An emotional 'Ask Drew' looks back at the life and work of the great Robin Williams
"Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems."
- Robin Williams, "World's Greatest Dad"
This is a very emotional "Ask Drew." This is, I would suspect, the closest you're ever going to see to me losing it on camera completely. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when there was a Robin Williams question, since it's still so fresh and so raw for so many people, but I couldn't have known just how hard it would be to talk about him.
I mean, I have stared at the blinking cursor on my blank document page for almost two days now, grappling with one question: how in the hell do you even remotely begin to sum up someone as huge as Robin Williams?
We could start from the personal angle. I could tell you about the occasional e-mails I got from him when I was at Ain't It Cool, or the times directors he had worked with told me that Williams was a Moriarty fan. Or I could tell you about the time I went to Meltdown Comics, pushing a three-year-old Toshi in a stroller, and as I was browsing the stacks, I heard that laugh.
You know the one. Like each burst came from deep inside him. He laughed in exclamation points, and I followed it through the store to where he was standing. A few feet away, his daughter was browsing the manga section, and Williams was standing by himself, big smile on his face.
When I approached him, I was very quiet about it. I didn't want to mess up his afternoon. I introduced myself, then mentioned Ain't It Cool, and that did the trick. He lit up, and he told me that he knew the site and that he knew me. "She's a big fan," he said, gesturing to his daughter, who looked acutely uncomfortable to be singled out in that way that all teenagers look acutely uncomfortable to be singled out. We started talking, and it felt to me like an hour went by as we talked about being fathers, about what comic books he liked to read, about some recent movies… but not a word about his own work. I got the feeling that would have ruined it. Instead of me stroking him over his movies, we just talked about things, and he ended up making some jokes with Toshi, getting this wee little boy to laugh. When we finally said our goodbyes and I walked away, it felt surreal. I had trouble believing it had happened, and now, more than ever, I think back on it like it was a dream.
Watching the deluge of messages on Twitter and Facebook about how much his life meant to people has been wildly emotional. I think when you're talking about a talent like Robin Williams, it can be very easy to remember the terrible films he made, because there are many of them. But that's more about how much he loved working than anything else. He seemed game for almost anything. There are very few superstars who would have appeared in a film like "Shakes The Clown," and even fewer who would have done it without trying to make themselves the center of things. Williams always seemed happy to lend his considerable clout to the strangest and the loveliest smaller films, and his filmography should be considered as a whole, because when you step back and look at the totality of the work he did, it is a dazzling, almost overwhelming picture of his talent that emerges.
I was a first generation Robin Williams fan. An early adapter, if you will. I can still remember the frantic search I put my parents through so that we could find and buy Mork from Ork rainbow suspenders for me to wear to school. I think I wore them for two straight years, and that entire time, I was so proud of them, so pleased with myself for wearing them. I was obsessed with "Mork and Mindy," and my fascination with the show led me to read anything I could read about Williams, and that led me to Jonathan Winters, who he always described as his idol. Once Winters joined the show, it was fun to watch the two of them together, although I would have a hard time defending that series as anything other than a weekly chance to watch Robin Williams flip out. It's only now, as an adult, that I can see how disturbing the parallel between Robin and Jonathan Winters is, how there are deeper and sadder things they had in common aside from just being funny.
The thing is, pain has always been part of the work that Williams did, and it's one of the things that landed him a permanent place on my list of my favorite actors. Even when he starred in "Popeye" in 1980, at the height of his TV fame, he took this weird spinach-eating mutant and made him quite affecting as he searches for his pappy, picking up an unexpected family along the way. The Harry Nilsson songs in that film are so full of longing and wise-assery and genuine emotion that it's little wonder Paul Thomas Anderson repurposed one of them for "Punch-Drunk Love," and Williams is beautiful when he sings them. Listen to "Sailin'" sometime... this nighttime prayer of loneliness, two people wishing for each other as hard as they can, singing this baby to sleep. It's beautiful. I can't imagine anyone else playing Popeye and doing that, making those choices, making it as heartfelt as can be.
