Chunks of this world keep flying away. What will be left? The polymath known as Robin Williams is gone and we are the poorer for it. Watching him do improv routines was nothing short of magical. His mind was so quick and so agile... and unpredictable. This blog is graced today by a pair of valedictory essays. If this is (fair & balanced) sorrow, so be it.
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[x The Nation]
Robin Williams: Who He Was When The Applause Stopped
By Dave Zirin
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When I was twelve, I was trudging along on 77th and Columbus with my sister and father, another desultory post-divorce dinner with dad. Like it was yesterday, I remember looking up and doing a double take, then a triple take, then a quadruple take: Robin Williams was walking alongside us. Robin. Effing. Williams.
This would have been Robin Williams at the apex of his powers—at least in the eyes of a 12-year-old. After Mork and Mindy. After Popeye—which I was shocked to find out years later was "a bomb"—after "Moscow on the Hudson," after his "Night at the Met" HBO special, a videotape of which we passed around school with the electric reverence of an illicit nudie magazine. Save Eddie Murphy, there was no one cooler. No one.
Seeing him walking next to me was as remarkable and other-worldly for me as if my own 10-year-old was walking to school and bumped into Finn and Jake from "Adventure Time."
As I did speechless double and triple takes, Mr. Williams noticed me gawking at him, looked down and smiled. He was with a woman whose arm was entwined in his and she was bumping into him with her hip, smiling, as if to say "look at this goofy kid." His smile turned into a wide grin beneath his beard as my eyes continued to expand.
At the corner, they crossed the street and I finally was able to find my tongue, turn to my father and sister and stammer, "Wobin Rilliams! Bobin Billiams! Yo! That was Robin Williams!!" I think my father, whose comedic tastes tended toward the cartoons of The New Yorker, may have grunted. My older sister—although I frankly can't remember her response—almost certainly rolled her eyes, as if I had just said I saw a Sasquatch.
I remember grabbing them both and gesticulating at the couple across the street and saying, "I'm totally serious! That guy is Robin Williams!" After I was able to focus everyone's disbelieving gaze, Robin Williams looked over at us, and danced. I'm completely serious. He did that Chuck Berry dance where you kick one leg up and down and hop up the street as if you are doing the guitar solo from "Johnny B. Good." He looked over at us, and at at our walking pace, did that dance for about one quarter of a city block. Now it was my sister's turn to have her jaw hit the ground. Then we cheered.
I have, obviously, never forgotten that small moment of pre-adolescent magic. As I've been reading the obituaries and remembrances of Mr. Williams it has been striking just how seamlessly that tiny story fits with the words of people who actually knew him. You hear the same things; He was uncommonly kind. He absolutely adored children. He gave of himself without desire for public relations. Hell, he walked picket lines. And he truly—even manically—cared about being loved. Some of the most heartbroken remembrances, tellingly, have come from adults who acted with the man when they were still kids. It's a rare quality: those who take the time to actually be kind to children.
I don't want to speculate about why Robin Williams took his life. People trying to tie it to the vicissitudes of his career—his show was cancelled!—frankly need to stop. Depression in this day and age is that powerful. If it finds you in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can swallow you whole. It's happened to people I've loved. It's happened to Robin Williams. I hope if nothing else that people in a similar circumstance reach for a phone instead of whatever instrument of death is handy. I also hope that Robin Williams' family knows that their dad was truly loved. Not for his art, but for the small anonymous moments that revealed who he actually was when the applause stopped. I wish I'd been able to meet him as an adult and simply thank him for gracing my young self, with a dollop of magic. Ω
[Dave Zirin is The Nation's sports editor. He is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (2007), A People's History of Sports in the United States (2009), The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World (2011), and Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down (2013). His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated.com and The Progressive. He also was named one of the "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World" by Utne Magazine. Zirin graduated from Macalester College.]
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Even In His Comedy, Robin Williams' Pain Was Real, Visible
By Tom Junod
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I was not a fan. Moreover, I reveled in not being a fan, as though not being able to tolerate Robin Williams was one of the things by which I defined myself. I think I even used those words, once or twice — “I can’t tolerate Robin Williams.” It wasn’t that I didn’t find him funny; I did.
I grew up in awe of him, for the riffs, the speed, the all-consuming improvisational genius, the simple fact that he didn’t tell jokes but rather spoke comedy, the way backwoods believers speak in tongues. But I rejected him when he switched — when he started acting in dramas, and so had to play the sad clown. It was odd to see him "Moscow on the Hudson," playing a jazz-besotted Russian circus musician who defects to the United States, gets a chance to go on stage with his heroes, and then comes to the devastating realization that he doesn’t belong there—or, as a result, anywhere.
Yes, he was acting, and acting at such a high level that I still remember the scene—and the look on his face, and the pain in his eyes—30 years after seeing the movie. But he was also playing somebody who couldn’t play, when in fact he’d brought a jazzman’s virtuosity to comedy, and was in the habit of blowing even his most talented contemporaries off the stage. The man was a genius. Why now was he also asking for my sympathy?
In fact, his acting made me deeply uncomfortable, and brought out something hard in me. I remember paraphrasing Pauline Kael, who never forgave Jack Lemmon for trading his clown shoes for the tragedian’s robes.
“What does this man want from me?” she asked, of one of Lemmon’s final roles, and I felt the same way about Robin Williams. I didn’t laugh once, during "Good Morning, Vietnam," because Forest Whitaker and all the other actors playing supporting roles didn’t give me a chance. They did all the laughing for me, busting a gut every time Robin Williams so much as tried an Asian accent, and I thought I had it all figured out. They weren’t laughing because he was funny. They were laughing because he wasn’t. They were laughing to ennoble him — his bravery and his uncompromising gaze into the horrors of war. They were laughing because he was sad.
And that was what I couldn’t tolerate. I tried to come up with polished phrases for what offended me in him — was it his elaborately anguished humanism, or his elaborately winsome anguish? I loved him in Good Will Hunting, because his role as Matt Damon’s therapist, more than any other, stripped him of the language of pantomime, and presented him straight, even naked, not the sad clown so much as a tough cookie, left to mourn his wife in his thick middleweight’s body. He earned everything he got in that movie, the tears, the laughs, even the anguished humanism — because, by God, he played an anguished humanist.
But in all the other movies I saw the sadness behind the smiling eyes, and accused him of special pleading.
Now he is dead, apparently by his own hand, and I realize how much of what I couldn’t abide was not his humanism, anguished or otherwise, but rather his humanity.
I looked at it, and turned away, and so it cast a shadow over me, over the years — it preyed on me, and I can only imagine how it preyed on him. I kept on wondering why somebody who redefined comedy would seek to wring old-hat tears from the tragedy of having to wear greasepaint and floppy shoes, but the answer was there all the time, in his anguished humanism, in his winsome anguish, and in the special pleading of his smiling eyes, which, come to think of it, were the only parts of Robin Williams that never went for a laugh. RIP. Ω
[Tom Junod has worked as a writer for Esquire magazine since 1997. He has received two National Magazine Awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors. The first award was for a profile of John Britton, an abortion doctor and the second for a profile of a rapist undergoing therapy while enduring what is known as "civil commitment." He is also a ten-time finalist for the award. Junod graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the State University of New York at Albany.]
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