It was August 11, 2014. The theater was full with an advance screening of The Giver starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. The red carpet event was live-streamed prior to the showing as stars from the film flooded in and entered the New York City party while we, in Knoxville, Tenn., gazed at the screen.
I checked my phone for the time and came across a message on the screen.
“Actor Robin Williams found dead at his home. He was 63.”
A friend put it best when he said that hearing the news of Williams’s passing surprised him with grief.
It did the same for me.
Now, to this point, Robin Williams was just another face (or voice) on the screen to me. An actor who had given life to Genie in Aladdin, the main character of Flubber, and was Mrs. Doubtfire. Nothing of note, but fun most of the time.
It was easy to discredit his more recent stuff — RV, Night at the Museum, License to Wed, Old Dogs, The Big Wedding — because it seemed like he was more of an aging star trying to cash in on the end run of a once fantastic career. The movies were lazy, the scripts were riddled with punchline after punchline that they could fit into the trailer, and the characters were archetypes that didn’t resemble a real person yet alone someone to root for.
This actor, whom I had completely discredited, was constantly on my mind in the following day and I wanted to understand why.
What made Robin Williams different from the other legends who had passed too soon? Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, Paul Walker, James Gandolfini. All great actors, but their deaths didn’t haunt me like Williams’s did.
This led me to a search through his filmography and those roles that made him the icon I so easily threw away once he started to “sell out” in my mind. Watching Williams is like watching an artist paint. You don’t appreciate the little things while you watch the artwork being made, and by the end, they don’t always even matter. It’s those little strokes that give the painting momentum, the small details that add life to the figures, and the perfectionist attitude that you have to finish something and do it right.
That is what it is like to watch Robin Williams act on screen. On the surface, you don’t see the minor details that he brings to the part. His warmth, his smile, his strength, his emotion. These parts stick with us after the movie is over.
One in which he did that the best was Good Morning, Vietnam. Adrian Cronauer is a DJ brought to Vietnam to boost the morale of the troops with a daily radio program. Williams plays Cronauer with a bravado that feels trademark. He has such a natural confidence that you can’t help but get behind whatever he does.
The magic happens in the first scene of Cronauer’s radio program. Edward Garlick (Forest Whitaker) comes to wake him early in the morning, telling him that this early shift will get easier. Williams obliges and makes his way to the studio where they begin to prep the show. He greets the energetic host prior to him, Marty Lee Dreiwitz (Robert Wuhl), and sits down to begin his radio show broadcast.
Then, like lightning, a big bang of personality. The scene is classic Williams and something you’d think he could do in his sleep. There’s electricity starting with the first “Gooooooood Mooooooorning, Vietnam!” and everything that follows. He leaps from impression to impression as the soldiers laugh along to the antics of Cronaeur and his energetic morning program.
It is the epitome of what we’d expect in a Robin Williams movie. Quick jokes with every voice under the sun and a bright personality that makes you want to jump up and join the party. But, that wasn’t everything that Williams was.
Good Morning, Vietnam works because it gives Williams those dramatic scenes as well. They weren’t as heavy as the films that would follow — The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, or more recently with his last, posthumous film Boulevard — but they were enough to show his range.
In Boulevard, Williams played something he wasn’t, but whom you could completely relate to — a man who had been gay his whole life, but was too afraid to do anything about it. Williams wasn’t gay, but he was hiding something inside. He was someone who seemed to be so full of life and I think that’s what made his death by suicide so sad and thought-provoking.
He said in an interview on Shrink Rap, a British psychotherapy interview show, that people’s biggest misperception about him was that they thought he was manic, but he wasn’t. His personality was something deeper and more somber. He was, above all, fully human.
That’s what made the passing of Robin Williams so hard to swallow because, even a year later, he is someone that seems invincible and non-human. He is almost an enigma, a burst of energy that powers the engine and then goes away once it isn’t needed anymore.
But the sad thing is that he is needed. There was something personal about him. He seemed honest. He seemed like what you were getting on the screen was what was inside of him. There was no bullshit.
Actors come and go, but I don’t think there will be another like Robin Williams — not for a long time. The ability to switch from the heights of happy to the depths of despair is a true art and the artist who could do it best left us a year ago.
A year later, I still feel like I missed out on something. I didn’t give Robin Williams the respect he deserved while he lived, and the only way to show me how great he could be was to learn of his passing. It’s sad knowing that sometimes you learn and admire a person more after they’ve died.
But, at the same time, I’m glad I did. Because without diving into the world of Robin Williams, I wouldn’t have found those moments like in Good Morning, Vietnam or discovered the character that cuts through the screen in such a personal manner like in Good Will Hunting or a character with a zest for life who is fighting the terrors of his past in The Fisher King.
I wouldn’t have found Robin Williams. And I think, even with this revelation coming from his death, he would’ve been happy that I found inspiration and happiness from his memories.
Because that was just the person he was.