A brief memory of Robin Williams

34

by Richard Dawkins

I met him only once. It was June 3rd 2006, at the Academy of Achievement dinner in Los Angeles. After dinner, at the end of the conference, there was a loud band and dancing (Archbishop Desmond Tutu delightfully prominent among the dancers), and Sheryl Crow was the singer. Suddenly Robin Williams hurtled unannounced, unrehearsed onto the stage. Sheryl Crow graciously (and with good-natured surprise) gave up the microphone to him and stood by. He treated us to an exuberant impromptu performance, delivering verse reports on most, if not all, of the speeches we had been listening to during the conference. He deftly summarised each of the lectures in a rhyming couplet (sometimes in the special rap sense of rhyming). Then, after stepping back for a few seconds’ thought while the band played on, he would advance to the front of the stage with a new verse about the next lecture, and so on. Assuming it was genuinely unscripted – and that is certainly what we all thought at the time – it was a creative tour de force of comic genius.

In addition to his better known roles (Mrs Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting etc.) I especially liked him as Popeye in the relatively little-known acted version, directed by Robert Altman, with Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl and an adorable baby debuting in the rôle of Swee’Pea. He got Popeye’s grating voice and strutting insouciance to surreal perfection.

So sad.

34 COMMENTS

  1. Sad indeed. It was quite a shock when I opened my newspaper’s web site late last night and there he was. Front and center with the dreadful announcement of his passing. I was struck with disbelief at first and I must admit that had it been April 1st, I would have been tempted to think it was a hoax.

    I still can’t believe it. But as I heard someone say once, the only thing we know about someone is what they allow us to see. I can only speculate but he must have been under a tremendous amount of psychological suffering to be driven to this desperate act.

    It’s just tragic beyond words.

  2. The news was very unexpected, still so young. His comic prowess was beyond question, but it’s his dramatic talents that impressed me most. He showed depth of intelligence, perception and sensibility in Goodwill Hunting, Dead Poet’s Society, Good Morning Vietnam, The Fisher King and What Dreams May Come, even a chilling portrayal of a psychopath in Insomnia. Most comedians are observant individuals, but only a few are able to fully absorb and in turn express their humanity. RIP.

  3. Most of the time when I hear about a celebrity’s death I think no more than, “Oh, I hope the media doesn’t go on too much about him.” Not this time. This time I was creepily reminded of mortality.

    .

    I grew up with Mork & Mindy, so when I found out that the alien who first appeared in Happy Days commited suicide yesterday, well, I was actually a little freaked out.

    .

    He seemed to be that person we would all like to be but – certainly in my case – aren’t because we haven’t the guts. Unlike Robin Williams maybe most of us can’t muster the courage to avoid conforming. We’re too scared to appear different in case it damages our job prospects and our careers.

    .

    Here in England, at least, everyday working life demands a crushing conformity shaped by what we call red-top newspapers, the right-wing kind in particular. We learn to coward out, to hold down our own Williams-like expressive natures in favour of fitting, of avoiding expressing our revulsion for our childish reverence for the Royal Family, say, so as not to piss off our employers and our arse-licking colleagues. We don’t want to jeopardise our ability to make our mortgage payments. Robin Williams seemed to be the antithesis of all that.

    .

    If you haven’t seen his stand-up show Weapons of self destruction, make sure you do so; it’s on YouTube. Williams takes on religio-nazis like Bush, Cheney and Palin (“ … Bush comes from a family where the smart one is called Jeb!”) but doesn’t shy from spreading the shit around a bit too in a way that shows us what it means to be human – every one of us self-serving, regardless of our race or nationality.

    .

    Nanu nanu, Robin. We need someone like you in Britain. Someone truly critical, an outsider who can really prick our pseudo-modesty and our up-our-own-behinds nature. Someone who can put us in our place and stop us from turning into nazis. Someone who can give us a justifiable right to laugh at everyone else too at the same time.

