Remembering Robin Williams

There’s no way I’m the only one who saw Robin Williams as a father figure. An entire generation of kids were enchanted by his performances at an important age, one where it’s surprising to learn that adults can be funny, too. Since my first introduction to him was his role as the Genie in Aladdin, it’s strange to look at his career as a whole. He never shied away from a challenge or dark performances, except when he was trying too hard, and yet I cannot shake this trajectory since it mirrors how I’ve come to think of adults in my life. His untimely death is a heartbreaking tragedy.

I watched Aladdin countless times – I still remember playing with the clamshell VHS case, to the point where I nearly cut my hands on its edge – but the first Williams performance that resonated with me was Hook. In it, he played Peter Banning, an overworked selfish alcoholic who neglects his family, only to realize that he’s literally Peter Pan. The film is not a highlight for Williams or his director, Steven Spielberg, and yet there are beats to Banning’s arc that are selfless and true. He frightens his children, fails them, and then shocks them when he abandons the authority of adulthood. Kids can be dutiful observers of their parents, and Hook is broad enough so that kids could sense that maybe, just maybe, Mom and Dad are not so perfect. Williams’ performance is selfless, and not just because he shaved his hairy arms for the role. He prepared us for disappointment in our parents, as well as chance to accept their vulnerability.

Throughout the 1990s, Williams would chose roles with a similar arc. In Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams played a loving father who failed his children in more ways than he saved them. Jumanji took the Hook formula and deepened it, since his character experienced the worst case of arrested development imaginable. In a dual role, Jonthan Hyde plays a cruel tormenter for Williams’ character: first as his father, then as a grotesque caricature of his father, which is a canny way to show younger audiences that their deep insecurities never disappear entirely. If there was ever any doubt, then touching scenes in Mrs. Doubtfire and even The Birdcage prove it: Williams was attracted to roles where adults struggled with their children, as if he suspected he could connect with kids in a way that their parents might not. 

My notion of Williams as an actor did not change, however, until I saw Good Will Hunting for the first time. I saw it with my father, of course: it came out in 1997, which meant I couldn’t see R movies by myself yet, which meant my dad would dutifully take me to everything. Looking back, I realize my dad sensed the movie had the potential to have a lasting effect of me. There’s an important scene on a park bench where Williams’ character acknowledges Matt Damon’s genius, only to infantilize his experience, and my dad whispered (I’m paraphrasing), “I hope you realize this is a really fucking good movie.” I did. Among other things, Good Will Hunting is about the depth of feeling that men can have, whether it’s between best friends, a mentor, or a father figure. Williams won an Academy Award for his role, and the performance is a galvanizing shock for anyone who saw Pan fight Hook. Here is a father figure who has feelings, guards them, and expects greatness from the kid he’s mentoring. Sean took none of Will’s shit, which is an important lesson for those of us who remember Aladdin first.

After Good Will Hunting, I was more curious about Williams. Of course I’d seen Dead Poets Society, a film that works better when he is not on camera, but there are other roles that were waiting for the Aladdin kids to grow up. Despite his transformation into a Disney cartoon, no film better finds a better conduit for Williams’ manic energy than Good Morning Vietnam. Williams’ capacity for comic invention was remarkable – we’ll never see anything like it again – and there’s no perfect metaphor for it than him sitting in a radio booth. There’s only the microphone, the camera, and Williams’ imagination; it’s like his amazing stand-up comedy, except the film is a success because his character does not exist in a vacuum. From the same period, The Fisher King and Awakenings are compliments to each other: in the former, Williams is manic and inward, the sort of victim who’s perhaps too vulnerable for salvation. Awakenings, on the other hand, shows how Williams can suggest distance and also deep empathy. Between those films, and other great ones like Moscow on the Hudson, visiting pre-Aladdin Williams is like looking through your Dad’s old photo album. You’re surprised he could be so many different men, and still himself.

After the Academy Award, Williams released a trio of fantastic films that showed off his capacity for menace. There’s little trace of the comic persona in Insomnia, the Christopher Nolan thriller where Williams plays a deranged novelist who attempts emotional intimacy with a cop (Al Pacino) since they’re both culpable in murder. There’s some humor in Insomnia, but it’s the macabre kind: Williams taunts Pacino with cruel jibes, as if his punch lines are a stab in heart. Death to Smoochy may be a comedy, but it plays like Williams wants to spit in the eye of the kids who remember Peter Banning. His character is a self-loathing grotesque monster, one whose desire for acceptance is pathologic. Then there’s the superb thriller One Hour Photo, which has Williams in a performance drained of his well-honed persona. Kids who remember Aladdin were old enough to respect Williams in these films, and the stark contrast from his 90s roles suggest a sense of trust with same group that was once told everything was going to be OK. In 2002, Robin Williams showed a generation of kids that he was holding back, and he trusted us enough to accept his demons.

Robin Williams died at age 63 from an apparent suicide. He struggled with depression and addiction throughout his life, to varying degrees of success, and he even checked himself into a rehab center this July. While his death is a tragedy for fans everywhere, his career means different things to people from different generations. Frankly speaking, Mork and Mindy does not resonate with me, and I suspect Williams was aware of how he affected people differently. Whether his films and are full of optimism or bleak satire – the pitch-black World’s Greatest Dad is his last great one – Williams used his comedy, his vulnerability, and his aching need for acceptance to show us that we’re not so weird, and neither are our parents. In several films, Williams calls someone else “Chief” as a welcoming nickname. Whether you’re on the cusp of 30 or pushing 80 or anything in between, it’d be great to hear him say that one more time. Like a father who knows the perfect thing to say, it’d be a comfort.