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Over the last forty eight hours, we’ve reeled, cried, and mourned, while coming to the crippling realization that comedian, actor, and legend Robin Williams died at the age of 63 this past Monday morning, August 11, 2014. While so many people keep focusing on the way Williams died, that’s not what’s important. The fact of the matter is, a family just lost a husband and a father, friends lost a part of themselves, and the entire entertainment industry lost a colossal giant. It’s heartbreaking, but a sobering realization for many, that as immortal as many of these great entertainers we get to know and love, they’re just as human as the rest of us, and will be handed the same final clock out card we all eventually are given. Focusing on Williams’ death is the easy thing to do, but it’s time to look past that. Instead, I took the last two days to think, reflect, and come up with something that was as much as a tribute to him, as it was closure for me, a huge fan, who saw Williams much more like a family member.
How do you sum up the career of a man who has over one hundred television and film roles over almost forty years to his resume? That’s not on top of the many hours of stand up comedy routines that really helped show the world his real talent. It’s nearly impossible. There’s just so much to say, to look back on, and to love. Growing up, I enjoyed a healthy dose of re-runs of his ABC TV show, Mork and Mindy, which played frequently on Nick at Nite, as well as his family films such as Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire. At the time, I had no idea that the Williams I knew and loved, was also a man behind some of the most insane, over the top, and hilariously vulgar comedy routines I’d ever get to listen to. But one Christmas, my cousin pulled me aside from the rest of my family, and handed me a gift he didn’t want anyone else to see. You’d swear he was giving me drugs of some sort, but the fact was we grew up in a very Christian family, and he was afraid someone was going to be upset when they saw he was handing me not only my first Parental Advisory CD, but my first stand up comedy album. The album in question was Robin Williams: At the Met, a live recording of his 1986 show in New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House, and it completely turned my whole world upside down. While much of the content at the time would go over my head, I spent many months just listen to the album on a loop, showing it to all my friends, gut bustlingly laughing, sharing a very communal experience over Williams’ oddball brand of comedy, impersonations, and outlooks on life.
That album forever changed me, and to this day, I still quote it any chance I get. Williams introduced me to stand up comedy, and for that, I’ll always be appreciative. If it wasn’t for that album though, I may have never begun looking into the rest of his career, at least at that young age. I started to realize I needed more of his work, and began seeking out his R rated comedies and dramas, and the films that I never really thought about watching. The thing is, he was always Al’s Genie, Mrs. Doubtfire, or Mork from Ork to me. So I sure was surprised to see just how funny he could be, but just how talented he really was in many of these other films. The one that really made me start to realize, and the one I think many of us started to see the same thing, was Good Morning Vietnam, the 1987 period dramedy where Williams played a radio personality named Adrian Cronauer. That film, which has some of his best improv work on film, was also one of the most dramatic works of his at the time. There’s a real intensity in his role, and so much raw emotion, that it was hard to believe the same many who was delivered to us in an egg from Ork could really be the same man we saw on the screen. That film was so eye opening, and I realized that Williams was not only wickedly funny, but the man was a true artistic genius. It didn’t stop after that though, as his career continued to have some of these wonderfully dramatic performances from him, really giving him a chance to shine. It really turned his career around, and while he was doing the family films so many of us grew up on, he would counter that with the likes of The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society, What Dreams May Come, and of course the film that would finally earn him his Academy Award, Good Will Hunting.
It was the humanity in those roles that instantly made me love him more as the years went on. Not only did this guy hit my funny bone at just about every turn, but he had also found a way to unlock the gate on my soul, making me really feel things I’d never thought possible. It was that intensity, that talent, and that real genius that made him so beloved for many. If you ask anyone, they’ll have a different favorite dramatic role that he did, because each one meant something special to every person. For me it was the film, Dead Poets Society. His role as John Keating, a teacher at an uptight prep school who shows up and completely reshapes their lives, really stayed with me in a big way. His humility, and his words of wisdom throughout the film made him seem so real and relatable, and when he would speak, it felt like he was talking straight to me. High school is a really rough time for many of us, and we always feel lost and alone, just floating through life as we’re being told this is the time of our lives where we need to figure out what we’re going to do once we graduate. But Williams made me feel like seizing the day, and doing what I wanted to do with my life, was what was important. Not giving in to what everyone else told me to do. Seeing that movie my sophomore year really pushed me to decide to write and talk about film, focusing on something I love. It was that role, and his performance, that set me on a path to do this thing that I enjoy so much, and for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.
People say that we shouldn’t mourn someone we didn’t know, because “they’re just actors, they aren’t that important.” But honestly, that couldn’t be farther from the truth, especially in the case of the passing of Robin Williams. When I turned on my computer Monday afternoon, I had just come home from the movies, and I almost dropped my macbook when I saw the headline on yahoo. My heart sunk, and my eyes began to well up, as I sat looking at a picture of Robin’s face, and the headline that he was dead. The pain felt so real, and this one really hurt. I began texting and calling friends and family, as we all tried to come to terms to the fact that he was gone. This wasn’t a hoax. This was real. People can scoff at the fact that we felt something like this for this man, a man we didn’t know, but one of my friends said it best as we talked about: “Robin was like that favorite uncle you had in your family. He would come around every few years, bringing you presents, telling you funny stories, and just making you smile and feel good. But when it came time to be serious, he had your back, and he was willing to talk about life with you, hoping to set you on the right path.”
That last statement couldn’t be anymore true, and it’s that very reason so many of us are mourning him this week. It’s not because an actor died. It’s because we lost a family member. Before I was born, my parents grew up watching Williams on TV. He was someone my grandparents enjoyed as well. He spanned generations, bringing laughter and tears to all of us, as he we opened our homes and our hearts to him. That’s what made him so special. This wasn’t just any actor, this was our favorite uncle, the man who knew how to move us when we needed it most, and brought us laughter when we needed it too. He made the world a much brighter place, and made our lives so much more colorful. He was an enigma.
Over the last two nights, I’ve managed to watch eight of his films, as I continue to re-watch and re-discover many of his classic films. Even if the films weren’t great, he was always so good in them, that the film was worth watching for his performance. Last year, many of us thought that his new show on CBS, The Crazy Ones, could be his huge career comeback, and there’s no way we could know then that it would be one of the last new things we’d ever see him do. This man, this beautifully gifted genius, did so much for the world, and it’s too bad we weren’t able to give him enough back. It’s sad, but instead of focusing on that, I want to remember the good things he did for my life, the lives of those around us, and the joy and happiness that he brought to so many of us.
Thank you, Mr. Williams, for helping me cope through many of my hardest times, making me laugh, making me cry, and helping me realize I needed to follow my own dreams. You put me on a wonderful path, and I wish there was a way I could have told you this in person. I had always hoped one day I’d get to meet you at a press junket, or just by accident on the street, and I could stop to talk to you, and tell you what you had done for me. The truth is, without you, I may not be the man I am now, and you shaped my life in a way that you never knew you would. As I sit here now, writing this article, and listening to Robin Williams Live 2002 for what seems like the two hundredth time, I can’t help but feel peace and sadness all at once. I know you’ve found peace, and I hope you’ve seen the outpouring of love that the world has sent you the last two days. While you may be gone, you won’t be forgotten. My children will grow up with you in the same way I did, and I hope that many generations to come will as well. I’ve lost my favorite uncle this week, and so has the world. But it’s no longer time to mourn, but to celebrate what you gave us, and all the brightness you brought to this dark world. Goodnight, Mr. Williams. I’ll keep the stage lights on for you.