Robin Williams 7/21/51-8/11/14
The news of the death of Robin Williams while I was away at camp hit me like a sucker punch straight to my gut. God was gracious to have me at camp where I could bask in his grace and worry about the needs of my junior highers rather than cry. Yes, I am not ashamed to say that thinking about this man's pain and the beauty of his art as shown in so many performances are worthy of a few tears. As I look over that Brennan Manning quote and I think about my childhood, Robin Williams comes to the forefront of my images of artists who gave this troubled soul more than a fair share of grace.
So many are sharing my sentiment about their love of Robin Williams. Indeed, he was a truly unique comedian. To this date one of the funniest things I have ever seen was when I was about 17 and both Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters were Johnny Carson's guests on The Tonight Show. They were improvising and Johnny was just along for the ride like I was. I still chuckle thinking about it! One could write an equally long blog exclusively about Williams stand-up and improvisational skills! However, he most touched my life as an actor.
I first fell in love with Robin as Mork, even to the point that I went and saw a live taping of MORK AND MINDY. Watching that sitcom being taped is something I treasure. He was very generous and funny to the studio audience between takes too. I remember my step-dad hated me having MORK AND MINDY on in the house because it was so stupid, but to this teenager, it was so stinking funny! But, for me, the impact of Robin Williams ended-up being not in his comedic genius; rather, it was in his skills as a dramatic actor. The first sign of this came when I was 11 years old and Williams starred in Robert Altman's underrated film version of POPEYE, a movie that I rode my 10-speed bike to see in the theater multiple times, I even had the official program, something akin to a concert program that they used to do. Then, in 1982 my mind was blown when Williams starred in George Roy Hill's splendid film THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP!
In 1985 while at a James Taylor concert in Los Angeles, my Uncle John Lynd and I had a chance to talk with Robin Williams. I was able to tell him that I felt he should have been nominated for an Academy Award for both POPEYE and GARP! He was truly humbled and grateful at the thought. I shook his hand. I wonder if he could have imagined that he would indeed win his Oscar 12 years later for a dramatic role. During that brief meeting, I also mentioned to him that Michael Ritchie’s film THE SURVIVORS from 1983 was one of my favorite movies. It’s true, back then I was obsessed with that movie. I owned it on VHS and watched it over and over! I even bravely mentioned that I saw a live taping of MORK AND MINDY and that it was a favorite as a child. Subsequent to meeting Williams, I bought an 8x10 movie still from Garp. I got it signed by Glenn Close and had always planned to get Robin's autograph on it too, but I never did.
Since then I learned that, for me, Robin Williams true greatness lays in his dramatic acting. I think the world first took notice of this in 1990 with his Oscar nominated performance as John Keating in Peter Weir's magnum opus DEAD POETS SOCIETY! It was Williams's misfortune to go up against Daniel Day-Lewis that year, but to this day, I hold DEAD POET'S SOCIETY even dearer to my heart than Jim Sheridan’s MY LEFT FOOT, even if that film does confirm the out-of-this-worldness of Daniel Day-Lewis. Certainly DEAD POET’S SOCIETY has more rewatches under my belt and it forever lend itself to more quotes! If anything, one thing it did was prove to this movie-goer that Robin Williams deserved to be mentioned in the same breath with Daniel Day-Lewis, something nobody would have saw coming in 1978 when MORK AND MINDY first hit the air!
For this blog entry, I chose to post a photo from Terry Gilliam's THE FISHER KING because, despite his Oscar nomination in 1991, this remains an unseen film for so many. If you've not seen his poignant performance as Parry in THE FISHER KING, you need to see it! Like with Daniel Day-Lewis, Williams was out of luck because that was the year Anthony Hopkins gave us Dr. Hannibal Lecter! Although Williams made me cry in THE FISHER KING, I remember walking out of the theater after viewing Jonathan Demme's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, saying, "Hopkins just won the Oscar!" But, think about this, between 1987 and 1991 Robin Williams was nominated three times as lead actor! First it was Barry Levinson's GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM. How rare it is for anyone to be nominated for a comedic performance anyway! Surely, that nomination in and of itself was the prize! The rare nomination for a comedic performance speaks to Williams’s true talent as an actor. Then came both DEAD POET'S SOCIETY, and THE FISHER KING! Moreover, right in there, in 1990 to be exact, Williams was in Penny Marshall's AWAKENINGS in which Williams helped Robert DeNiro land an Oscar Nomination. Like with Tom Cruise in Barry Levinson’s RAIN MAN, Robin Williams's supporting role failed to garner the attention because, as with Dustin Hoffman in RAIN MAN, DeNiro had the more showy performance, but I posit that, like Cruise, Williams had the better performance! Of course, in 1997 Williams took home the golden statue for his touching performance in Gus Van Sant’s GOOD WILL HUNTING, a rare film indeed. To this day, Robin Williams's psychologist Sean Maguire character has a spot in my heart reserved for dear friends. I still can’t watch GOOD WILL HUNTING without crying, but boy do I love to watch it!
