Tuesday, 12 August 2014

On Robin Williams (1951 - 2014)

It's really not often that I cry. In fact, I really can't remember the last time I did, unless it was when my father went into hospital with cancer, which would make it around 2 years ago now. But I woke up today to be told that Robin Williams has died, and it surprised me to find that was my first reaction. I'm not talking big, body-heaving sobs - no cries to God, no wailing or gnashing of teeth. Just a fairly steady brimming up of the eyes, making it hard to see as I write this, and occasionally a stray one that gets away by rolling down my cheek.

I didn't actually know the man, of course. I'll grant you that. But he's in me somewhere nonetheless, and searching myself I find he feels closer to me in some odd ways than all but my closest friends, and there are words he's said up there upon the glowing screen that have meant more to me, and made more of an impression upon me, than anything from the mouths of all my family.

When Leonard Cohen was asked once "what's the greatest myth about fame?", he replied "That it's worthless", and this moment would seem to bear that out. The best thing about fame, when it's earned, is that the very best part of yourself lives on after your death, and you wander on through the dreams of strangers.

Robin Williams first entered my life, I would guess, around the age of 8 or 9. I remember we had some visiting Canadians come stay with us awhile, and they would quote every now and then from a funny TV show we hadn't yet seen on any of our 3 British TV channels."You haven't seen Mork & Mindy?" they said. "Oh, you'll like that". And a year or so later I found out they were right: I did.

Isn't it funny how that is all I actually remember of that couple? I've not remembered their names, their faces, anything else they said, and couldn't even a handful of years later. Their existence is entirely gone from my consciousness, other than that they foretold my encountering a man I'd never meet.

Like most 20th century television, Mork & Mindy was an assembly-line product, hurriedly written, produced and hammed up onscreen by a whoop of hacks who were not then, and never would be, good enough to make it in the movies. But Williams himself was incandescent, something entirely new, and as a child the character of the alien Mork exiled to earth lit up my imagination just as much as Superman and Star Wars had done a year or two earlier.

Every week he'd report back to his home planet 'Ork' about what he'd seen of earth, how crazy it all is here, but also how puzzlingly beautiful the best parts of us are too - the senseless acts of beauty, kindness, selflessness and mercy that raise us up above the mire and make us human at all.

Mork made him a household name around the world, but only as a clown - though a very funny one, and his Live At The Met stand-up special is still one of the top ten greatest of all time (I can still recite just about every line if you start me off, and there's an awful lot of them). But none of the attempts he made to get into films worked out the first few years of trying - the roles never seemed to quite fit him, being either too harrowingly sombre and serious to take from such a karazy comedian, or else silly, shallow, one dimensional cartoon characters (literally, in the case of Popeye).

That all finally changed with his role as army DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam. Here at last was the perfect balance of crazed ebullience and deep, boundless compassion that it seems to me now was present in all his best work, all the way back to Mork, and he built on this and surpassed it effortlessly in his next and greatest role, the schoolteacher all of us wanted but never got, John Keating in Dead Poets Society.

I remember watching this film as a teenager and it speaking to me as profoundly as any film I'd ever seen. I can recall how strongly I identified with the character of Neil, the boy who'd rather take his own life than live one without a dream, being slowly smothered by a lie, and Mr Keating's explanation of poetry might well be the thing that turned my hand to such endeavours in the first place, it's certainly still the standard I judge the essence of my own and others creations against today:


Like the music I first discovered and fell in love with around the same time, Dead Poets Society showed me a window of possibilities outside of the lumpen, utilitarian working class drudgery of my youth, a world of higher ideals, nobler passions and deeper, holier truths.

It truly is one of the greatest films of all time, but in a lot of ways it simply was a better remake of GM,V, and to repeat it again presumably couldn't be done without falling into cliche - lightning had already struck twice, after all. He was never to find a role that fit him so perfectly again, although you could say he reprised it to some degree in his supporting part in Good Will Hunting.

After that peak he somehow lost the ability to be as funny as he was, maybe his schtick had grown too familiar to us for it to keep working, or maybe the weight of age and life experience made 'zany' too hard and embarrassing to pull off. Maybe he just stopped taking cocaine, I don't know. Either way, for the most part he settled into an unhappy routine of dividing his time between cloyingly sentimental family films and too-dark-for-comfort adult roles, and never seeming quite right in any of them. Seeing him interviewed in his later years on TV, he never seemed too pleased with what he'd done, or what he was doing, or for that matter who he was. He drank a lot, I am told, but what was actually going on inside him is probably impossible to say. He was as much a mystery to me as I am to you, and you are to me. The boundaries of our bodies set us apart like plots of land but, through the unfathomable voodoo we call art, the deepest and most worthy parts of ourselves proceed regardless, and go on to find and commune with one another somewhere beyond our allotted 6 feet of space and Google co-ordinates. Beyond time, beyond space, and even beyond the grave, for it is in our secrets we are most alike.


His last great film, for me, was Bobcat Goldthwait's older, sadder, wiser 'World's Greatest Dad', the kind of small, original, thoughtful, funny movie it's pretty self-evident now he should have made a lot more of in the time he had left.

But you know what? He made enough. He seized the day, he added his verse and we all read it. And people will still be reading it long after we're gone too.

Carpe Diem. O Captain, my Captain, goodbye.


  1. Lovely piece. For me though, his greatest role (and the one that affected me most deeply) was one you didn't even mention, that of Parry in 'The Fisher King'. Not taking anything away from 'Dead Poets Society' which was as much a masterpiece as you say, but for me that will always be how I see Williams.

  2. Yeah, I know - the two great films of his I didn't get round to mentioning were The Fisher King and World According To Garp, but I was doing my best to keep it short.

    I think I'm going to have a Rewatching Robin Williams season starting fairly imminently, and the Fisher King is at the very top of the list.