  4. So sad.

    To paraphrase recent Twittings:-

    Robin Williams is dead.
    Michael Brown is dead.
    ISIS are slaughtering thousands.
    There is a war in Gaza.
    There is a war in Ukraine.
    … there is a lot of shit in the world …

    To state you are sad about Robin does not imply you are not sad/angry about the others.

  5. How ’bout we get the science of treating these devastating mental illnesses moving? How is it possible that someone being treated for “extreme depression” is not considered a suicide risk? So many questions, so few answers, and people with immense talent and years of potential are still killing themselves. This happened to my internist a few years ago; a good doctor with six-month-old twin girls and a history of depression and prior suicide attempts.

    Indeed: so sad.

    Steve

    • I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any means but I personally believe that the drugs available currently are not very good. I also know that people who are bipolar should avoid SSRIs. Not saying that Robin was bipolar but he seemed to have that kind of thing about him. I know he suffered with drug and alcohol problems. I’ve even suspected that maybe he was slightly schizophrenic but we don’t know, we may never know.

      It’s kind of sad to think that people who have the money and the resources available to them still cannot overcome their issues. If people of this caliber can’t over come them then what chance does the average person have when getting counselling costs so much and the usual solution is to throw meds at the problem?

      This is a good representation of the state of mind medicine and hopefully someone somewhere will wake up and realise that something needs to be done. Better research and more money thrown at it.

  6. It would seem that sometimes genius can levy a price which simply cannot be met.

    To be able to give so much in life may entail taking in from it more than it’s possible to bear.

    I shouldn’t really post this pretentious comment, but it’s the best I can say, and I just want to say something.

  7. Hey,

    I have written the first sentence of my post ten times and deleted it ten times. I guess I’ll just say a couple things.

    There is a difference between alone and lonely; sad and depressed. After reading and reflecting on all the outpouring of written word regarding Robin Williams and his death, I have to say that he (retrospectively) was almost always lonely. I think this, coupled with depression and the exhaustion of always having to be “on” was overwhelming.

    I have stared at it too. I hope, indeed, that if anyone who reads this is currently staring at it, allow this to push you toward help and not further from it.

  8. Very, very sad to know that there is now one less shining light of humour, goodness and humanity in the world. (His charity work is less spoken of, as is his priceless stand-up.) Warmth and kindness shone through everything you always saw him in. It is so chilling and ironic that he himself said: “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem”. Will miss him. Rest in peace, at last.

  9. I dunno… I trod the boards for 30 years as an English teacher. I love the language, the young people and the safety and opportunities they found in the schools in which I worked. I was considered a legend – I used to say, “fuck off, I entertain you not teach you,” but they assured me that was not the case.

    But, “Dead Poets” trivialised the craft; it made out that hard graft for the teachers and the students was not what it was about; gimmicks like marching around the playground, the film said, would reveal the glories of poetry, its form, language and the depths of its meaning to the students. No mention of essays, structure, vocabulary, extensive reading, deep reading, transforming language to thought, reworking it and transforming it into new language, marking, , planning, grammar, spelling…. All you need to do is march around the yard, say some jingles in the forest at night, have a gifted drama student with a grumpy auld fella, and it’ll all be good.

    It’s easy to set up Aunt Sallies like pompous principals, restrictive curricula and an over emphasis on academic success – but it’s not that easy to find real alternatives, which will enable the students to gain decent levels of literacy and a delight in the culture and enlightenment of our world, not to mention a career which will be interesting and pay them a living wage.

    I saw the film as a long sneer, aimed at me and my colleagues, an arts version of Sumner Miller, who turned scholarship into show biz. It’s the American obsession, everything has to be Disneyfied – nature, sport, education, culture, religion, even funerals, are transmogrified into entertainment.

    • Kind of a lame post. Here you have an article about the life of a person many people felt quite fondly towards. A man universally loved by everyone that met him, who was very philanthropic, humble and self deprecating and the only verse you chose to add to this part of the powerful play is what comes off as a petty, poorly timed review of a particular movie you didn’t like.

