It didn’t occur to me until news of his death broke, but I was a Robin Williams character for two consecutive Halloweens in the ’90s. In 1992, I braved all sorts of elementary-school ridicule to pull on green tights and spike up my hair to be Hook’s version of Peter Pan; the following October, I slathered blue makeup all over my face to become what must have been a mildly unsettling version of the Genie from Aladdin. At the time, I wanted nothing more than to be like the Genie: Not “the phenomenal cosmic powers, itty-bitty living space” angle, but the humor, the versatility, the quickness, the warmth. In other words, the parts that were pure Robin Williams. He was the comedic ideal of my youth, which made it all too easy to dismiss some of his shtickier, latter day work—because from a critical perspective, you don’t necessarily have to acknowledge the amount of effort and investment that went into those aspects of his performing persona. And he didn’t have to speak through a big, blue Disney animation to demonstrate that effort, either; as evidenced by one of his many Sesame Street appearances, he could reach the same heights of commitment and inventiveness using little more than a stick. To paraphrase that particular segment, the best thing he could do with that stick was give it to us.
It’s been interesting to see the reactions to Williams’ death, particularly in our comments. There are two common threads: One is that people didn’t realize how much they really liked his work until they learned of his death, which is a reaction that I shared. It was easy to think about him in terms of Patch Adams or to retroactively dislike Good Will Hunting (for the record, I never stopped loving that movie and his performance), but there really was so much greatness in his career. Hopefully it’ll help us all pause and consider the totality of somebody’s work before dismissing them. The other common thread, both from his fellow celebrities and from fans who had casual interactions with Williams is that he was unceasingly nice, and pleasant, and kind, and generous. I love hearing stories about famous people who are big tippers (he apparently was), or who stop and talk with fans and not treat them like a nuisance. That can’t have been easy for somebody like Williams, who was surely recognized every day of his life. It’s another reason to admire him.
The only movie I’ve ever gotten kicked out of was The Birdcage, the 1996 movie where Williams plays a gay club owner. The reasons I got kicked out were stupid—it involved my friend and me trying to “sneak” into the matinee of the R-rated film by buying tickets for two different films, unbeknownst to each other, and then weirdly standing around in the lobby for too long—but to this day, I’m proud that that’s the first R-rated movie I really tried to see in the theater. (Plus, it’s ridiculous that it was rated R, really...) I’ve seen it many times since, and both Williams and Nathan Lane are simultaneously hilarious and touching, and the movie really is a bit before its time, even if its gay characters are a little hammy. After Williams died earlier this week, I was reading Twitter and found out how many other people my age were touched by The Birdcage, especially people like comedian Cameron Esposito, who called the movie “the reason I knew I’d be ok, even if I loved a woman.” That’s some deep shit for a fairly light movie, but it goes to show just how much someone like Williams can affect people every day.
My entire life, people have told my dad that he looks like Robin Williams. This isn’t too far fetched, as they have the same tiny, sometimes-blue-sometimes-green eyes accompanied by a noticeable nose and a smile that’s sort of on the small side but genuine all the same. The likeness, or maybe just the repeated comparisons, have at times made it difficult to watch certain Robin Williams’ movies depending on the subject matter—something like World’s Greatest Dad was off-limits to me for quite some time, for fear that I would cry profusely throughout the entire film. In the same vein, Mrs. Doubtfire has always been sort of difficult for me to watch, but in a therapeutic way that others might associate with Good Will Hunting. My parents divorced when I was around 9; although the end of their marriage wasn’t identical to Daniel and Miranda’s, there were enough similarities—my dad was more of the fun-loving, child-at-heart parent than my mom—that made it easy to relate to the three children in that movie. And I think, in some way, I needed that movie in my life, with its happy ending, to introduce me to the hopeful idea that not everyone is meant to stay together, and that’s okay, because it doesn’t mean that there is any absence of love or reason for regret. It simply means it didn’t work out. And as Mrs. Doubtfire put it, wherever there is love, you’ll have a “family in your heart, forever.”
