Robin Williams died yesterday, at the age of 63, after a multi-decade career that may or may not have made him the hardest working man in show business, but certainly qualifies him as one of the most prolific. At no point in the last 40 years was Williams not working; at no point was he not contributing in some way, small or large, to the cultural conversation. But for those of us who grew up as part of the Millennial generation, Williams was more than just an actor, he was the quintessential father figure, the ultimate movie dad.
And so, it made a weird sort of sense to me, yesterday, that I learned of Williams’s death via a text from my brother, rather than by checking Twitter or Facebook. This didn’t feel like the loss of an icon; this felt like the loss of a family member. The death of Robin Williams feels intimate in a way specific to who the actor was for so many millions of his fans. For those of us who came of age in the 90s, Robin Williams was a force larger than life; his performances were manic and magical, his jokes all the funnier for not even always making sense (try not to think too hard about what makes the words “run-by fruiting” funny, just enjoy its absurdity), his earnestness at times embarrassing, and his compassion and humanity palpable.
Robin Williams had an incredibly varied career, but much of it was spent engaged in the simple-seeming, yet incredibly complicated desire to make us all laugh harder than we’d ever laughed. In that, he was not so different from the way a father will contort his face or make bizarre noises or stand on his head in an effort to draw a smile from his child. Much like that performing father, Williams had no shame, he would reference anything and everything in his epic free-association monologues, all in an effort to hit on that one joke that would send us all into hysterical peals of laughter. And at times—like in his iconic portrayal of the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin—Williams hit the jackpot; I vividly remember laughing so hard at his opening scene in Aladdin that I was in tears, almost unable to breathe.
The early 90s were a key time for Williams, he was connecting to an audience that had maybe seen him on Mork and Mindy reruns (which, in retrospect, felt a little bit like looking at what a bizarro version of our fathers’ lives must have been like in the 70s, suspenders and all), but was certainly too young to have experienced him as a stand-up comic. Instead, we got Williams as a teacher and mentor when we watched Dead Poets Society on Blockbuster VHS; we got the overworked, out-of-touch dad who just needs one happy thought in Hook; we got the divorced father who loves his kids more than anything in Mrs. Doubtfire; we got the flamboyant, loving father in The Birdcage; and we got the complicated, compassionate therapist in Good Will Hunting. In short, we had a cinematic figure who was imperfect, yes, but who had boundless love and support for his children, real and figurative. Growing up as an adolescent in the early 90s, it was easy to have a pure and simple love for this man whose goal was to entertain us, to make us happy and protect us from the Jafars and Captain Hooks of the world.
But much like with what happens in relationships with our actual fathers as we grow up, Williams’s antics eventually became eye-roll-inducing, his tireless energy seemed symptomatic of a larger problem. And his career choices (Patch Adams and Jakob the Liar, for example) suddenly felt lame and embarrassing. It became all too easy to dismiss this man whose main objective still might have been to please (why else do a Holocaust-comedy after all?), but who was missing the mark in a way all too familiar to anyone who has followed up a father-told joke by whining an exasperated, “Daaaaad.” Even his most recently released film, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, seemed designed to annoy a certain kind of young urban dweller the most, the kind whose dad also sometimes tells stupid jokes and complains about little things like not being able to find a big enough parking space in Cobble Hill.
And so many people in my generation had stopped paying attention to Williams’s career, despite the fact that any of us could easily rattle off quote after quote of his from half-a-dozen movies that made our childhoods that much brighter and full of laughter. It might seem a disservice to all the other things Williams did in his career (his excellent guest turn on Homicide: Life On the Street, and roles in The Fisher King and The World According to Garp spring to mind) to reduce him into the archetype of “father,” but to me, there’s no greater honor. Williams, of course, was a father in real life, not just on screen, as well as a true friend (this remembrance of Williams’s love for his friend, Christopher Reeves, is beautiful), and it’s heart-breaking to think of all the people who are intimately feeling his loss today. But this is a loss so clearly felt by all of us who felt the love and energy that Williams invested in so many of his roles, and so much of his life, imparting to us, as he did, that “to live would be an awfully big adventure.”
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