      And just a word on Dead Poets Society. The movie never implied that “gimmicks” would reveal the glories of poetry. The marching scene for instances, was about conformity and finding your own voice in the world. It never pretended to be about poetry, it was about life. And if you think that the movie’s message was that it was a bunch of gimmicks, like standing on a desk, that was supposed to be the reason he was getting through to and inspiring his students, then the movie was completely lost on you.

      • Hollywood is not well disposed to explore reality. I maintain that Dead Poets had nothing to say about the reality of teaching, learning, schools or the development of students as individuals. I disliked it at the time, and I have not seen it since.

        I’m quite sure that Robin Williams was a fine and much loved bloke. I was talking about one film only. Whatever the intent or message of the film, all we got on the plate, was a bunch of gimmicks.

          • It was indeed poorly-timed but, returning to the topic and borrowing eejit’s own “everything has to be Disneyfied“, I am reminded that Robin Williams was magnificent as Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. From the moment he popped out of the lamp in the cave of wonders, Robin Williams totally stole the show. Very talented man who will be sadly missed.

          • Janie Mac…sorry for the bad taste and timing, I didn’t realise we had secular no-go areas on this site. In future, I’ll confine my adverse comments to Hitler, Mohammadan and Chrisian extremists and neo cons, out of respect to our PC American colleagues. On the other hand, the whole thing has become a bore, so I might not bother again.

  10. @Ryan1306

    …A man universally loved by everyone that met him

    I’m not sure he was “universally loved by everyone that met him.” I remember reading years ago about a deli which served sandwiches named for comedians who plied their trade at a nearby club. You could get a Rodney Dangerfield, or a Jerry Seinfeld…

    A running joke was that the Robin Williams sandwich was just bread: “You have to steal the filling.” Meaning presumably that his stand-up wasn’t always as original as it seemed.

    Williams himself admitted that he behaved appallingly in his time, particularly when he was abusing drugs. I don’t see the need to whitewash over someone’s past just because they’ve died and pretend they were squeaky clean and whiter than white. That to me is almost as bad as saying they were uniformly horrible. Robin Williams was human. One of his movies was called Being Human. And being human means you will throughout the course of a life be: dickish, kind, cruel, thoughtful, petty, humble, arrogant, peevish, manipulative and all the rest. Few of us are Mother Teresas or Mohandas Gandhis. Those guys were probably major bores anyway.

    I have to confess that I didn’t like a lot of Williams’ films. The sentimental stuff is a big turn-off for me. When done well, as in Field of Dreams or It’s a Wonderful Life, sentiment can indeed be wonderful; life-affirming even. I can’t get through The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp without crying my eyes out, and I found myself similarly welling up at the end of How to Train Your Dragon when Hiccup tries to steady himself on his new prosthetic foot, loses his balance and is prevented from falling by Toothless; as the two walk out of Hiccup’s bedroom the dragon’s tail swishes behind him and the audience is reminded that he has a similar injury.

    E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial slays me every time. The ending of Mary Poppins where Mr Banks accompanied by his children skips off to the park to fly a kite. Boys Town: “Aw he ain’t heavy, Father, he’s my brother.”

    Floods. Of. Tears.

    When done badly though, sentiment becomes mawkishness (or morkishness if you prefer) and any reasonably smart moviegoer will begin to feel insulted at such an obvious attempt at manipulation. Films like Dead Poets Society are bad because they seem designed entirely to manipulate. The story itself is irrelevant, the important thing is that it must tug at the heart strings. Throw in a couple suicides and some defiance of authority—”Oh captain, my captain”—and hopefully the audience won’t notice that neither the plot nor any of the characterizations makes sense.

