Like the rest of the world I’m stunned by the loss of one of its greatest talents.
Robin Williams defined most of our childhoods along with Star Wars, G.I. Joe, and the Muppet Show. I was born in 1973 and so the first exposure I had to Robin Williams’s comedy was in Mork and Mindy. It was on too late for me to watch, but by week two my Mom kept saying that she’d let me stay up to watch it with my brother. I was in kindergarten and staying up late was a big deal. When I saw it for the first time, I was blown away. Mork was the coolest and funniest thing I’d ever seen. He acted like a 5 year old and got away with it. In fact, my parents applauded him for it. I felt as if some breach had been made in the barrier separating children from adults. He was like a bridge between our two worlds. As a kid, I was just glad that grown ups were beginning to see the light. On a side note, he often made up much of his lines on the spot, and the writers learned to leave much of his dialogue blank in the script and just let him do his thing.
The first film I ever saw him in was Popeye. He became my favorite actor immediately. Even today, to watch him pull off that role was impressive. Robin Williams didn’t just play Popeye, he became the incarnation of the cartoon character.
From there, I saw the World According to Garp at a friends house. He had cable. Needless to say, I got a pre-emptive sexual education through Garp’s adventures. Ahem…
His next wave of films saw him playing adult roles for mature audiences. Moscow on the Hudson didn’t interest me, nor did I understand any of it when I saw it on cable in Jr. High. But then, I went to my second film in the theater when I was thirteen. I witnessed him play what is still my favorite role of any film he ever did; Adrian Cronauer. Cronauer was a radio DJ who cheered up the troops in Vietnam and countered the voice of Hanoi Hannah over the airwaves as she attempted to lower the morale of the troops. Since it was my favorite film of his, I have often guessed that during this time, he was deeply affected by the role of the unorthodox DJ who defied the authorities by making the troops his priority, and giving a little piece of heaven to men stationed in hell. In the end, Williams became a living embodiment of Cronauer, traveling to military bases in foreign war zones over the next few decades to boost the morale and show public support of our troops. More than anything, he wanted to bless them with the talents he had. While performing for the troops Wiliams knew that there were troops stationed on guard, or about their duties, so when his slot was over, he’d tour the base in order to seek out the men who couldn’t come and tell them how much he personally appreciated them.
Time would fail me to talk of movies that personally shaped, educated, and corrupted me (in a good way). Awakenings is one of my favorite movies of all time. It was there more than ever that I see his true ability to act. Baron Munchausen is a bizarre favorite. Dead Poet’s society was a masterpiece. I constantly hear him in my head mocking J. Evans Pritchard PhD and commanding the men to “rip the pages out…you heard me. Rip it out!” I’ve often felt that way about much of the theology that I’ve read. They measure God, but miss him completely. “We’re not laying pipe, but talking theology.” “Be gone J. Evans Pritchard PhD! It’s not the Bible, you’re not going to go to hell for this!” “This is a battle. A war…and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.”
Thank you Mr. Williams. Thank you. You’ve shaped me in more ways that I can possibly communicate in this blog. Your gift imparted much to me as a person, as a preacher, and as an idealist.
Robin Williams was an idealist. If he was nothing else, he was a man who had ideals, and like all of us, found himself so often falling short of them. In a courageous interview in 2004, he shared his personal struggle with substance abuse and alcoholism and the recurring nightmare that he woke up from after years of being controlled and dominated by a force stronger than himself. He was honest, and he was broken. In that interview he was asked if he was sad about the past two years when he battled with addiction and lost so much. He replied. “There’s sadness, yes. But there’s also hope. It’s called the Buddhist gift, but what I would call the omni-Christian gift. You’re back. Life becomes about others. Not yourself. Ego goes bye bye. There is so much to be thankful for. So many wonderful people to be grateful for…and a loving God. Other than that, good luck…”
Not ironically, but fittingly, he played the role of Patch Adams; a man suffering from depression and suicidal, but found himself moving forward in life and finding respite from his own sadness by making others laugh. In interviews from that time, about that film and the real Patch Adams, Williams said he felt honored and unworthy to play a man like that. But he was like that.
I believe that in his brokenness, Williams may have found the loving God that he spoke about in interviews. Most actors keep their faith personal because of the media’s tendency to exploit it at any sign of weakness or slip in judgment. My hope for Robin is that he found the grace and love of God that all of us so desperately need, but are often too proud to reach for. I trust that he extended his hand to his higher power and felt somebody stronger than himself, taking him in His grip. My hope is that on the other side of his exemplary life, he experiences an eternity of freedom from all that plagued him, because to be honest, quite selfishly, I’d like to laugh with him again. My hope is that he’s laughing through tears of joy and relief that are being wiped away from his eyes by the one who invented laughter to relieve pain.
As a guest on Inside the Actor’s studio James Lipton customarily asked Williams, “If heaven is real, what would you like to hear God say?”
As he answers, the depth of thought and emotion ripple beneath his expression. Click the video below to hear his response. My personal prayer is that he got his wish. In my theology, God is actually funnier than Robin Williams, and could make him laugh…forever.
What was your favorite memory of Robin Williams?