The Robin Williams of the stage was rarely seen on screen

Remembering a comedy great


  • Flickr user Eva Rinaldi
Robin Williams was arguably the greatest stand-up comedian of his era, a whirling dervish of impersonation, improvisation, and internal dialogue writ large in all caps and jazz hands. At his peak in the late 1970s and 1980s, he was a farcical freak of nature, a sweat-drenched Tasmanian devil who took audiences on a ripping, tearing trip through his beautifully fractured mind.

But for all of his talents on the stage, he will not be remembered as one of the great movie comedians. Yes, he was a fine actor, and he appeared in several comedies. But few of his most memorable roles could be considered strictly comedic. There's the beloved professor in Good Will Hunting, the damaged indigent in The Fisher King, the deranged killer in Insomnia. In fact, most of Williams' roles were not comedic, at least by contemporary standards.

Williams rarely played characters who generated laughs the way that Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Melissa McCarthy, or Jason Sudeikis do. From The World According to Garp to The Best of Times to Hook to even Mrs. Doubtfire, he portrayed sweet-hearted, often misunderstood men, who doled out frequent ill-fitting-suit smiles and gazed fitfully at the ground with world-weary eyes. 

In part, it was because, as yesterday's events have made known, Williams had a lifelong battle with depression, in addition to his lifelong battle with drugs and alcohol. And in part, it was also because the Robin Williams we loved on stage didn't have a place on the big screen except in a few larger-than-life roles, like the genie in Aladdin or the DJ in Good Morning, Vietnam. He was simply too big of a personality, too explosive a performer, to craft a character around. And so, the very thing that made Robin Williams unique had to be restrained. The final half of his career is proof of that.

Like many of you, I took the news of Williams' passing hard, but of course, whatever sorrow I felt pales in comparison to those who truly knew and loved him. However, as I followed social media and I watched the tweets and Facebook posts roll in, I began to wonder if the Robin Williams I loved was the same man as so many others.

In their tributes to Williams, the masses rarely mentioned his brilliant first-year on Mork and Mindy or any of his early great HBO specials. Instead, they praised Jumanji, Hook, Night at the Museum, Mrs. Doubtfire — works that came out after his career had been split in two. On the one side, there were the comedies that dripped schmaltz and Celebration, Fla.-sentimentality, and on the other, the dark, brooding dramas, where the comedian increasingly found comfort as a villain. That Williams' career seemed to flounder once he entered his Disney years is a sign of just how damaging this path had been. The once-magnificent man-child was split between childish entertainments and punishing adult-oriented melodramas. The very thing that made him so electrifying as a performer was gone.

Who knows if Williams would have ever gotten back his earlier spark. I'd like to think he still had another Good Morning, Vietnam or an Evening at the Met in him. Here's to you, Robin. You will be missed.

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