    Americans seem more susceptible to this sort of thing, going for schmaltz in a way British audiences don’t. There are just as many manipulable simpletons per capita in Britain—you only have to look at something like The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent to see this: “I’m doin’ it for me nan it’s what she would have wanted she said so on her deathbed,” or “Wor youngest ‘as got purtentially terminal athlete’s foot and needs an operashun me becoming famous is our little Bukkake’s last chance God bless her”—but excess of emotion seems to go against the British national character. When Halle Berry and Gwyneth Paltrow had their respective meltdowns on learning they’d been awarded a gold-plated statuette in recognition of their publicists’ bribery skills the reaction from US observers was that these snot-bubbling, incoherent rants were somehow wonderful. The British media was less forgiving, recognizing the speeches for the cringe-inducing embarrassments they were.

    That reminds me, I must make a mental note not to watch the next Oscars ceremony. These are awful even at the best of times, such as when Jon Stewart hosted. But the most toe-curlingly, knuckles-in-mouth, hide-behind-a-cushion-until-it’s-over bit for me is the montage of those who died in the previous twelve months. This would be fine if accompanied by a respectful silence from the audience, but no. It’s the applause as each person’s image comes up, RDnetters; the applause.

    Some guy who worked behind the scenes in the industry for eighty years and played a small yet pivotal part in making this art form what it is gets barely a smattering of clappage. Then the face of a character actor appears, one of those “Oh yeah, he was in that thing with Robert Redford he played the hotel concierge and wasn’t he the captain in The Poseidon Adventure or am I thinking of someone else?” He gets a modicum of applause. Next a composer who was nominated previously for his score twenty years ago but didn’t win, and a cinematographer: polite, unenthusiastic handclaps for them.

    Then a star, someone we know is dead because it was in all the papers unlike the Poseidon guy and the others, and the audience is on its feet; palms are bashed together with enough force to break carpal bones, handkerchiefs are dabbed against eyes. Then it goes silent again as someone else we’ve never heard of but presumably meant a great deal to his family appears on screen, being effectively snubbed by the douches in the audience.

    Robin Williams made a few too many trips to the sentiment well for my liking. Perhaps if he’d left it at Seize the Day. For anyone who hasn’t seen this largely forgotten work, it concerns a man whose existence is falling apart around him and is based on the novel of the same name by Saul Bellow. The movie ends with Williams’ character stumbling into the funeral of a stranger. He takes his seat as the deceased is being eulogized and begins to howl and sob uncontrollably over his own ruined life. It’s as harrowing a portrayal of existential alienation as one is likely to see and represents, at least for me, his finest performance. That one scene in particular, of a man in a state of utter disconsolacy, was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about his death a few days ago.

    I will remember his genie from Aladdin; a bit role originally, expanded and molded around his manic talent for improvisation to the point where the movie really should have been called Genie. I’ll remember his performance as the serial killer Walter Finch in Insomnia wherein his naturalistic underacting served to show that his co-star Al Pacino was overacting as usual. I’ll remember Moscow on the Hudson for Williams’ marvelous—and extremely hairy—performance and for the line “Oh my god, he’s defecating!” In Bloomingdale’s no less. I will remember The Fisher King, and his portrayal of John Irving’s T. S. Garp, and One Hour Photo and Awakenings and Good Morning, Vietnam and Bicentennial Man (Screw you, I liked it) and Seize the Day.

    I’ll remember his appearance on the Michael Parkinson show when he sat next to Stephen Fry and kept interrupting when Stephen was trying to talk, and Stephen getting a little bit impatient.

    I’ll try to forget crap like Fathers’ Day, Patch Adams and RV, although I’ll continue to hope he had fun making this stuff, and Mrs Doubtfire 2 (Did anyone know there was such a film? I’ve never heard of it) which he resented making.

    Most of all I’ll remember that he was in my life for as long as I can remember. He was part of my own personal zeitgeist and I will miss him.

    Terribly. Sad.

      • It’s represents a permanent blot on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ copybook that Twiggy was overlooked in 1986 for her performance as Miss Phillipa Lloyd in the film you mention.

        Those bitches Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren have the Best Aging British Actress category in the bag.

