Wednesday, August 13, 2014
In Memoriam: Robin Williams
"You're only given one little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it."
The past 48 hours have been some of the darkest of my entire life. I've now lived through the divorce of my parents, my own divorce, my children moving away to the other side of the country, and an awful lot of misery in my 35 short years on this planet. Granted there have been a lot of good times and good memories, but it's truly hard to put into words how deeply and irrevocably the news that Robin Williams had taken his own life hit me. I didn't start out to write a piece about myself, but I realized while researching this piece how ingrained in my life this man truly was. I didn't know Robin personally, but as anyone who prides themselves on their sense of humor knows, there's something truly amazing about encountering a person that you know in your heart of hearts is funnier than you are. My sense of the world was shaped by the people that made me laugh, and there are sadly very few people left in this wicked world that made me laugh as much as Robin did.
Like many people of my generation, I was raised on television and movies, and Mork and Mindy was the first time I ever laid eyes on this manic bolt of energy that was simply unlike anyone else I'd ever seen. When I was told that this was the same man that played Popeye in that musical I loved so much, I knew I was a fan before I even knew what being a fan meant. I wanted to consume everything he did. It led me down some strange roads, to movies I couldn't appreciate at such a young age like Moscow on the Hudson and The World According to Garp, but I just wanted more and more and more of whatever it was that he possessed. The fact that there was a one inch thick piece of glass separating me from greatness was enough to fuel the fire of passion, creativity, and humor that dwelled inside me.
Like all funny men, Robin sought to be something more. He sought to touch people absent the laughs, and he really began to pursue that with his late 80s and early 90s run that is by far the most fertile period in his acting career. His work in films like Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, and The Fisher King, all of which unsurprisingly earned him Academy Award nominations, showed that with the right combination of character and actor, we could see real magic happen right before our eyes. This was someone to aspire to, to model a career on, to emulate, to imitate, to lionize, and idolize.
The 90s brought new frontiers for him to conquer. He basically turned voice work into a cottage industry with his performance as the Genie in Disney's Aladdin, and his work in The Birdcage gave all of us pause when he so effortlessly demonstrated how a brilliant comedian could play the straight man to utter perfection. Yes, there are films I'm purposefully ignoring, whether they be ridiculous comedies, or maudlin dramas, or even a dreadful combination of both, but when the work was good, it was second to none and that's what we all remember and strive towards. He finally won an Oscar for his wonderfully understated work in Good Will Hunting, and moved into the new century with a renewed sense of life and accomplishment.
The three films he did in 2002 will be studied years from now as incredible contrasts in how an actor can simultaneously play on your expectations of him and brilliantly subvert them. One Hour Photo, Death to Smoochy, and Insomnia is the kind of triple threat an actor would kill for, and Robin got to do them all in one calendar year. His work would continue steadily over the next decade, though with varying degrees of success, yet his career was such that you always knew no matter how weak the work he might be doing today was, the promise of something amazing always lay right around the corner. In 2009, his longtime friend Bobcat Goldthwait gifted him with the role of a lifetime in World's Greatest Dad, a film whose eerily prescient subject matter makes it all the more difficult to even think about in light of his death.
By all accounts, Robin was a selfless man in his personal life, always ready to lend a helping hand or a laugh to those in need. He made many an unheralded, unannounced, and spotlight free trip to entertain our troops in the Middle East, a passion that was ignited in him after his work on Good Morning Vietnam. Stories abound of his trips to comedy clubs to meet the owners, sign autographs, take pictures, and spend time talking to everyday folks. The fact that you've heard so many stories of people having met Robin in the last few days is a testament to how much he truly did care about those whose life and work were altered by him.
All of this is leading me inexorably towards a discussion about his death. Robin took his own life as a result of a lifelong battle with depression. The last thing that anyone should do in this situation is rush to judge or label his death in any way other than to say what it was plainly a desperate act by a man who felt he had no other options. There is something inherently ironic about a man who brought so much joy to others being tortured by personal demons which finally got the better of him, but anyone that thinks that way doesn't understand what true, bone-deep depression does to a human being. Perhaps the reason it hit me so hard is because it's something I've also struggled with my entire adult life.
It's so easy for someone to offer platitudes like "laugher is the best medicine" or "tomorrow is another day" to a person that wrestles with depression. It's difficult, nigh impossible, for someone that doesn't really know what depression is to understand how harmful such statements can be. We live in a culture that prides itself on bucking up and laughing off adversity, when in actuality, that's shit advice. Depression is a beast that can't be slain. It can be controlled, but it never goes away. It lays in wait for you to convince yourself that tomorrow really is another day and then it grabs a hold of you, and in many cases gets the best of you. Our society is so quick to write addiction and mental illness off as made-up problems, ones that aren't on a par with diseases such as cancer. The real shame in all of this is that if people would take the time to see the lateral nature of such problems, we might actually begin to find a way to eradicate them together, instead of working within bubbles where our own problems will forever trump those of another.
My heart breaks to know that the same thing I struggle with every single day of my life took away a fellow soldier in our never-ending battle against it. Robin Williams was a genius, but at the end of the day, he was no more immune to this problem than any of the countless faceless others that succumb to its vise-like grip everyday in this world. The day that we stop casting aspersions and work together to understand one another as intimately as we think we do is the day we might see problems like this come to an end. If you think that this outrageously funny and talented man made a selfish choice by taking his own life, you are 100% a part of the problem.
If Robin's death does nothing else for all of us, I hope that it teaches us to listen, to care for one another in such a way that we'll always be there for one another. In a day and age where your friends are reduced to nothing more than a number on a social media website, it couldn't hurt to actually try and give a shit about each other. Robin's life and work united us all in fits of laughter and tears of joy. I can only hope that his tragic death with similarly unite us in a spirit of knowing, caring, and understanding one another at a level that extends beyond 140 characters.
Rest in peace, Robin. You were truly one of a kind.