Everyone I know — myself included — has been more affected by the apparent suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams than almost any other tragedy in the headlines in recent years.
When someone you actually know dies, it’s of course personal. We didn’t “know” Williams as one might know a longtime friend or colleague, but we brought him into our hearts by virtue of the many characters he gave to us. Comedic and dramatic alike, they had a common feel and texture: the Everyman who led a humble life with spunk, humor, intelligence, authenticity and nobility of purpose. While he may have felt alone in his own life, we counted him as a constant friend.
Mork, an alien of warm heart and remarkable talents, showed us how to look at our human foibles and insanities. Mrs. Doubtfire showed us what a distraught and loving father would do to be near his kids. The Genie in “Aladdin” showed us how power can be held safely in the hands of a loving heart. Garp revealed resilience after tragedy and difficult beginnings. “The Fisher King” opened the world of psychotic despair to those of us who look at ranting street people and turn our shoulders.
One of my favorite characters was the comedian in “Man of the Year” who ran for the presidency and won through a glitch in voting software. His characterization of the nothing-to-lose-by-being-candid candidate was one of my dream elections.
If only our real candidates spoke so earthily and accurately, with the same dedication to actually being a public servant, rather than a public leach.
Williams’ stand-up comedy was far beyond the formulaic. He didn’t memorize hours of careful setup and delivery. He lived improvisation on stage, riffing off the audience, the zeitgeist, the current news and the common experiences of whacky human life.
Williams always gave credit to Jonathan Winters, the proto-Robin. If we had not had Winters, we would not have had Williams. The fact that he continually nodded to Winters is a mark of his humility.
In all of his characters and representations, Williams showed us various parts of himself. He did not take on a character so much as he revealed parts of his own, from film to film, performance to performance. But he clearly didn’t reveal all of his parts. The nagging darkness of loneliness, ill health and a loss of purpose in life seems to have ultimately triumphed over the positive energies that sustained him to the point of his death.
What have we lost, we millions who felt that Williams was part of our own personal experience of life? Why are we so sad? I think it’s because we have lost a source of optimism and idealism. The purpose to live that Williams no longer had to sustain him, is in part what he represented to us.
And now we have lost some of our larger purpose of life, our enthusiasm and humor, as we face the daily onslaught of negative news, difficult challenges, dearth of true leadership and myopic fellow citizens.
Losses felt from the passing of a family member or friend are mostly a feeling of something being taken away from us that we weren’t ready to let go of. We weren’t finished with Williams. We needed his spirit in our world.
Just knowing he was on the planet gave us comfort, whether or not he was in a current movie, interviewed on a talk show or talked about in the news. The world was brighter and just plain funnier because he breathed the same air as we do.
Williams carried the theatrical torch for hilarious and courageous commitment to what really matters in life. He gave that light to us all. If enough of us had given some of that light back, maybe he would still be with us.