Monday, August 11, 2014

Growing up with Robin Williams

As I was giving the girls a bath tonight, Brad who was across the hall, looked up from his phone and frowned.

"Robin Williams died," he said.

An apparent suicide. My first reaction was the stock response I take out of storage every time I hear the news of an untimely celebrity passing -- "How sad." But in that distant, several-times-removed from a stranger sort of way.

And then I started thinking about Robin Williams -- thinking about how he intersected with my life -- not ever in person or even tangentially, of course. But the background music to my childhood, it seems.

In elementary school, anytime I was asked who my favorite actor was, my response was Robin Williams. Which isn't all that unusual I suppose. Perhaps a little stranger was when during late-night games of M.A.S.H. as my friends said they wanted to marry the guys from New Kids on the Block (well, not the icky one) or Tom Cruise, I always hoped I'd end up with Robin Williams -- short and hairy though he was. Even back then I knew that all the best relationships -- even the imaginary ones -- are built on laughter.

In fourth grade my mom took my sister and I to see "Aladdin" in the movie theater that summer. A monumental occasion because up until that point I think the only other movies I'd seen in a theater were "An American Tale" and possibly "Beethoven." I got the soundtrack on cassette and memorized all the songs -- attempting to nail each of the accents Williams spits out rapid-fire in "Friend Like Me." When Lily finally saw the movie this year she was either impressed or horrified that all these years later I could sing belt along with the movie, though with only a shred of the energy and enthusiasm Williams has.

Because of my parent's "no TV during the week" rule, my sister Sarah and I would load up on television on the weekends. (We were always so good with moderation.) Because we didn't have cable, we'd end up watching whatever we had on VHS over and over and over again -- "Dr. Dolittle" and "The King and I" were early favorites because of the animals and the beautiful ball gowns. But one of our go-to tapes was "Good Morning Vietnam," with Williams as a radio DJ playing for homesick GIs in Vietnam. Sarah would make macaroni and cheese and we'd have a Pepsi on ice (I can still taste it) and we would lie on the living room floor and watch his frenetic performance. Years later, still awesome.



On my first real date (like boy I like from gym class calls me up and asks me on a date, picks me up in his car and pays for my movie and ice cream date), we went to see "Good Will Hunting." I wore an off-white collared shirt and a brown corduroy skirt (it was much more stylish than it sounds, thanks to my sister Jen insisting I wear the skirt, not the jeans I favored). Williams is darker and low-key, but still so effortlessly funny ("Son of a bitch … he stole my line.")

He was on the screen in "What Dreams Will Come" during that fateful almost-date with my friend Gabe -- the agony of him crying "all suicides go to hell?!" still rings in my ears.

And his voice is often on our television in the morning -- depending on what the girls want to watch that day we'll hear him as the Genie, but also as Ramon/Lovelace in "Happy Feet" and "Happy Feet 2." Despite having watched these movies roughly a gazillion times, I still chuckle every time the pudgy penguin version of him channeling a baptist preacher shouts at a killer whale -- "-- it's a bad day for you … be gone demon fish-ah !"

His death has already been noted on IMDB. These days the end is instant. Well, I suppose it's always been that way -- maybe it's just that it feels that the book is closed faster. The memorials erected before we even have a chance to process the absence. But scrolling through his credits is a rolling diary of my life -- How could I forget about "Toys"? How I wanted to live that weird world of perfect, rolling green hills, robot siblings and fake vomit analysis. How many times did we rent that from the Power Video? 

And "Hook"! "Jumanji"! "The Birdcage" (which I still watch every time I happen upon it on TV). "The Dead Poets Society" -- the one you watch when you're 13 or 14 or 15 and are told that your life doesn't have to be the one your parents or anyone else plotted out for you. It is all yours to create. Carpe Diem. 

On random occasions I still like to shout out "Laila! Get back in that cell! Don't make me get the hose!" from "Mrs. Doubtfire." (I guess you sorta have to see it …)

And for as sweet and endearing as he is in so many roles, he could turn creepy with a vengeance (see "One Hour Photo.") I'm still not sure I want to visit Alaska after "Insomnia."

It's so sad to think that a man who could cause such laughter -- the ones that start deep in your belly and well out of your eyes -- was so tormented that he took his own life. Leaving behind a wife and children -- I don't know that I knew he had either. But then I never really knew Robin Williams beyond those twinkling blue eyes and all those borrowed voices. 

At the turning point in "Good Will Hunting," Will reveals the abuse he suffered under his foster father. Williams, as Will's therapist Sean breaks through Will's wall by uttering the same phrase over and over and over, "It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault." 

I remember watching that scene and connecting -- not with Will's abuse or other struggles -- but with wanting that forgiveness, that release from all of that bad business in my head.

We all carry the weight of our faults through life and for many of us they become the thing that we feel defines us. That is the mirror the rest of the world sees in us. 

Maybe Williams had his own Sean who tried to unearth the root of his depression. Maybe he didn't. I cannot believe that a man who brought us so much joy, who offered us a reprieve from the weight of being has not found his own peace today. It's his poor family that now faces that terrible journey.

RIP Robin. You will be missed. 

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