In 1982, "The World According To Garp" arrived in theaters, and while I may have some issues with it as a fan of John Irving's sprawling, brilliant, amazing novel, I thought it worked well on its own merits. Each time I've returned to it over the years, I've loved it more, and there is real beauty in the film, and in the performance Williams gives. He struggles. He hurts. He loves passionately. It's a wide-open performance, and Williams vanished into it. I love his relationship with John Lithgow's Roberta Muldoon in the film, and I think a lot of what I've done in my own life has been influenced by the way Garp rolls with life's punches over the years. Both the book and the film arrived at formative moments for me, and having Williams play the part in the movie is one of the reasons it's so good. Those incredibly piercing blue eyes of his could say so much without ever delivering a line of dialogue, and when he wanted to convey real emotional damage, he could do that silently.
I like some of his '80s movies, like "The Best of Times" or "Moscow On The Hudson," and I dislike some of them, like "Club Paradise" or "The Survivors." It wasn't until 1987 that he really got to demolish what people expected of him by, oddly enough, playing a character that fit him like a second skin. Adrian Cronauer was the perfect character for Robin Williams, and "Good Morning, Vietnam" was a huge monster hit. The film allowed him do finally channel that flipping-channels-on-cocaine delivery of his into a dramatic role where it made sense, and the combination of the two was irresistible.
It feels like after "Good Morning, Vietnam" proved just how deft he was at balancing tone, the word opened up for him, and the '90s proved to be the most fertile decade for him on-screen. He finished the previous decade off with "Dead Poets Society," one of his most beloved films, and a truly mad performance in "The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen," where he insisted on being billed as Ray D. Tutto so that the studio couldn't sell the film on his name, something they probably would have tried even though he's in such a small part of the film.
"Cadillac Man," "Awakenings," and "Dead Again" are all small, solid performances by Williams, and none of them prepared me for "The Fisher King," his second collaboration with Terry Gilliam, and one of the best movies of the '90s. In it, Williams plays Parry, a homeless man who was driven mad when his wife was murdered by a random gunman in a restaurant. Parry encounters Jack (Jeff Bridges), a radio DJ whose on-air rants were part of what fueled that gunman to walk into that restaurant in the first place, and Jack eventually feels responsible, like he needs to save Parry from this awful life on the streets as a way of redeeming himself for what he did. There aren't a ton of characters in the film, and every one of them is given rich and robust life by that amazing Richard LaGravanese script. If I ever taught a class on acting, the first thing I'd do would be to show that class the entire sequence from the moment Jack, Parry, Anne (Mercedes Reuhl) and Lydia (Amanda Plummer) start their double-date to the moment after Parry finally gives Lydia the sweetest first kiss in the history of movies. There is not an ounce of fat on that entire sequence, and Robin just keeps hitting home runs. There's the moment where he turns a champagne cork into a chair and comments on how some of the best things can be found in the trash. There's the moment where he transforms this ridiculous rowdy Groucho Marx song "Lydia The Tattooed Lady" into a ridiculously charming love song. And then there's scene between Williams and Plummer on the front steps of her building. Just thinking about it, I am destroyed anew. No one could open themselves up as completely and as honestly as Williams, and in those moments where he allowed himself to be completely vulnerable, he could reach deep down inside of me and just squeeeeeeze that emotion out.
I spent some time on and around the sets of "Hook," and while I don't like the final film much at all, Williams was the only real choice for the role at the time. Of course he's what happens when Peter Pan grows up. There's only one moment in that film of real magic, and it happens when one of the Lost Boys is pushing Robin's face around, finally pushing it into a smile. "There you are, Robin," he says, and sure enough, when he smiled, Williams could become incandescent, and you could see the mischievous little boy he must have been.
While "Aladdin" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" seemed to fit him ideally, allowing him to riff while still focusing on a character, but for some reason, "Toys" just laid there. I was on the podcast "How Did This Get Made?" not long ago, and "Toys" was the movie we discussed. I thought it was terrible in 1992 when I saw it, but I had no idea how bad until I rewatched it. Levinson fell into that trap of thinking that he could just point the camera at Robin, let him go, and it would all work out.