For whatever reason, there are two things that stick out when I think of Robin Williams: a conversation I had in high school where everyone involved (including myself) was trying very hard to sound cool, and his bit about golf in the only stand-up special I’ve ever seen of his. I was emphatically not cool in high school, and one of my most uncool characteristics was that I played the bagpipes in our school band. So Williams’ Scottish accent in that bit, as a send-up to the whole idea of golf, struck a chord with me, and maybe more so because, like many Floridians, my parents’ house was on a golf course. (It’s such a dumb sport.) I watched Williams’ stand-up because of this conversation, in which one trying-too-hard teen asked, “Who’s the best comedian alive?” Another said without hesitation, “Robin Williams.” My face must have expressed some surprise—like others on this list, I never thought of Williams as anything but an immovable fixture of pop culture at that point—and he reiterated something like: “Jerry Seinfeld is great and all, but Robin Williams is a genius.” The comment made me pay attention when I found that special on TV; hysterically laughing at the golf bit converted me to the cause.
The arguable peak of Robin Williams’ movie career—say, 1987 to 1993—coincided with my adolescence, between the ages of 9 and 15. And so, Robin Williams became one of my many de facto pop culture role models, chiefly as Good Morning Vietnam’s Adrian Cronauer and Dead Poets Society’s John Keating, two characters that had a considerable hand in shaping my yearning to be both smart and a smartass. Though the two have little in common superficially, beyond a shared affinity for John Wayne impressions, Cronauer and Keating are both men stuck in oppressive situations for whom being funny is a form of rebellion. Both seek to inspire those who feel trapped in destinies beyond their control to think for themselves and seize the day—and above all else, to know that we’re stuck here so long as we’re alive, so the best we can do is have some fun with it. And yes, I find it sad that the guy who declared “carpe diem” secretly lived in the quiet desperation John Keating (via Thoreau) warned me about. But it doesn’t negate the fact that Robin Williams made his own life extraordinary, or that he filled it at every turn with the essential joy of fucking around. That’s what will stay with me, until I’m fertilizing daffodils of my own.
As someone who grew up in the early ’90s, I first knew Robin Williams only as a figure of wholesomely impish humor—the fast-talking impressionist jester who starred in Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire, and voiced manic comic-relief sidekicks in Aladdin and FernGully. But the man’s roots were in stand-up, and as such he possessed a mature and profane side of which I had absolutely no inkling. That is, until I saw Kenneth Branagh’s wildly absurd, past-lives thriller, Dead Again. I must have been 9 or so; my father tended to treat MPAA ratings as unsolicited advice, so he didn’t blink when I grabbed the R-rated movie off a shelf at our local video store. Williams plays a disgraced psychiatrist, and only pops up for a few scenes. But his first one is distinguished by a blue streak of naughty language (including a couple of F-bombs, which probably earned this mostly tame film its R). How wonderfully shocking it was to hear curse words enunciated in the unmistakable voice of the Genie. I felt like I was getting away with something, like I had managed to catch, say, my English teacher swearing. “Who else talked like that?” I must have wondered. It was a subtle but important rite of passage. Rest in peace Mr. Williams, you funny and foul-mouthed motherfucker.
When I was a kid, my vague notion of what a “comedian” was only included two people, Bill Cosby and Robin Williams—not coincidentally, the only two people whose comedy specials my parents owned on VHS. I was allowed to watch the Bill Cosby one, but not the Robin Williams one. But this was the early ’90s, and so it was Williams who dominated playtime and helped shape my pop-culture consciousness. First, we made a “Lost Boys Go-Kart” out of a Radio Flyer wagon and some cardboard and sent it barreling down the steep concrete driveway at my cousin’s house. Then, we wore out a cassette copy of the Aladdin soundtrack making up dances to “Friend Like Me,” and we begged to watch Mrs. Doubtfire every time our parents left us with a babysitter and $20 for pizza. It was the last one I returned to after learning of Williams’ death, and his final speech, in which Williams, as Mrs. Doubtfire, answers a young fan’s letter about divorce, took on a new resonance and left me emotionally gutted in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. “All my love to you, poppet. You’re going to be all right. Bye-bye.” I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
After The Fisher King, Hook, and Aladdin, I was wildly anticipating Barry Levinson’s Toys at the end of 1992, especially after the first trailer just showed Williams standing in a field vamping for a few minutes (this did not register as a sign of movie-hiding trouble for 12-year-old me; only a promise of mysterious hilarity). I was so anticipating it, in fact, that I was ill-equipped to process my disappointment; it was hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that the movie, a beautifully designed and vaguely insane anti-war parable, didn’t really work. It took a second viewing on VHS for me to fully understand that Toys wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be. The presence of Williams, whose early-’90s work constituted for me a promise of permanent awesomeness, was a big part of why this realization took so long. I still have some affection for the misguided spirit of Levinson’s dream project—and for Williams’ typically committed efforts to work through a movie that saddles him with oppressive, sometimes frightening whimsy in the form of toy wars and robot sisters (I have to be careful here; it’s easy to describe Toys in a way that would make it sound really good, or at least better than it is). That commitment served him well in many roles, both serious and funny. But, yes, on the whole, I probably would’ve enjoyed that unmade Robin Williams in a field movie more than Toys itself.
