McGinnis: Remembering RobinWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | email@example.com
The brightest light has dimmed, and our world will forever be darker for the loss.
There are performers whose genius transcends their chosen art form, individuals who are so brazenly, blindingly brilliant that their ability acts as a one-man revolution, a sign of what can be done. It is a testament to Robin Williams that I am referring to so many different aspects of his career — and his life — with those last two sentences.
To see him onstage, on television and on film was to regard a talent that felt more like a force of nature. Williams hit pop culture like a hurricane, tearing up expectations and redefining comedy in the process. There will never, ever be another like him. That is just one of the reasons why his loss stings so much. In a world where so many play like copycats, Williams was a true original.
Like many of the iconic figures of comedy, his first real exposure was through stand-up. Williams first took to the stage in the early 1970s, his wild imagination bursting at the seams every chance he had to be in front of an audience.
His natural ability at blending both physical and verbal punchlines together made his presence utterly hypnotic.
But Williams was so much more than just a wacky guy. Though the sheer power of his imagination was the battery that drove his engine, his skills as an actor and comedian were finely honed through years of training. Coming out of Juilliard in the late 1970s, Williams burst onto the Hollywood scene to find many producers had little clue what to do with him.
It took the foresight of Garry Marshall to cast the relatively unknown actor as the alien Mork in an episode of Marshall’s hit nostalgic comedy “Happy Days.”
The character was such a smash that Williams was quickly moved to his own wildly popular spin off, “Mork and Mindy,” which firmly established him as a rising star.
The big screen was the next natural step, although no screen could ever be big enough to contain the power of Williams’ creativity. His first starring role was as the iconic sailor man “Popeye” in Robert Altman’s live-action adaptation of the classic cartoon. Throughout the next three decades, he would add multiple iconic characters to his repertoire, from the Genie in “Aladdin” to the father-in-drag in “Mrs. Doubtfire” to the role he was in some ways born to play — Peter Pan, in Steven Spielberg’s “Hook.”
Early on, it became apparent that Williams did not want to simply rest on his laurels in over-the-top comedic roles. Though his career featured plenty of fairly standard Hollywood comedies, Williams would routinely pop up in a cutting dramatic role, or a film that wore a frown under its cheerful exterior.
His boisterous on-air persona in “Good Morning Vietnam” was tempered by the horrors his character experienced outside the studio. He was quiet and determined in Penny Marshall’s outstanding 1990 drama “Awakenings.” He won an Academy Award for playing the relatively withdrawn mentor to Matt Damon’s hero in 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.” And in 2002, he pulled off one of the best years of his career with chilling turns in Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia” and possibly the best performance of his career in Mark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo” — all while tearing up the stage with an unforgettable stand-up tour that culminated in the classic “Live on Broadway” special on HBO.
Throughout the years, the impression grew that Williams the man and Williams the public persona were not too dissimilar. His regular appearances on talk shows showed that his lightning-quick wit was still a wonder to behold. Johnny Carson chose Williams as one of his last guests at the end of his “Tonight Show” run, and Williams’ appearance on “Inside the Actors Studio” was one of that show’s most popular episodes. Many comics have an “off” day now and then. Williams, though, was seemingly always “on.”
Williams was just as generous with his time toward causes he believed in. He was a regular performer on USO tours. Along with pals Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, Williams was one of the public faces of “Comic Relief,” a charity which would raise millions for the homeless through shows on HBO.
But all this is just listing his accomplishments. The truth is, no summary could possibly capture what Williams — the performer, the comedian, the man — meant to the world. That can be seen in the outpouring of love and grief from hundreds of his fellow performers and millions of fans in the hours following his passing. The idea that we will never again see that wonderful mind at work, that remarkable ability to summon a laugh from nowhere, that smile that always seemed to hide a twinkle of mischief, is too sad to truly contemplate.
The world is unfair. No one who could bring such happiness should have to suffer the way he did. We laugh, the saying goes, so that we may not cry. Maybe it is only through remembering the laughter, the brilliance, the joy in bringing joy — maybe only then can we move past our own tears.
Goodbye, Robin. And thank you so, so much.
Jeff McGinnis is pop culture editor of Toledo Free Press. Contact him via email at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.