My first year in college I was sitting the commons area of the dorm I stayed at Georgia Southern University when I was catching the last part of The Price of Right before the noon news came on. And then the broadcast cut in informing that reports were coming in from California that actor-comedian Phil Hartman had been reportedly killed by his wife, Brynne.
Without a doubt, I thought it was a joke. Phil Hartman? No way. I mean, of all the actors and comedians you’d ever suspect would be the victims of a murder-suicide, Hartman was one of the least likely. People loved him. He had an easygoing personality despite sometimes playing characters of authority.
I felt the same way seven years ago today when reports came in that Robin Williams had apparently died by suicide by hanging. It didn’t seem right. Unfortunately, suicide by many celebrities, especially those who are comics is quite common. Richard Jenni, Spalding Gray and Charles Rocket all died by their own hand. Reportedly Jerry Lewis held a gun to his head in depression and the only thing that stopped him from pulling the trigger was hearing his kids playing and having fun in the next room.
Chris Rock was the victim of bullying growing up and reportedly cried himself to sleep many nights. In a substance abuse haze, Richard Pryor doused himself in rum and set himself on fire. Mary Kay Bergman, who was a popular voice actress, and was working on the hit TV comedy, South Park, died by a self-inflicted gunshot.
I could go on but depression and comedy seem to be unlikely bedfellows. Pryor made us laugh at all his hardships. So did Williams, who got his foot in the door with help from Pryor, made us laugh. Why? Because it’s better to laugh instead of crying.
Many people have noted that off-screen and off-stage, Williams was a very different man. One person noted seeing him backstage as if he was a statue. He didn’t move, not one inch, until he was told it’s showtime.
I recently watched Williams in One Hour Photo and Insomnia. Both movies released in 2002 show a different side of Williams. He’s not making us laugh. He’s making us cringe. His performances in two movies are brilliant as they show us two men are on the verge of turning into psychopaths.
Williams trained at The Julliard along Christopher Reeve and under the tutelage of John Houseman among others. He was voted the Least Likely To Succeed in high school. In his own Oscar acceptance speech, he said his father had encouraged him to find a trade.
I watch that acceptance win as probably the rarest time Williams was ever really himself in public. And as he walks off stage and the camera follows him, we see the Williams we’ve known coming out as he smiles and extends the Oscar toward the camera. Behind the smiles and jokes, there was a simple humble man.
Maybe it was that feeling of no confidence from others early in his life that inspired him to always be on when he was in public. After a while it became overkill, as if he was trying to always have the last joke or entertain people. But I think he wanted to make us laugh and feel better. He didn’t want us to feel as bad as he did backstage.
One of his closest friends was fellow Julliard student Christopher Reeve. After Reeve was injured and became a quadriplegic following a horse-riding accident in 1995, Williams cleared his schedule and quickly went to visit Reeve. But instead of crying at Reeve’s bedside, Williams burst in dressed in scrubs to surprise Reeve, who noted it was the first time since his accident, he felt better and laughed.
But imagine what was going through Williams’ mind, seeing his great friend at his worst. I’m sure it was a catharsis on his own part to make Reeves feel better. He could cry in private later, but he wasn’t going to make Reeve feel worse.
And while it’s come out his suicide was mostly the result of mental imbalance caused by Lewy body dementia, the fact he was a prisoner or becoming one in his own body was even more tragic.
I never cared for Dead Poets Society and thought his performance in Awakenings was far better and more overlooked. There’s a subtle innocence to his role as a doctor whose new and nervous around patients. A joke that every time he is bearded is when he plays the sensitive characters, but I think the beard allowed him to come out of his shell.
I think Williams was always a sensitive man. Stage fright is common for actors, musicians and comedians. But Williams didn’t just command the spotlight, the spotlight surrendered unconditionally. When Garry Marshall was making Mork & Mindy, they had to add an extra camera along from the traditional three-camera set-up because Williams was all over the stage.
I’ve heard from someone close to me who herself studied in theater and drama say that the only time she felt comfortable was when they were on stage. The same can be said for Williams. He felt better on stage. That’s why during his Oscar acceptance win, he seemed to be caught off-guard, which was surprising for a comic who could look out and see people he never seen before in the audience and use them in his routine.
I watched Mrs. Doubtfire over the past weekend. Yes, some parts are dated, and there are some problems with the script and characters, but I couldn’t imagine anyone but Williams in the role.
He made some good movies and made some bad movies. I didn’t like What Dreams May Come nor Patch Adams and I just gave up watching Being Human halfway through. But when I saw the scene in Good Will Hunting he recounts the night of Game Six of the 1975 World Series, I knew right then and there he was the rightful winner of that Oscar.
Jumanji has gained more popularity over the last few years. And World’s Greatest Dad is one of his most underrated roles.
Very few comedians can transition well from stage to screen. Take Pryor for example as in the 1980s, he mostly was doing comedies where he seemed scared for no reason most of the time.
The irony of Williams being voted Least Likely was that he achieved more. Working with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, they raised money to help the homeless through Comic Relief. Even though his politics was mostly liberal, he traveled overseas and performed many shows for the armed forces. And he knew when to give instead of receiving.
One of his best roles has him playing the straight man, which itself is comical because he’s a gay man in The Birdcage. Looking at that comic masterpiece, you can clearly see Nathan Lane steals the show as the more flamboyant gay character. Lane steals the scene and despite a couple of scenes, it’s mostly Lane’s show. And Williams was okay it.
What is your favorite Robin Williams movie? Please like and comment below?