"Did you hear?"
I had called my mother at approximately 7:40pm today, Monday, August 11.
"Daddy and I are sitting here and we're just shocked, speechless. I feel how I felt when your grandmother called me to tell me John F. Kennedy was shot," my mother says. "How are you feeling?"
I didn't really have any words. I had a bunch of work to do, an interview to transcribe, emails to send, articles to edit, and when I found out I suddenly I felt everything stop. Like I was moving slow motion through water, grasping at nothing and trying to stay afloat. I barely felt my brain move.
Robin Williams was 63 years old. And he was easily, in my opinion, one of the greatest actors we not only ever had, but will ever have. The wit so quick, the turns of phrase so clever, the improvisational ability beyond and off the charts. Not a single human could compete. And why should they even bother to try? There is often great beauty in just watching genius bubble and thrive before your eyes, undisturbed.
I knew Robin Williams was talented even at a young age, watching behind-the-scenes clips of him in a sound booth, headphones strapped to his ears as he improvised dialogue as Genie in Aladdin. A stream of characters poured from his mouth and I sat there, jaw on the floor. This man was making all of these noises? And he was just one person? He gave such life to the swirling orb of blue that, for me even as a child, there was really no other reason to watch the movie.
As I would learn when I got older, he embodied the depths of any character he took on, be it Mork (Mork and Mindy) or Adrian Cronauer (Good Morning, Vietnam) or Armand Goldman (The Birdcage) or Batty Koda (Fern Gully) or even dear old Mrs. Doubtfire. In everything he did, he simply lit the screen on fire. One could not look away. There is great truth and sincerity and feeling and power in his work--he was without a doubt the consummate actor.
The Birdcage is a film near and dear to my family's heart. My mother often tells the story of how she wanted to see the film in theaters, but my dad waved her off. Cut to a vacation a few months later, and my dad is hanging out in our hotel room while I am sleeping. My mother opens the door, only to find Dad in fits of all-consuming laughter, a rare state for his man-of-few-words persona. Williams, Nathan Lane, Hank Azaria, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest and their antics are apart of our dialogue as a family. To this day, when I imitate Robin Williams imitating John Wayne --"Just get off your horse, and head into the saloon"--in the scene in the cafe when Williams tries to get Lane's very effeminate character Albert to "be less obvious," my mother bursts into peals of laughter. It's not me who's funny, of course. It's Williams's impeccable delivery of Wayne-esque mannerisms and speech while playing a burly and bejeweled gay man in Miami Beach. As usual, he was perfect.
I recall, though, when I saw his episode of Inside the Actors Studio, being old enough to finally understand his genius. Completely off the cuff, he whipped up character after character, from children who discussed Mourning Becomes Electra to Twyla Tharp, and so many more in between. I have always been terrified of improvisational comedy because my brain just doesn't move quickly enough; it is often paralyzed by fear and too many thoughts to function on the spot in such a necessarily clever way. But to see his brain in motion like that made me reel. I felt dwarfed by the enormity of his talent. I imagine many did.
As Williams himself said, there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy. The mind that so deeply inhabited those characters and brought life to those he created on the spot was also a deeply troubled one; perhaps mysteriously, the two so often go hand in hand. Williams was public about his battles with addiction, maybe in an effort to help those who also struggled. In his passing, it has come to light that he also struggled with depression. It's not beyond comprehension that a person with such stunning, glorious highs must also have stunning, unbearable lows; it seems a gift and a curse.
At approximately 8pm my best friend Jenna texts me. Upon coming home from work, she says her boyfriend told her of Williams's passing and after hearing the news that she broke down crying. In our 21 years of friendship, we have watched his movies, listened to his interviews, devoured his comedy specials in each phase of our development. He was a part of our lives, the way we grew up, as he was for so many people.
I'm sure in the next few hours, if not the next few days, weeks, or months, the publishing world will be exploding with think pieces about Williams--I am fully aware that I am not alone in my preparation of such words. At this moment, Twitter is exploding with grief--Danny DeVito, Steve Martin, Lena Dunham and even Barack Obama have all acknowledged the untimely death of someone who brought so much laughter and so much talent into the world. Publications compile their "Best of Robin" moments--Esquire, New York Magazine, Out, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker. But Robin Williams is so much more than a tweet or moment compiled into a list. He is, dare I say, an American institution. But more than that, he was a father, a son, a husband. A human being. And a damned good one at that. Here's to Robin, who changed all of our lives.
Here are a few of my favorite clips of Williams's work:
From The Birdcage:
And his Inside the Actors Studio episode in full is here.