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What is a man judged by in his final moments? Do we see him respective to the light and reflection of his greatest triumphs? Is he viewed through his shortcomings and mistakes? Is it about his legacy or the company he kept? Is it a fleet of awards and trophies littering the proverbial mantle? Is it a collection of the above? Is it none of the above?
Many things have been and will be written about Robin Williams in the wake of his death on Monday, but allow me to briefly posit that this unique genius should be remembered most for what we may consider the least. He was a constant. He was and will forever be an inspiration. He was also insightful:
No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.
Robin Williams was a brilliant comedian. Things that come to mind immediately: his style, the way his mind allowed for a never-ending evolution of his jokes and storytelling, his breakneck pacing and the exhausting live performances. All of these things we all know and think of immediately. Anytime he was booked as a guest for Carson or Letterman or Leno or any other variety show, it was guaranteed to produce smiles and memorable exchanges.
The film and television catalog is incredible. Let’s think back to Mork, to Mrs. Doubtfire, to so many outlandish characters that felt like our best friends because of the heart and yes, soul, with which he portrayed them. These are, for many, the first memories, but not for me. That’s why I felt compelled to write just a few words about a man whose scope of influence deserves a nearly infinite number.
The true measure of Robin Williams resides in the reality that a tape measure couldn’t stretch far enough to encompass his range. Robin was a comedian, but he should first truly be viewed as a thespian of the utmost skill and depth. He was able to work both drama and comedy with pure mastery in classics like Patch Adams or Good Morning, Vietnam. His roles were rarely static in any description, fitting for a man of complexity in his own life.
Robin Williams was known for his ability to provoke laughter, sometimes tears, but always to entertain his audience, often exceeding even the loftiest of expectations. But, let me suggest to you today that what we really need to see in the performances and the life of a legend is in his ability to inspire through his fiction and his career in the public eye. Williams battled serious cocaine problems in the 1970s and 1980s, spending time partying with John Belushi among others, but he would beat back his drug addiction. His first two marriages failed. He admitted to infidelity and it got ugly with his mistress, leading to a court settlement. In recent years, he battled depression, and ultimately, tragically, he lost that fight. In no way was Robin Williams a perfect man. In no way did Robin Williams live a perfect life.But his work, that’s another story. There may be no more apt word to describe the Robin Williams we saw, the guy we thought we knew, than “perfect.”
Within the character of John Keating in Dead Poets Society, my personal favorite Williams performance, the writing was inspiring. Williams, however, turned that writing into true magic:
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
Through the words of Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, again the dialogue was beautiful and the wit was superb. But Williams, as in the case of the best in the industry, makes his audience forget he’s anyone other than his role at that precise point in time:
If I asked you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet, but you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes. Feelin’ like God put an angel on Earth just for you, who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her be there forever. Through anything. Through cancer.
And you wouldn’t know about sleepin’ sittin’ up in a hospital room… for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes… that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you.
Robin Williams played inspiring characters and the casting was always sublime because the man himself knew how to inspire, likely through his own heroes. The great Johnathan Winters, who passed away last April, was one of those Williams credited as a driving force in his passion and growth in show business:
The best stuff was before the cameras were on, when he was open and free to create. Jonathan would just blow the doors off. (Credit: dailymail.co.uk)
The outpouring of celebrity heartbreak following yesterday’s news was certainly expected but no less astonishing in scope. From his longtime humanitarian friends, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, to athletes, film and stage stars the world over, the youth of the world, and even the President and his speechwriters, everyone wants to talk about Robin Williams.Let’s not gloss over Crystal and Goldberg with just the passing mention. Along with Williams, the three of them headlined and helped spearhead the Comic Relief charity, localized from Great Britain by Bob Zmuda in 1996. The historic comedy events, hosted by the trio, played an indispensible part in raising tens of millions of dollars for homeless concerns in the United States.
We could run down the long list of achievements in the career and life of Robin Williams, but you’ll find that in hundreds of locations. What can we say about Robin Williams that feels unique, that feels worthy to be said, that feels right? How about this?
With every breath he breathed in this world, Robin helped us. He helped us all. He made us laugh when we needed it. He gave back to those in times of desperation. He made us cry when we needed to think. He made us stand up and shout “Carpe Diem” and “O Captain” at the top of our lungs in a sixth grade classroom when we were first introduced to Dead Poets Society and John Keating. True story. My class did it as our teacher prompted but Mrs. Ginyard didn’t have to say a word.
As children, he made us smile along with him in Aladdin and Jumanji and Happy Feet. He encouraged us to believe in something and understand that entertainment mattered, that fun counted for something. He also challenged us to push ourselves as he took on work as the darkest of the dark in One Hour Photo and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. He changed his own boundaries with What Dreams May Come, The Birdcage, and Awakenings, but could always return to the guy we knew with the snap of a finger.
His HBO specials were void of gimmickry and impossible to duplicate. The famous Night at the Met album helped wear out my first tape player in 1986. Many point, and rightfully so, to the iconic Broadway special in 2002 as a tour de force performance. Everything he did was unique and full of glorious variance. That’s who this man was. He’s the closest thing, left to his own devices, that we may ever have to Andy Kaufman.
Robin Williams seemed to care about what he did but more importantly that people “got” the desired effect from that product, from that film, from that joke, from that appearance, from that facial expression, from that pure sense of talent he exuded with every word.
I’m not a particular fan of Chelsea Handler, not a critic either, but her tweet last night deserves to be mentioned. She called the man “a friend of comedy.” I disagree. Robin Williams, the man from Ork by way of Chicago, Illinois, was born on July 21, 1951. From the moment he decided where his life would go…Robin Williams was a friend of humanity.
He was a good thing. Often he was a great thing…a “best” thing.
That’s what makes this…bad thing…so painful. Rest peacefully, and on behalf of everyone you encountered or touched from afar along your journey, I wish we could have repaid the favor. I wish we could have been there for you when you needed it most as your work did for so many of us.
They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? Carpe, hear it? – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.
(John Keating – Dead Poets Society)
You were more than extraordinary, Robin.
Robin Williams was 63. For all of my 35, he’s been a giant. For the next ten thousand, he’ll still be a giant.
Your legacy lives forever. Your work is timeless. Your fanbase is countless. Your catalog is priceless. Your inspiration, well sir, that’s limitless.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255