I don’t even know how to begin to talk about Robin Williams. It seems ridiculous to try to remind people of his many standout roles and performances, because he was so iconic that any reminder is unnecessary. I could easily just post a list of his film, TV and stand-up works and everyone would instantly share my feelings by simply reading the list and having a thousand images and moments flash through their heads. I could highlight his unique talents at comedy and improvisation, in which he was in a class all by himself, or pull out examples of his dramatic roles throughout the years in order to needlessly prove that he was a real actor. I could point to his generous charity work, whether with the USO or St. Jude’s, or I could use the tragic circumstances of his passing to help bring awareness to depression and suicide. Yet instead I find myself flooded with moments, each tied to the most vivid of memories.
I remember Genie, because everyone remembers Genie. At 7 years old, so many of the jokes and references went over my head, but Robin made them funny even when you didn’t know what he was talking about. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how revolutionary was his performance, forever changing the quality and creativity of voice acting, but I knew it was unlike anything my young eyes had ever seen. Not only was the comedy and the improv the best of the best, but the depth of feeling he brought to the Genie made him the most fully fleshed-out animated character of the time.
I remember Batty Koda, which was like a sweeter, sadder Genie. Robin built on the humor we’d come to expect after Aladdin and gave it a bigger message and simultaneously a smaller and more intimate performance. Ferngully is probably still the Robin Williams performance I quote the most. “Gravity works.” “Only fools are positive.” “Delicious and nutritious, tastes just like chicken.” “Awesome use of the language, dude.” “Red light! Another red light!” Not a week goes by where I don’t quote Batty Koda.
I remember discovering Mork & Mindy reruns. I was the perfect age to appreciate Robin’s crazy alien, who appealed to all of the weird parts of me in the same way that things like the Muppets did.
I remember discovering that his first film role was Popeye, a film that should never have worked and only succeeds because of him. It was my first realization that there were some roles that only Robin could or should play.
I remember Jumanji, and realizing that he could be funny without ever telling a joke.
I remember discovering his serious side and his immense acting talent. He made us all cry in Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society, scared the hell out of us in Insomnia and One Hour Photo, and impressed even up to the last film I saw him in, The Butler. But even more, I remember not being surprised to discover this side, because it fit totally naturally beside his comedy.
I remember the sheer brilliance of his improvisation. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder than I did during his famous scarf improv on Inside the Actors Studio, and his episode of Whose Line is it Anyway? is one of the best. I’d never seen anyone make so much out of so little, or get so much joy from bringing joy to others.
I remember his return to animation, first with Robots and then with Happy Feet, and realizing how natural a fit it was for him. He could easily have starred in countless animated hits, but he was content to have a supporting role, bringing laughs without overshadowing the story.
I remember What Dreams May Come, where his sense of wonder helped us to believe in a gorgeous, painterly version of heaven and a horrifying vision of hell. His childlike imagination enabled him to really believe what he could only pretend to see, and in turn it helped us to believe.
I remember the last year of watching The Crazy Ones, where he shined in his return to the small screen despite material that sometimes couldn’t keep up with his talents. He made the rest of the cast better, doing more to set up their moments than to play up his own. The show may not have made it big, but his generosity as an actor will stick in my head long after the show’s been forgotten.
I remember how I didn’t appreciate The Birdcage until I was much older, and then feeling like my eyes had been opened to a masterpiece. The “eclectic celebration of the dance” scene is one of the greatest moments ever captured on film, but what sticks with me more are the quiet moments in between the laughs. It’s there in the way he interacts with his son, or the way he defends Albert. It’s there when he lets his guard down and just for a moment gives a glimpse of the pain of how he’s been treated for being gay, and when he calls himself a “middle aged fag” both in disgust at the term and pride for who he is. All because he asked director Mike Nichols for the less flashy part in the film, instead of the role everyone expected him to play.
But above all else I remember Hook, my favorite film and the only one I’m unable to write about. It’s just too close, too personal, too meaningful for me to ever hope to find the words to express my feelings for it. I’ve tried over and over to write about it, either as a whole or just tiny fragments, but I’ve never been able to and I may never get to that point. And it all begins and ends with him. You see, he was Peter Pan. In a movie all about the power of belief, he was the one who made us believe. It’s there in the moment he takes a spoon, dips it into an empty bowl, and mimes flinging food at Rufio, only for pudding to magically appear in midair, and his surprise and amazement mirrors our own. It’s there when he drops the teddy bear and plummets towards the ground, only to regain his happy thought and look straight into the camera before flying away, and not only do we believe a man can fly but we believe that this man can fly. It’s there when he crows, backlit in Spielberg’s trademark style, not a man, not a boy, but an icon, larger than life but human and real. It’s there, it’s right there on the screen, in countless ways I could never express or describe, so deep in my heart that words cease to have meaning, and to even try would be an exercise in futility. But perhaps more than anything it’s there when he returns back to his family, no longer a mythical hero but just a man and a father, a hero in more conventional ways, saying “To live would be an awfully big adventure.”
I’m sure everyone has their own memories and moments of Robin Williams, and these are but a few of mine. There are countless other stand-up routines, film and TV roles that I haven’t even touched, and everyone will have their own that mean something to them. Perhaps that’s what set Robin apart from the rest. He could be bitingly, painfully funny, or he could be touching, heartbreaking and dramatic, but regardless he forged a connection with the audience in a way few others have. We all felt as if we knew him, like he was a friend we saw too rarely or an uncle who didn’t visit often enough. It makes his sudden absence all the more painful, but it makes the memories and the moments that much sweeter.