Almost immediately after I learned that Robin Williams had died, my mind went back to the first fan letter I ever wrote: It was to Mork & Mindy, and I was probably still in single digits—or not long out of them, certainly—when I wrote it. That’s how long that guy had been part of my pop culture history. After I had time to deal with the news a bit more, I remembered another moment, one which took place 30 years later, during the July 2009 Television Critics Association press tour. This is what I wrote at the time: “Cheapest thrill of the tour: shaking hands with Robin Williams. There’s generally at least one person per press tour who leaves me feeling completely unlike a professional journalist and turns me into a total fanboy. In January, it was Ozzy Osbourne. In July, it was Robin Williams. I had a fleeting moment where I had to choose between taking a photo and shaking his hand, and although the photo would’ve been more permanent, I went for the memory. If he hadn’t been in the process of leaving, I would’ve told him that I’d been a fan ever since I wrote a fan letter to Mork & Mindy and, in return, ABC sent me a postcard with his pre-printed autograph (and Pam Dawber’s, too), but in the end, I was succinct and just said, ‘I’ve been a fan for a long time.’ In return, he said, ‘Oh, thanks, man, I really appreciate it,’ and it’s a testament to his acting abilities that he said it in such a way that it really felt like he hadn’t heard the exact same thing a million times before. Or maybe he really does still enjoy having people tell him that.” Having interviewed Pam Dawber earlier this year and hearing her talk about how sweet Williams was, maybe he was just being a nice guy with his reply, but in a room full of journalists scrambling to get him to deliver a great soundbite, maybe he really did appreciate a guy who just wanted to shake his hand and tell him that he was a longtime fan. Either way, it’s a wonderful memory to have, and it’s way better than any picture ever would’ve been.
At 13, there was no way my parents were going to allow me to see The World According To Garp, so I bought the movie-reissued paperback of John Irving’s novel from a supermarket spinner rack because it had Williams on the cover. And while much of the novel went over my head (or lodged in my unconscious, to be examined later), Garp immediately became my favorite book, and its prickly, obsessive writer protagonist my role model. My love for the manic Williams of Mork & Mindy struggled to incorporate his unlikely casting as Garp as I read, and when I finally saw the problematic but ambitious film adaptation, I was annoyed that director George Roy Hill and writer Steve Tesich had softened the book’s Garp into more of a dreamy, childlike character, but thoroughly enchanted by Williams’ performance. With only the barest nibbles of Mork-like improv around the edges, Williams was quietly extraordinary, channeling his endless inner energy into Garp’s insatiable, restless desire to be both a great writer, and to be loved. It’s not the book, and he’s not Irving’s Garp, but, in one of the first performances to hint at the multitude of impressive roles he’d bring us in the decades to come, Williams’ Garp was a uniquely intelligent and affecting revelation to me.
Oddly enough, I most remember Williams’ confident, unsettling performance in One Hour Photo. More specifically, I remember a promotional feature about the making of the film, in which director Mark Romanek talked about how Williams would be doing his comedy thing between takes, and how shooting probably took longer than it should have because of the time it took the crew members and Williams’ co-stars to compose themselves. That made an impression on me, because my exposure to Williams had always been limited to his film performances rather than his comedy, and I thought all that manic energy was just one type of Robin Williams performance. I didn’t realize that was just him. Romanek’s recollections reframed Williams for me and left me even more impressed by that performance. It wasn’t a matter of turning off one type of performance and turning on another one. Williams had to suppress what came most naturally to him—that joyful, jocular energy—and those lucky enough to be on set reaped the benefits when he let the Genie out of bottle.
