Monday, August 11, 2014

R.I.P., Robin

Robin Williams is the first hilarious guy I can remember.

This makes sense. "Mork and Mindy" graced TV screens in the late '70s, when I had just started elementary school. Like every kid and a good number of adults, I thought the show was comedy gold. "Nanu nanu," "shazbot," sitting on his head ... all that. Frankly, it's a miracle I never owned rainbow suspenders. (Although I did have a Mork action figure, complete with egg ship!)

I was so on board the Williams train that I thought "Popeye" was an amazing film. I also was 7 at the time. No matter. I would have watched Williams in anything. True, I wasn't told enough for "The World According to Garp" and would have to later appreciate his somewhat subdued turn. Same goes with his standup routines. The not-old-enough thing, I mean. Definitely NOT subdued, as I would later witness. Like him or not, nobody could deny the marvel of this barrel-chested, furry-armed guy somehow harnessing lightning and turning it loose on stage.

I suspect I'm not alone in considering "Good Morning, Vietnam" Williams' breakout role. Hey, I love "The Best of Times" more than most people should; "Jack ... Aquarius. Gotta gotta gotta satisfy." But even if "Vietnam" wasn't so different than Williams machine-gun standup, it was a great vehicle for him. He got the chew up the big screen with his thing, and play a hero of sorts to boot. Even today, that first riff parade on the radio remains explosive.

Two years later, "Dead Poets Society" was a bid for more depth, and we did get more than jokes. It would be another eight years before Williams would drop the impressions altogether in a similar role and win an Oscar for "Good Will Hunting." While "Dead Poets" doesn't hold up as well, 16-year-old me thought it was amazing, and you can't deny the permanence of "carpe diem" and "Oh, captain, my captain."

I was in college when the one-two punch of "Aladdin" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" reminded everyone of how we're just trying to keep up with Williams.I thought then and maintain now that casting him as the Genie was a stroke of genius, and I've still never laughed as much in a Disney film. As for "Mrs. Doubtfire," was that the perfect role for Robin? Unlike some of his earlier work in which the holes become more apparent each year, "Doubtfire" has never been less than a riot, and I've seen parts of it at least three dozen times.

I could go on and cover other periods, such as his dip into darkness with "Insomnia" and "One Hour Photo." But the truth is I haven't seen a "Robin Williams movie" in several years. The last thing I did see him in was "Lee Daniels' The Butler," where I couldn't decide if Williams as Dwight Eisenhower was off or just odd.

Even so, there's absolutely no taking away the impact Robin Williams had on me in my teens and 20s. And now a truly funny man has succumbed to his demons. We'll lose count in the days ahead of how many times Williams is called "manic," and nobody can argue that. We wondered how this guy could have so much energy. It's a shame that such highs brought with them terrible lows. Rest in peace, Robin.


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