Most of us first met Robin Williams as Mork from Ork, who arrived on Earth in a giant egg and charmed the planet, particularly a fetching earthling named Mindy. In the years after Mork & Mindy’s run on ABC from 1978 to 1982, we got to know Robin Williams as one of the most human of comic talents in show business, as well as one of the funniest people alive.
Robin Williams died Monday at age 63 of an apparent suicide, leaving behind a loving family, colleagues and public as well as a treasury of masterful comedic and dramatic performances.
While many comics get their laughs from cynicism and a view from above it all, Williams always seemed to be hyper-engaged with being part of this human race, from his stand-up to his conversations to the roles he selected. Look at the characters he played: Adrian Cronauer, the military DJ in Good Morning Vietnam; John Keating, the inspirational teacher of Dead Poets Society; the title role in Mrs. Doubtfire; his Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting and even the Genie in Aladdin and Teddy Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum series. Robin Williams filled his resume with characters that worked against dehumanizing forces and tried to make this world a better place.
The movie I most want to watch right now is Williams’ hauntingly beautiful performance in Terry Gillam’s The Fisher King (1991), in which he plays a homeless man, Parry, who helps a radio shock jock played by Jeff Bridges find redemption for the pain he inflicted on Parry years before when a misguided rant led a gunman to kill his wife. Parry suffers from delusions but possesses a well-reasoned life philosophy — “There’s three things in this world that you need: Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer” — and a beautifully simple story about the object of his conquest: the Holy Grail. It was the story of a king who sought it all his life, and when a fool inadvertently brought it to the king when he asked for a drink, and the king asked how the fool could have found this unattainable object, “the fool replied, ‘I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.’” It was that philosophy of looking past puffery to the real needs of people, and creating something beautiful, that defined so many of Williams’ best roles. He has been slagged for some of his choices such as Patch Adams (1998). But I have always been inclined to forgive him, feeling he probably saw a message there he wanted to convey and looked past the weak material. If you are going to err on the side of being a good person, good for you, and don’t apologize.
There were roles like Patch that brought out performances that were overly self indulgent and sentimental. But at his best, Williams shined in roles that showed sharp wit, comic genius and a humanity that made him a much better dramatic actor than many would have suspected when Mork called Orson.
I am often the first person in the room to caution people about making judgments about celebrities based on their public personas. But Williams was a man I was always inclined to believe in based on the work he did like founding Comic Relief, promoting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and supporting the United States armed forces through the USO. Celebrity is a currency, and Robin Williams spent it well.
All this makes the fact that apparently something so tormented him he took his own life all the more sad. Of any comedian, he seemed to take the most joy in making people laugh, and the world was a better place with him.