I loved the ambition of "Being Human" even if the film didn't work, and it was fun to see him show up in "Nine Months" and just riff for a few moments without having to carry the entire film. In that film, he plays a doctor, and not long after it came out, his friend Christopher Reeve was in the hospital, preparing for one of the hardest surgeries in his recovery. Reeve was despondent about it, and then this doctor came bursting into the room, insisting on a full rectal exam. It was, of course, Williams, and he spent time cheering Reeve up. He did that all the time with friends. When Steven Spielberg was shooting "Schindler's List," he was basically traumatized the entire time, especially when shooting near real death camp, on ground where real atrocity had happened. He came to depend on his nightly phone calls with Williams, using them as a reset button so he could face the next day. Those are just the famous people he reached out to, of course. His work with Comic Relief, with the military, and with LGBT causes was also a huge part of who he was, and oftentimes, the public never heard about things he did or ways he showed support. He wasn't doing it so people would praise him. He did it because he could, and because it made a difference.
I think "The Birdcage" is one of his loveliest films, and the way he and Nathan Lane played that gay couple gave a dignity to the film that some actors might have missed. First and foremost, they were two people in love, and as long as Lane and Williams played the truth of that, everything else worked around it. I'm not crazy about "Jack" or "Jumanji," but they both have honest moments that work. I think his appearance in the dark, nasty little bit of business called "The Secret Agent" is one of his best performances. The last shot of him in that film haunts me almost 20 years later. Amazing.
There are films of his that I honestly have nothing to say about, good or bad. "Flubber," "Fathers' Day," "Patch Adams," "Jakob The Liar"… they just bounced right off of me. But in that same time period, we also got "Good Will Hunting," "What Dreams May Come," and "Bicentennial Man." Even though those last two are imperfect, they feature some really dedicated and beautiful work from Williams. I hope there is a reassessment of "Death To Smoochy" now that Williams is gone. It's not a problem-free movie, but it is really dedicated to its vision, and Williams is great in it. He was also very good in "Insomnia" and "One Hour Photo" that same year, exploring some of the darker corners of the human soul.
He started doing small films more often, and I wonder if he was the key to getting things like "The Final Cut," "The Big White," or "The Night Listener" made. He also really embraced the family market with movies like "Robots" and and "Night At The Museum" and "Happy Feet" and "RV," and some of those work while others don't. He never seemed to give it less than 100%, though. I may not remember much about "Man Of The Year," but I do remember that Robin gave it everything he had.
In the end, that's all we can ask of any performer. Robin Williams was fearless. Look at how often he got naked in his own films. There is nothing that Robin wouldn't do for a scene or a movie if he thought it would make it better. I can only imagine what a collaborative relationship with him was like. I am really glad he got to work with one of his close friends, Bobcat Goldthwait, on the film "World's Greatest Dad." It is a jet-black comedy about suicide, and it's the source of the quote at the top of this piece. If you need any further proof of just how insidious depression can be, I would think the idea that Williams could make a movie like "WGD" that speaks so beautifully to the idea of suicide and what damage it leaves behind and still find himself in need of that "permanent solution" would be a terrible and inarguable example.
There is something lovely about knowing that his last film role will be in the Monty Python reunion-ish movie "Absolutely Anything," where he's voicing Dennis The Dog. That kind of "what?" decision marked all the choices he made, and it kept him interesting and vital and important to us all for almost 40 years.
I love you, Robin Williams. I don't say that about many celebrities, and I don't find myself rattled when reporting on their deaths, but this time, it cut deep. I'm not sure I'd even fully processed just how significant a presence Robin Williams was to me until this week, and I feel even worse now that it took his death for people to really start writing about what a wonderful, special human being he was, and just how great his body of work is. I wish he'd lived another 25 years. I wish I'd worked with him. I wish his family still had him close. And I wish I'd had the chance to say it when he was alive, because it's true.
I love you, Robin Williams, and there will always be a hole in this world where you should be.