In Memoriam: Robin Williams (1951-2014)
Last night, when news broke that Robin Williams was found dead in his California home of an apparent suicide, I was in my comedy writing class at the Second City Training Centre here in Toronto. I was surrounded by aspiring comedians and industry professionals, all of whom credit Williams as one of their inspirations. In the moment we found out, we were collectively silenced into a state of shock. True, we all knew that Williams fought personal demons and alcohol addiction for the better part of his life. He gave revealing interviews about his experiences, discussing how he turned it into comedic fodder to help ease the pain. However, this knowledge does not lessen the blow of his loss.
The Chicago-born Williams was a Second City alumni, and went on to a career in TV and film that spanned more than 40 years. His is a familiar face to multiple generations of fans, whether you grew up in the 1970s watching Mork & Mindy or reenacted your favourite scenes from Hook or Mrs. Doubtfire. He was the rare comedian who could make us both laugh and cry—often within the same film. His dramatic roles are just as memorable as his manic, unabashed comedic work.
When it comes to the death of a celebrity, people on social media often break off into two camps: those who lament the person’s passing and those who shrug it off and express their distaste that so much ink is spilled over a wealthy public figure. For every lovely tribute, there are people who try to brush it off and make a point of stating that people die around the world, every minute. And I get that. I really understand both sides of that coin. But sometimes, it’s just OK to feel sad when a treasured face from your childhood is suddenly, abruptly, cruelly gone. As of yet, I have not seen any negative posts with regards to the death of Williams—and I believe this speaks volumes about how much he was universally loved by us all. Social media, for once, has banded together and created a wealth of memes, GIFs and collections of quotes and film clips for fans of the late actor to sift through. For this I’m grateful, because it’s like a trip down memory lane. I, for one, can’t remember a time in my life when Williams wasn’t around, making me laugh in my favourite films.
He taught me many life lessons through his film roles, specifically those in the 1990s. I learned that every family was different but this didn’t make them any less of a cohesive unit (Mrs. Doubtfire), I learned that imagination and believing in the good that this world can offer goes a long way (Hook), I learned that laughter really is the best medicine (Patch Adams), I learned what it means to be a loyal friend (Aladdin), and I learned the significance of expanding ones mind through literature and open discussion (Dead Poets Society). But it was his Oscar-winning performance in Good Will Hunting that really cemented his status as a talented performer. He had the unmatched ability to make even life’s smallest moments stand out as something to be remembered and celebrated. I recall, specifically, the “park bench” scene where Williams sits down with Matt Damon and talks about his deceased wife. It’s a genuinely touching moment, punctuated by little offhand comments from Williams that make this unseen character of his wife come alive for the audience. You felt like he was talking about a real person.
As one of my friend’s eloquently put it on Facebook: “(Williams) is an actor whom I would have felt comfortable physically embracing, as a familiar relative, if I had had the chance. Such was the effect of his career, and his person.”
Williams was man who comforted all of us with humour, but was a tortured soul on the inside. That he made us laugh, yet couldn’t do the same for himself, is the real tragedy. I will forever associate him with my childhood, times spent laughing along at his wild antics. So, thank you, Robin, for being a familiar and constant source of comfort and joy to me for 30 years. May you rest easy now.
Ed. note: Depression is a serious mental illness and a powerful enemy that affects even the most successful and loved among us. If you are suffering from depression please reach out to your local suicide hotline. If you know someone who is suffering from depression, speak up and offer a hand.
The Park Bench Scene from Good Will Hunting