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Monday, August 11 2014

Robin Williams: 1951 - 2014

It's a pretty solid bet that, in any given year, there will be at least one actor, musician or entertainer who passes away, and whose passing makes you feel bad. Most likely, there will be more than one. As a society, we pay a great deal of attention to the passing of celebrities, as both morbid fascination, and a poignant way of marking time. Every broadcast of the Academy Awards, for example, comes complete with a segment to remember the several dozen actors who left us in the previous year.

Some might say that this is a sign of how alienated our society has become. Where once our parents and grandparents watched the Obituary section of the newspaper for the names of friends and family, now we watch for news of famous people who've died. And in some cases, we respond with the same level of grief that we once reserved for people that we actually knew.

I don't say this to judge; I am as guilty as everyone else. Today, the news of Robin Williams' death (coroners are speculating that it was a suicide) brought me to actual tears.  Even now, as I write this piece, I have to stop now and then to sob, and to seek out a tissue.

In this case, it feels like a real friend has gone. I can scarcely remember a time when he was not a part of my entertainment universe.  I saw Williams' first appearance as Mork on Happy Days, and I watched  Mork and Mindy faithfully. When Popeye, his first feature film, came out in theaters, I was there. His John Keating in The Dead Poets Society could have been Mr. Eynon, or Mr. Street, two of my most beloved high school teachers.  His performance in The Birdcage helped me to develop empathy for a group of people I'd had little exposure to.

I remember reading, when I was very young, about his painful childhood—how he was a chubby kid,  how he would dress in a suit and tie and carry a briefcase, when he went off to school. As a result, he was teased and bullied, and spent a great deal of time playing alone. I could understand and empathize with this; as a child I was also a social outcast, and often played by myself, my primary friends found only in my imagination. This connection mattered deeply; in a world of beautiful movie stars, here was a famous person who seemed like he would understand what I went through.

That feeling was only magnified by many of the roles he chose, roles in which the very human, empathetic man I believe Robin Williams to have been, shone through. He rarely played a role where you believed he was anything other than a man who felt deeply, and who cared deeply. He wore his pain not on his sleeve but on his face. Even when he smiled, you always felt it was a hard-won smile, a prize captured in a battle with terrible demons, demons who would always come back for the next round.

And when he cried onscreen, he broke your heart.

Everyone has their favorite Robin Williams movie; what's striking, from reading the words of my friends and colleagues on social media, is how almost no two of them identify the same movie. I've seen people mention Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, The Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, Awakenings, What Dreams May Come… the list goes on and on.

For myself, I remember two movies in particular. The first, one of his earliest, is Moscow On the Hudson, in which he played a Russian saxophonist, who takes a random opportunity during a visit to the United States to defect. The movie tells of his struggles to adjust, to build himself a life in New York City, cut off from his home and his family. At its heart, it's a story of the terrible price some people are willing to pay for freedom, a price of alienation and sacrifice to one's own values. It's one of the least funny movies Williams ever made, and one of the most deeply moving love letters to America and to liberty that I have ever seen.

The second favorite is The Fisher King, in which Williams played Parry, a mentally disturbed man haunted by tragedy and moved by his own personal demons to seek the redemption symbolized by the Holy Grail. In so doing, he helps another man, played by Jeff Bridges, to find his own salvation. It may be the most revealing role Williams ever played.

That Williams had his own pack of particularly vicious demons was a fact well-known; his struggles with drug addiction and substance abuse are the stuff of Hollywood legend. The depression that may have ultimately claimed him was less well-known, though to anyone who has survived their own skirmishes or battles, it could hardly have been news. The scars of that sort of depression never fade, and often the wounds never quite close.  The suffering always lies in wait, ready to ambush you anew.

Though we are all of us grateful for the incredible legacy of creative work he leaves behind, both that body of work and his untimely end stand as a stark reminder that creative genius is often attended by profound misery, by depression and pain.

But laughter, as Robin Williams knew well, is sometimes the only analgesic that works. I for one will soothe my own pain at his passing, by popping in a DVD and letting him make me laugh once more.

Goodbye, Robin, and thank you.

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