We have lost a great man, an ever-exuberant typhoon of inexhaustible comic and dramatic power – a man who, again and again, burst the lungs of the world with uncontrollable laughter. Make no mistake, Robin Williams, born July 21st 1951 in Chicago, Illinois, was and will remain forever one of the greatest actors and stand-up comedians of his generation.
His performances in films as diverse as Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, The Fisher King, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage, Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo and Worlds Greatest Dad provide such a nuanced and formidable body of work that his legacy will remain as memorable as his blisteringly funny stand-up routines that touched everything from the invention of golf, his friendship with the late Christopher Reeve, and the unintended effects of a colonoscopy.
In the 90s his appearances in a slew of hugely successful family films catapulted him into the hearts and imaginations of a whole new generation. Indeed, his dizzyingly rat-tat-tat delivery in Aladdin is my first memory of any film, and must genuinely be considered one of the finest pieces of comic improvisation in film history, as well as the finest voice acting in any animated film I’ve ever seen.
This was followed up by memorable performances in other family favourites like Hook and Jumanji, where he once again showed a wonderful, light flair for capturing the burgeoning imaginations of young children and adults alike.
Likewise, in films like Good Will Hunting, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, where he played a psychiatrist helping a troubled genius, he managed to perfectly balance his comic ability with a joyous, subtle human grace. In scenes like this (warning: strong language) he managed to elicit from the audience both raucous laughter and the dramatic punch to bring a tear to anyone’s eyes.
But we must not be tempted to slide into the over-sentimentality of some of his later film roles, and instead appreciate a deeply complex comic genius, a man filled with a much darker, compulsive energy. Here was a man who battled with cocaine use in the 1970s and ’80s, as well as alcoholism. In 2006 he checked himself into an Oregon clinic for treatment for his alcohol addiction, falling of the wagon after 20 years of sobriety.
This addiction, he told Diane Sawyer, was never “caused by anything, it’s just there. It waits. It lays in wait for the time when you think, ‘It’s fine now, I’m OK.’ Then, the next thing you know, it’s not OK. Then you realise, ‘Where am I? I didn’t realise I was in Cleveland.’
Likewise, in 2009, he again went into treatment – this time, though, for heart surgery – which he said at the time had made him re-evaluate his life. “You appreciate little things,” he told the New York Times, “like walks on the beach with a defibrillator.”
It is in this, in his combination of quick-fire irreverent absurdity over a darker, more sinister backdrop that his greatest performances as both an actor and a stand-up lie. In World’s Greatest Dad he played Lance, a teacher in a high school and absent father to a truly awful teenage son. After his son’s accidental suicide he ruthlessly exploits the situation in order to satiate his literary pretensions.
The film was described by the equally mourned Roger Ebert as “a daring assault against our yearning to mythologise the dead.” Likewise, we should not do the great artist a disservice by painting him in the melancholy aura of nostalgia. We must instead celebrate a man of manic power whose inner life was, clearly, as turbulent as his comedy.
Williams is survived by his third wife Susan and his three children, Zachary, Zelda and Cody. His wife has said that “It is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”