Robin Williams 1951-2014
That was a really difficult post title to type.
Photo: Jim Britt for ABC © 1978.
I was introduced to Robin Williams, who died on Monday at 63, as Mork from Ork
— first on Happy Days and then, of course, on Mork & Mindy. Although I’m twenty years younger, I aged with him, through his stand-up and dramatic roles and talk-show appearances and film comedies and mush and, just this past year, his return to network TV.
Which I think is a big part of why his death hits so hard. The younger — or less old — you are, in my experience, the less death outside the circle of people you know affects you. As life progresses you feel more keenly the absence of what an author or musician or actor might have yet done and now will never do. Even then, however, there’s a recognition that for people of a certain age their time has come. It’s the artists, the personalities, who were still performing whose loss does not compute.
As much as I loved Johnny Carson — and I loved Johnny Carson — he was already
there when I started watching late-night. David Letterman belonged to (not in the sense “was a member of” but in the sense “was owned by”) my generation. I remember when Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow ended and Letterman took over the time slot after Carson’s Tonight. I even remember catching a glimpse of his short-lived morning show before that. Heck, I remember his guesting on Mork & Mindy.
The show was nearing the end of its first season when, in the spring of 1979, I dressed up as Mork for our synagogue’s Purim carnival, in a makeshift red spacesuit with tinfoil triangle lovingly applied by my mother. I would sit on my head. I would “Nanu-nanu!” and “Shazbot!”. I would learn that your favorite television shows can get weird and disappointing in their final seasons, which I may have already glimpsed in action with The Brady Bunch although those were reruns, that was history, and this is my point.
I wasn’t quite old enough to be interested by The World According to Garp in 1982 beyond the knowledge that Robin Williams was in a “serious” movie, but 1980’s Popeye astounded me in its faithful translation of the comic strip and cartoons to live-action film. Williams’ stand-up performances broke big as the sitcom that rocketed him to stardom was ending, aided by his off-the-wall visits to Carson’s Tonight Show couch and a sly appearance as a G-rated version of himself, Robin Williams, in Mork & Mindy. While I’d bought Steve Martin albums, once again it was the slightly younger Williams and then Steven Wright and Howie Mandel who were making us laugh so hysterically in high school that we had to pause the videotape — yes, videotape, and yes, once upon a time Howie Mandel was hilarious. Williams singing Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” as Elmer Fudd can still crack me up.
Younger friends of mine, I realize, largely know Williams for his string of infamously treacly film roles and repetitive schtick. The former I mostly avoided — I’ve never seen Patch Adams or Bicentennial Man or even Mrs. Doubtfire. The latter I rued, because Williams clearly couldn’t help but be on in those situations and he would naturally fall back on familiar bits, yet the fact was that when true spontaneity struck he could be articulate, insightful, and freshly funny as hell on topics ranging from world events to his own demons.
He surprised throughout his career. Darker roles from Moscow on the Hudson to TV’s Homicide to Insomnia showed tremendous depth. He popped up clowning around with Bill Irwin in Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” video, sure, but on McFerrin’s previous album, 1986’s Spontaneous Inventions, Williams guested for a live improvisational number called “Beverly Hills Blues” which, like his work as the Genie in 1992’s Aladdin, proved that when he applied his mad creativity within some kind of structure the result was magic.
Williams, I believe, would have surprised us again — many times over — had depression not taken irrevocable hold of him the morning of August 11th. He wasn’t finished, damn it; that’s what hurts me as a fan, just as in immeasurably larger ways it surely hurts his friends and family. He wasn’t finished.