one of the big tragedies is a sense of potential we’ll never see realized. It’s really distressing, feeling that whatever the next steps were, we’ll never see them.
Nathan Rabin: What impressed me most about Williams as an actor, particularly as a dramatic actor, was his gentleness and a desperate, yearning need for validation, approval, and connection that seemingly united the actor with the characters that he played. For a man synonymous with manic ranting and speedball energy, Williams was often at his best in roles that allowed him to slow down and connect with the sad, aching humanity at his core. Scott eloquently praised his turn in World’s Greatest Dad but I’m also enormously fond of his measured, gloriously subdued work in The Night Listener, The World According To Garp, and Insomnia, where he played a man so desperate for respect and validation that he was willing to kill for it.
And when Williams’ energy was properly harnessed, the results could be dazzling, as in Death To Smoochy and The Fisher King. Like Tasha and a lot of other children, I connected with Williams because he seemed like a big kid who had somehow gotten famous and was appearing on television, and like her, I suspect part of my adolescent and adult rejection of the showier side of his persona was connected to an eagerness to distance myself from my own past. Williams was a big part of my generation’s childhood and adolescence. He’s one of those towering figures who always seemed to be there, whom everybody knew and everyone had an opinion about, and now he’s gone.
But beyond Williams the performer there was Williams the man, a figure whose kindness and generosity were legendary, who was as known for his compassion toward his fellow performers as he was for the content of his comedy. I remember hearing that a big part of the comedy boom of the 1980s was generated by Williams taking pictures with the owners of a comedy club in every city he visited, which could then proudly be hung on the wall to show that the owner and club were Robin Williams-approved. Five minutes of Williams’ time and a big Colgate smile could go a long way toward making a small-time comedy club look a little more big-time. Williams left behind a legacy of kindness as well as a formidable creative legacy.