Aladdin. Dead Poets Society. Good Will Hunting. Good Morning Vietnam. Insomnia. Awakenings. The TV shows. The talk show appearances. The Academy Award. All the other movies, good or bad or awesome or regrettable, seen in multiple reruns on basic cable or seen only in their trailers.
Everyone has their favorite segment from the life of Robin Williams. For me as a young adult, it was his 1986 stand-up comedy album A Night at the Met, one of my first 12-albums-for-a-penny selections from the Columbia House Record Club. I couldn’t tell you how many times I popped it in my Walkman, kicked back in my broken recliner, and listened to it over and over again while my family were clueless as to what was going on inside my headphones or my head.
A Night at the Met was shocking and profane and might’ve gotten me in trouble had they known. Within my tiny sphere of mass-media input, it was also a high-ranking tour-de-force by a talented, intelligent, reckless, hyperactive mind that accelerated from 0 to 70 in an eyeblink, veered around corners on one wheel, jumped rails, and shot from points A to B to Z at light speed. By the time you deciphered one punchline, he was already two punchlines past you and thinking three punchlines beyond that. His performance was no mere mechanical formula of joke, punchline, pause, joke, punchline, pause, joke, punchline, pause. Settling for such an inertial approach would’ve bored him off the stage and into another line of work.
Through A Night at the Met, he was one of the first celebrities I ever heard speak openly about his drug abuse experiences and offer satirical yet fundamentally solid reasons not to gallop pellmell down that Stygian path. I always appreciated that. Years later I’d have to wonder with some regret how much of that one-man show’s on-camera drive was inner adrenalin and how much was externally fueled.
As an older adult, my favorite Williams movie was Good Will Hunting. On a terrible day like today, the slow-burn “It’s not your fault” scene still packs a painful wallop. But my favorite Williams thing overall is his one episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. The script for the underrated show’s second-season premiere was credited to Oz‘s Tom Fontana, The Wire‘s David Simon and first-time screenwriter David Mills, who would later work with Simon on The Wire and Treme before his passing in 2010. With talents of that caliber, the episode might’ve been a strong one with anyone else in the role. But in a rare early chance to work against type and ditch humor as a crutch, Williams is absolutely searing as a bereaved husband and father whose wife was murdered right in front of him and their children during their family vacation.
While the detectives do their job and maintain their objective composure, Williams rages against what society expects from a freshly overwhelmed widower and strains to hold it together for the kids that need Dad more than ever. When the responsible parties are caught and weeks of courtroom negotiations lead to the part where the Happy Ending should go, Williams refuses to pretend that closure is a thing and disbelieves his life will ever be normal to him again. Everyone keeps trying to sell him on “acceptance”, a state where we declare ourselves officially okay with what’s happened to us. To him “acceptance” sounds more like the state of shutting up and shutting in all the pain so no one else has to be disturbed by it.
In the end, Williams walks away slightly calmer but still hundreds of miles away from okay — adrift without the one he loves, stranded in a bleaker world he no longer understands or trusts. As his character puts it, his life is no longer a matter of “Why me?” but rather “When me?”
None of the other characters are equipped to talk him through his resignation.
As of this writing, in the wake of Williams’ suicide today at the still-too-soon age of 63, other online ponderers are embracing the classic funnyman of three decades ago, overlooking or cherry-picking his most recent work, celebrating my all-time favorite Disney film, reminding me of films I never got around to seeing, remembering the catchphrases of Mork from Ork, or debating the copious flaws in Hook. That’s normal. That’s okay.
My thoughts and prayers tonight are with those he left behind — family, friends, those who aren’t privileged this week to cake-walk through the ordinary motions of an undamaged life. For those struggling with the “why” of it all, with only Williams’ resumé and medical history to review for clues or meaning, it’s my fervent hope that other loved ones draw nearer to keep them company, lend them or point them toward strength, and remind them of all the wondrous reasons to keep moving, despite the sorrowful fate of such a gifted, beloved, heartbreaking, heartbroken comedian.
Life is too staggering to be lived out as a one-man show.