Robin Williams, and living with imperfections



Earlier this year, I saw a wonder of human triumph, just a ridiculous whirlwind of energy of spirit, and it came from the corniest place.

It was Robin Williams’ 2008 episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, apparently edited down from three hours to fit in the TV time slot thanks to Williams’ endless riffing and improvising. From the second the show starts, he’s “on.” He’s never in his seat for more than three seconds before jumping out and into another voice or another character or using whatever was around him as a prop. No one, not athletes or astronauts, had this much energy and this much creativity. He was bursting at all times.

That episode also served as a reminder of Williams loaded and varied career. On some level, he was easy to overlook simply because of how present he was at all times. He was beyond a mere star; he was more like a former president. He also worked so much that he had a relatively low batting average (relative to, say, Daniel Day Lewis). There are enough questionable entries in his cannon to casually dismiss.

But the gold is not just numerous, but daunting. His comedic work in movies like Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin and The Birdcage weren’t just the work of a slapstick man following a script, but nuanced performances that buried layers of emotion beneath the smiling surface.

As a kid, he was omnipresent. Mrs. Doubtfire was a movie everyone owned and watched 45 times. Reruns of Mork & Mindy were staples on Nick at Nite. He was beyond famous, and his comedy was on a level separate and equal with any titan that came before him. He knew how to make people laugh, and in turn, happy.

And if his dramatic work wasn’t without peer, it too stood on its own plane. His roles in Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting and even his dark turns in Insomnia and One Hour Photo all shared a humanism, that delicate touch that keeps the performance feeling real and immediate. When he was in a movie, he was unmistakable Robin Williams, but that came from the fact that no one could do quite what he did.

When I heard the news that Williams had taken his own life, sitting down for dinner in front of the TV, my first thought of him went back to Good Will Hunting in an early scene with Matt Damon. The story behind it is that he improvised this story on the spot about his late wife and sent Damon into hysterics, and it illustrates every one of his strengths in just a few minutes — his sense of humor, his lightning-quick mind and his understanding of how to get right into another person’s soul:

That’s over now. All the performances and stand-up and everything else worth seeing will be archived and watched for decades and longer, as long as all this stuff can be seen. But the artist, the weird, beautiful mind that created all this from a spark, is gone.

We all go at some point, but knowing that, for whatever reason, he felt he was finished and needed to leave is always going to hurt and feel like a failing on our part, a society who couldn’t help this man who was universally beloved and in so much pain. Maybe the lasting effect is that it will force us to pay closer attention to those that are still here, the ones we can help.

It can be rough out there. It’s easy to lose connection or just get to a point of not feeling human. Robin Williams’ work was always good for a laugh, and his best work reached a special, human place that shows how deep these shared experiences can be. The work will stay behind, here to help the people who need help or just need a laugh. He’s gone, though, and he will forever be a reminder of those who need help. None of us can always be “on.”

Aug. 12, 2014

Email Nick Tavares at