That period of 1987 to 1997 really is a remarkable period for Williams. The quality of work reminds me of Elton John’s decade of 1969-1979, just remarkable! In the same way that Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or Madman Across the Water or Caribou or Honky Chateau or Tumbleweed Connection alone could have put Elton John on the “greatest ever” list, Williams could have inked a place in the acting hall of fame with any number of performances! Case in point, in 1994 Robin Williams gave one of the single best performances that I have ever seen on the television screen! The second season premiere episode of HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET was titled Bop Gun. Williams plays Robert Ellison, the husband of a murdered tourist. Williams was nominated for an Emmy Award for Guest Actor in a Drama Series. He should have won. Just so you understand what I am saying here, Williams lost to Richard Kiley for his guest appearance in my favorite television series ever, PICKET FENCES! Yes, the same Richard Kiley who starred in Man of La Mancha on Broadway! If you have not seen the Bop Gun episode of HOMICIDE, you have to track it down, period! Mr. Williams was heartbreakingly good.
Last year, in 2013, many people suggested that Scarlett Johansson should have been nominated for an Oscar for her voice work in Spike Jonze’s HER. But, let’s face it, if anyone were ever going to be nominated for an acting Oscar just for voice work, it would have been Robin Williams for his role as Genie in Disney’s 1992 classic ALADDIN! It remains untouchable in the field of voice performances!
In addition to the films mentioned, the period of 1987 to 1997 also gave us Terry Gilliam’s THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN in which Williams gave an excellent performance as King of the Moon. Kenneth Branagh’s DEAD AGAIN from 1991 had an incredible performance from Williams as well. The same year he starred as Peter in Steven Spielberg’s HOOK. Chris Columbus would give us the unforgettable MRS. DOUBFIRE in 1993. To return to the opening Brennan Manning quote, Williams had a role in Woody Allen’s DECONSTRUCTING HARRY the same year as GOOD WILL HUNTING. Although there were others before GOOD WILL HUNTING in 1997, the final one I want to mention is Mike Nichols masterpiece THE BIRDCAGE from 1996! That movie remains one of the funniest films ever. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should have nominated Williams for his hilarious yet totally vulnerable performance as Armand Goldman!
There are so many other Robin Williams performances that fall outside of this 10-year window I singled out. I will just touch upon a few. Christopher Nolan’s 2002 thriller INSOMNIA is a fantastic film with a stellar performance by Williams. The film itself is much better than INCEPTION to me. Seriously, Robin’s role as Walter Finch is very solid. A Spielberg movie that I love much more than HOOK is 2001’s A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. In that film Williams's voice work as Dr. Know is super noteworthy! One of his best dramatic roles was in Mark Romanek’s 2002 drama ONE HOUR PHOTO. Williams had a way of acting that made even mediocre films watchable, as was the case with movies Tom Shadyac’s PATCH ADAMS, Francis Ford Coppola’s JACK, and Vincent Ward’s WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. Indeed, Robin Williams was so good that I am undoubtedly leaving out any mention of movies that are likely to be somebody’s favorite Robin Williams vehicles!
As I look over all of Robin Williams’s filmography, It is my position that had the man *only* appeared DEAD POETS SOCIETY, AWAKENINGS, THE FISCHER KING, GOOD WILL HUNTING, and the episode “Bop Gun” of HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, he would have the acting chops to be listed on a top ten list of one of the best dramatic actors to ever live, he most certainly makes my top ten favorite actors ever!