        They’re all part of the Illuminati. Why else do you think they share the same first name?

          • I’m therefore guessing that the Illuminati also hacked your account earlier to suggest that Field of Dreams and How to Train Your Dragon were examples of ‘sentimental stuff being done well’.

            However, I will agree with you that Robin Williams appeared in some pretty bad films. I guess if you make so many (around 100 I believe) there’s a statistical inevitability of having plenty of turkeys. No doubting his creative talent though; he’ll be remembered for a very long time.

  11. The Birdcage. William’s brings his character to life. He’s the glue that bonds everyone, yet at the same time, allows the other outrageous characters to bounce off him to share the movie’s spotlight. Generous and giving.

    To broadly paraphrase a line: Sure I’m not cookie cutter, but at least I know who I am. I like that.

  12. @Barry.M

    I’m therefore guessing that the Illuminati also hacked your account earlier to suggest that Field of Dreams and How to Train Your Dragon were examples of ‘sentimental stuff being done well’.

    How to Train Your Dragon was a bad example for me to have chosen, because it isn’t a sentimental movie. Far from it in fact; the dramatis personæ have a pragmatic approach to things like losing a limb in battle. Finding Nemo I recall had a similarly unsentimental take on Nemo’s ‘lucky fin’.

    (Damn you thought police. Not only can I no longer engage in the simple innocent pastime of mocking crippled humans; I’m supposed to feel sympathy for clownfish God or nature has chosen to curse. Who are the real clowns in this scenario? Political correctness is destroying society.)

    I chose httyd because I think it’s the best of the recent crop of animated movies and because some might have overlooked it. I went to see Toy Story 3 after being told the denouement was incredibly moving and my reaction was a resounding “Meh.” Woody and his pals at best have been given a reprieve for a few years, just until Bonnie grows up a bit and discovers make-up and texting. They’re still doomed. Most of them are boys’ toys too. What little girl wants to play with a remote-control race car or a macho, quiff-chinned spaceman? Danica Patrick and Cady Coleman I guess. Even without this major logic fail, the picture was moviemaking-by-numbers.

    Before I’m accused of going off-topic, How to Train Your Dragon‘s Jay Baruchel was in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with Nicolas Cage, who was in Seeking Justice with January Jones, who was in X-Men: First Class with Kevin Bacon, who was in Sleepers with Robert De Niro, who was in Awakenings with Robin Williams. Toy Story 3‘s Tom Hanks was in The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch with Robin Williams.

    Field of Dreams (Kevin Costner was in The Untouchables with Sean Connery, who was in The Anderson Tapes with Christopher Walken, who was in Man of the Year with Robin Williams) was pure sentiment but it worked because the story was allowed to dominate. The film wasn’t contrived to tug at the viewer’s heartstrings; if that happened, it did so organically. Movies like Dead Poets Society suck because they seem as if they were designed by committee.

    • Nice response. I particularly loved your impressive return to topic. Spectacular.

      Films are an incredibly subjective topic though, aren’t they. I don’t think you’ll ever convince me that Field of Dreams was anything other than sloppy drivel squarely aimed at a stereotypical American audience. However, in contrast to your opinion of Toy Story 3, I thought the denouement was very moving and that the whole film was surprisingly clever/entertaining. A very subjective topic indeed, but imagine if we all had the same taste and opinions – there’d be nothing left to discuss!

      Mirroring your desire to avoid going off-topic, I would strongly recommend a recent film called The Broken Circle Breakdown, which deliberately avoids manipulating the audience whilst simultaneously managing to be a very moving film with some cleverly handled scenes. Worth seeing if only for a particular scene in which a father has to explain to his (seriously ill) daughter what happens when birds die. This tenuously brings us back on topic by the fact that the film deals with a spiritual realist and a romantic atheist having a baby together. I know the topic here isn’t atheism but Richard Dawkins is quite well known as an atheist and he wrote the brief article about Robin Williams.

Leave a Reply