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Robin Williams: A personal tribute

Robin Williams

By Rob Carnevale

THE term genius often gets branded a little too easily nowadays but for anyone who has really followed the prolific career of the late Robin Williams it was a word that perfectly matched the man.

Mercurial in his ability to make people cry with laughter in one role, or weep with sympathy the next, he also could turn nasty for roles that explored the darker side of humanity.

Yes, there were duds among his rosta of great – even iconic – roles. But maybe the anger generated towards those lesser works – such as the Flubbers and the Old Dogs – were even a back-handed compliment: we all knew that at his best, Williams deserved to be spoken about in the same bracket as Hollywood’s greats (something that four Oscar nominations as lead actor, including one win for supporting actor can attest).

Williams first entered our lives in the loveable sit-com Mork & Mindy, which really established his reputation for ‘out there’, zany humour, as well as that ability to endear himself emotionally.

Thereafter, the world seemed like his oyster (or playground). And boy did he tear into it. There were much publicised drink and drug problems, as well as the battle against depression that would eventually claim a part in ending his life.

But throughout a career that charmed and inspired millions, Williams was always keen to give of his best. He wore his heart on his sleeve and he had a humility that perfectly complimented some of his more bravado moments.

Hence, even when talking to the press – and I had the pleasure of his company for 30 minutes while he promoted One Hour Photo on a visit to the UK – he could dazzle you with piercing insight one second, and then have you rolling in the aisles the next. He was a gracious man who devoted a large portion of his life to charitable work – as evidenced by the touching tribute from US President Barack Obama – but his primary concern was to make others feel good; or rather, to make them laugh.

I remember a security guard talking about the pleasure of minding him during one of his press visits to the UK, as well as the frustration given his propensity for ad-libbing in all areas of his life. He recalled how, while driving through London, Williams jumped out of the car, ran into a hairdressing salon and quietly hijacked a customer – taking over from the stylist to make the day of an unsuspecting, and completely random, customer. The nightmare was in curbing this enthusiasm and keeping the man on time.

The press conference I attended was no less reined in, taking in everything from frank social commentary to John Wayne impressions and pot-shots at then President Bush (‘every day, he does something that’s a comedy gift’.)

And then there were the films that inspired on so many different levels. Good Morning Vietnam remains arguably his greatest role because it was the one performance that embodied almost the complete range: combining the stand-up comedy elements that were another part of his genius with moments of raw emotional intensity that packed a genuine dramatic punch. His Adrian Cronauer may have been based on a real person but it embodied many of the Williams traits too: that generosity of spirit, that desire to correct wrongs and the frustrations that accompanied the harsher realities of life (in Cronauer’s case the bureaucracy that was married to the waste of the Vietnam War).

For all of Williams’ firecracker personality, there was an inherent sadness too – something that made even his wilder comedic roles all the more memorable: whether that was Mrs Doubtfire (a man-child struggling to cope with the impending loss of his children) or the overlooked Toys> (in which a toy manufacturer is forced to grow up).

When going full-on dramatic, this sadness helped to deliver moments of pure brilliance: whether as the genuinely inspiring teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society (“Oh Captain, my Captain”), or the sympathetic psychiatrist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting (in which he quietly upstaged Matt Damon with his patient sensitivity). His speech (which encompasses the heart-rending “you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable; known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you”) is one of those spine-tingling movie moments that is perfectly delivered for maximum emotional effect (the words have a lasting effect).

And then there were the dark roles: his scheming killer in Insomnia (in which he matched Al Pacino blow for blow), his creepy photo developer in One Hour Photo (a creep, yes, but one born from emotional complexity), or his dishonest dad in World’s Greatest Dad (still oddly inspiring, given the people that surrounded him).

And that’s not forgetting his traumatised homeless man in Terry Gilliam’s weird but wonderful The Fisher King (again, combining the zany with the heartbreaking).

Two more highlights spring to mind that can, perhaps, be considered lesser known moments. His heart-breaking guest appearance as the father of a drive-by shooting in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street which, to this day, lingers; and his charming documentary In The Wild – Dolphins With Robin Williams, which delivered the memorable sight of a dolphin mimicking Williams’ madcap comedy routine.

For all of these memories and more, Williams will forever be remembered as a very special talent, whose loss is sorely felt.