As readers of this site can probably guess, some of my favorite childhood memories are being in a dark movie theater, watching something magical take place on screen. It was a common occurrence for a friend’s parents to take a group of us out to the movies to celebrate, say, a friend’s 8th birthday. In this case, the friend was Peter Borden. That’s how I found myself staring at Robin Williams as Peter Banning (nee Peter Pan) in “Hook”.
It was only later on that I would truly appreciate the brilliance of the pre-Hook Williams: his rise to prominence as Mork from Ork: his stunning performance in Good Morning, Vietnam; and, of course, how he taught the young students how to seize the day in Dead Poets Society:
His dramatic turn astounded me in Awakenings, and then, as many kids my age did, I fell for his comedy full-bore when he voiced the Genie in Aladdin:
Williams followed up Aladdin with a movie that is very important to my family. Every year during the week of Thanksgiving, we would go see a movie, and the movie that started that tradition was Mrs. Doubtfire.
(That “hot flashes” line has been repeated many times at my house)
While Hank Azaria (in my opinion) stole the show, Robin Williams put on a masterclass of comedy in The Birdcage:
Absent one prominent role (which I’ll get to in a moment), Mr. Williams’s detours into dramatic acting was hit-or-miss for me. Jakob the Liar, Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come, One Hour Photo, and Insomnia all seemed to be attempts to justify the Oscar he had won years earlier, but failed to connect with me. Truthfully, much of his later work left me unenthused: outside of his work as Eisenhower in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and Teddy Roosevelt in the “Night at the Museum” films, I can’t think of a film of his in recent years that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. (Although, maybe if he had continued to play only presidents, that trend wouldn’t have held.)
Still, his career is more than his list of credits. He was a frequent (and funny) guest on the David Letterman show – he was the first guest on the show in 2008, after the writers’ strike, and he also welcomed Dave back in 2000 shortly after Letterman’s quintuple bypass surgery by dressing as one of Dave’s doctors.
You also know you’ve made it when SNL and its alumni have a go-to impression of you, and in Robin Williams’s case, the honor fell to Jimmy Fallon:
Keen-eyed viewers can tell that I have omitted one important role from discussing Mr. Williams: His role as Sean Maguire in “Good Will Hunting.” Not only is this the second-best movie to come out while I was in high school, it’s a movie I’ve seen countless times. It’s also, arguably, Williams’s best-known role, and the role for which he won an Oscar. Remember what I said earlier, about being in a dark theater and watching something magical take place? That, for me, was the entirety of Good Will Hunting, and specifically each and every scene that Williams was in.
Of course, the greatest irony is that the most memorable and iconic scene involves Williams’s character counseling Matt Damon’s Will, telling him repeatedly “It’s not your fault.”
While unconfirmed at this point, media reports state that Mr. Williams has died from an apparent suicide. If true, I only wish that Mr. Williams had someone in his life who could tell him it’s not his fault, who could remind him to seize the moment, who could demonstrate the wish-granting ability of the Genie or the ability to believe in happy thoughts like Peter Pan.
And while I can’t do that for him, I can at least share the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. I don’t know all of you who read my blog, and I can’t imagine to know what Mr. Williams (or anyone else) struggled with on a daily basis. But the world deserved to hear more verses from Mr. Williams, to have a chance to see what other magic he had up his sleeve.