Like many children who grew up in the early ’90s, Robin Williams was a constant in my life. Movies like Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, and The Birdcage (an odd childhood favorite of mine; I had progressive parents) were in constant rotation on TV or VHS. Williams’ voice work in Aladdin and FernGully are basically synonymous with my childhood. On Monday I was reading in a Starbucks when a customer casually noted to the barista that Williams had died. No one in the room verbally reacted, but it was like a bucket of ice water had been dumped on us. I’m often distanced from celebrity deaths but this one felt different—like the loss of a cultural stalwart, not just an actor whose work I admired. About 20 minutes later, the middle-aged man sitting next to me picked up his ringing phone and answered it: “Did you hear about Robin?” That’s when I realized that my Robin Williams story is everyone’s Robin Williams story. The particulars are different, of course, but his cultural impact feels like something we collectively shared and collectively lost. What’s comforting, I suppose, is that we are now able to remember his contributions to our cultural landscape not just as individuals, but also as a community.
My dad had the soundtrack for Good Morning, Vietnam on cassette tape, and, as with much of his music collection over the years, I eventually stole it. I didn’t take it for the music, though, although there was nothing wrong with the album’s mix of ’60s rock and pop: I wanted it for the bits. As a comedy-starved 12-year-old with no access to the Internet, and no real understanding that you could, like, buy comedy albums, I listened to Adrian Cronauer’s quick-fire medley of dirty jokes, impressions, and sheer craziness over and over again, until I could recite them along with the tape. As a kid with next to no knowledge of the Vietnam War, I didn’t really get most of the references, or why Roosevelt E. Roosevelt was stationed in Poontang, but Williams’ manic energy still spoke to me and made me laugh my dumb kid head off.
I never got to interview Robin Williams, but my mom did, right after Good Morning, Vietnam came out. So I’ll let her take this one, because I always like hearing about it. She was only supposed to get 30 minutes but he gave her 45 (an actor who actually gives more time for an interview is a journalist’s best friend) because he wouldn’t stop talking. She couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with his rapid fire responses and he never really answered any of her questions, which didn’t really matter considering how hard he made her laugh. I’m sure it was incredibly difficult to write the required piece afterward, but I’ll be forever jealous of those 45 minutes.
I was 4 when Aladdin came out, but I still remember two distinct things about seeing it. The first is that I was obsessed with Jasmine. She was headstrong just like me, had thick, dark, Middle Eastern eyebrows just like mine, and a pet tiger besides (I later named our family cat “Rajah”). Even while I relished seeing some of myself in Jasmine, though, I fell in love with the Genie even more. As Erik said, the Genie was so relentlessly funny, kind, loyal, and funny again. He really did feel like a friend, and so much of that was thanks to Robin Williams’ simultaneously flashy and nuanced performance. But years later, and especially this week, different parts of Williams’ Genie jump out at me than the slapstick that appealed to me as a kid. Now, I find myself remembering how one of the biggest, warmest personalities I’d ever encountered was still so sad, still so trapped in his “itty bitty living space.” It seemed impossible that anything could bottle up such a giant of joy. It still does. But it’s important to acknowledge that yes, it’s all too possible, and that it happens all the time—even to the beaming Genies of the world, who just want to wind their ways out of the darkness and make their friends laugh.
I credit Robin Williams with helping to bring together my family growing up. The Birdcage helped bond my brother, sister, and me to our new stepsisters and stepmother; they introduced us to one of their favorite movies, in which Robin Williams and Nathan Lane play a zany couple going through a familial transition of their own. The film soothed the awkward, forced “getting to know you” experienced by blended families everywhere. But it was, of all movies, Flubber that I associate with a bigger adjustment to the idea of family that came after my parents divorced. Visiting our dad every Wednesday and every-other weekend, there usually wasn’t much to do in the series of strange new homes we occupied in the early days of post-divorce life. Luckily, our dad had three VHS tapes for us, and the one we watched over and over again was Flubber. Williams’ manic mad scientist helped us settle in. His invention brought us together over critical discussions of flubber logic: How could it defy gravity and make Robin Williams’ Ford Thunderbird fly? How could it be sentient enough to help the basketball players soar higher and more efficiently? My sister, who would later major in English, told me she learned what a homophone is thanks to the scene where Williams asks a basketball player to see his sole—the player thinks Williams is referring to his soul, and is understandably confused that Williams is after his shoe to apply the flubber enhancement. Like The Birdcage helped ease the tension between new family members, Flubber helped ease us into a new conception of family—one that lived apart, maybe, but could still be connected through its shared bonds.