It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for five years. Though at the time, I remember thinking that he’d had a pretty good run, for someone with his history of addiction and mental illness. We would later find out that he had been diagnosed with Lewy body disease, an umbrella term that can include Parkinson’s, which would have meant that his brain was going. I can’t imagine choosing to live with that; some people do, but I understand absolutely the choice not to. He chose to die, and it’s a choice I can absolutely understand. I just consider us lucky to have had him as long as we did; he could’ve died of an overdose decades earlier and surprised no one when it happened.
He actually studied acting at Julliard; John Houseman told him he was wasting his time at it and that he should do comedy instead. But there was so much more to Robin Williams than just comedy. Yes, I’m quite sure he’d hate that I finally settled on an image from Mork and Mindy for my article image, but it’s more to do with personal history. The episode in question, “Mork in Wonderland,” involves his shrinking into an alternate reality, and I’ll never forget it—he’s pursued by killer poodles named Fifi and Raul. I watched the episode for the first time with a guy named Raul, so it rather sticks in the mind.
On the other hand, so does the episode “Mork’s Mixed Emotions.” Yes, all right, part of that is that we saw it on a Nick at Nite Cinco de Mayo celebration where they just showed their regular evening lineup but dubbed in Spanish. (And all props to the various performers whose job it was to dub him, because that cannot have been easy.) But it’s the episode where he loses control of his emotions and basically dissociates, with all the various emotions acting independently from one another. And it is the first of the truly amazing pieces of acting that we got from him over the years.
I know—it’s not the first thing people think of. Honestly, most people think overacting, when they think of his acting. And goodness knows he did that more than once. In fact, I consider the best directing work Christopher Nolan ever did to be Insomnia, where he got understated performances out of both Williams and Al Pacino, in 2002. It’s certainly true that “understated” is never going to be the first word anyone thinks, when they think Robin Williams. That’s completely fair. It certainly doesn’t describe most of his performances.
That said, he was certainly not a one-note performer even at his worst. You had to grant him at least two—lunatic and saccharine. Really, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder was not hugely surprising; his acting career could be fairly bipolar as well. Good Morning Vietnam caromed between the two modes, as did Dead Poets Society. (And bear in mind I like both of those movies.) Sure, a lot of his movies only required the lunatic, but that didn’t mean even his detractors shouldn’t be aware of the saccharine as well.
And the list of his best is certainly respectable. While your mileage may vary on what you consider his best—I am, for example, a defender of Death to Smoochy—the fact remains that the original Genie from Aladdin is the same guy who was Armand Goldman in The Birdcage and Seymour Parrish in One Hour Photo. The man himself is also one of those people I’ve pretty much never heard anything bad about, outside his addiction and illness and so forth. (There is, apparently, a groping story from Pam Dawber on the set of Mork and Mindy, but that’s the only one I know, and yeah. Not to excuse it, but addiction and also the ’70s?) And it’s possible we will never again see such a genius at improv; even the scripts for Mork and Mindy tended to include “Mork can go off here” rather than bother scripting him.
I will miss him. Sure, I didn’t always think he was funny; there are movies of his I’m never going to see. Why bother with RV? I even own License to Wed; it was a gift from a friend years ago, and I’ve never seen it. But he was a sweet, kind, extremely funny man who was such a nerd that he named his daughter Zelda. As in “legend of.” I would have loved to have known him, even if it was just to exchange stories of illness. It’s a place we definitely would have understood one another, even if we use very different coping mechanisms.