Robin Williams the Lovable Anarchist
Death is inevitable. However, certain passings such as Robin Williams’ on Monday August 11th, catch us by surprise and leave us totally devastated (for a few days at least). At 63, he wasn’t especially young. He wasn’t even particularly healthy, having open-heart surgery in 2009 and many years of cocaine and alcohol abuse, the latter with which he struggled even to the very end.
Even so his death is a major shocker. In his numerous public appearances, Williams possessed the energy of a solar-powered wind-up-toy. Above all, Williams seemed to be the indomitable survivor, invincible really, with a real zest for life (even when he constantly made fun of his own inner demons.)
His death is the Marilyn Monroe for our generation. On the surface, a comparison between the shapely blonde bombshell and the manic and hairy comedian might seem out of whack. In many ways, they had similar career trajectories. Both had highly idiosyncratic, singular talents that endeared them to the masses and catapulted them to superstardom. While the industry realized their uniqueness, very few producers and filmmakers knew what to do with them, rarely capitalizing on what made them special.
Williams caught the world by storm with his dimension-altering performance as the alien Mork in the now-cult late 70s and early 80s sitcom Mork and Mindy. Series creator Garry Marshall realized Williams’ battiness from his first audition where he stood on his head in a chair, and fostered Williams’ freedom of expression, even clearing out chunks in the script to give him time to improvise, later to be joined by Williams’ idol Jonathan Winters.
While most of his fame and fortune came from Hollywood movies, many of the projects water down his insanity in favor of a more conventional patness or they feebly attempt to coopt his wild comic persona, but reduce it to shrillness.
One movie performance that stands out is his voiceover work as the Genie. Miraculously, the dictatorial Disney allowed him to ad lib almost all of his dialogue. His presence singlehandedly elevates Aladdin as he counteracts the standard bland Disney tedium with an endearingly unhinged performance.
His lightning-paced stream-of-conscious lines that fuse numerous celebrity impressions (ranging from Jack Nicholson to Walter Brennan to Ethel Merman), accents, ethnicities, stock characters, and cultural references are perfectly suited to the medium of animation, reaching the full potential of the deepest depths of absurdity that is rarely scratched at the surface in animation. In one of the Oscar’s many arbitrary rules, Aladdin was deemed ineligible for a Best Original Screenplay nomination because of Williams’ improvisations, which ironically gave the film its quality.
It’s an unforgivable sin that Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg cheated Williams (who was paid minimum scale) out of the royalties that he more than deserved.
It’s Williams’ stand-up specials and his appearances on talk shows that are of interest. Underneath his warmth and lovability, Williams was just as shrewd and ruthless as George Carlin or Bill Maher at dealing with unpopular and un-PC topics, such as mocking people with disabilities, corporations, and patriotism. Anybody looking for belly laughs must check out his 2002 HBO special Live on Broadway, a brave and hilarious show, especially in dealing with George W. Bush and the Patriot Act so raw after 9/11, when everybody was still angry and terrified. Warning, you will need an inhaler handy as your ability to breathe will be compromised.
You could always count on the rebellious and unpredictable Williams to bring vitality to the staleness of talk shows with his devilish (but ultimately benign) sense of anarchy. Occasionally, there is a savvy host like Johnny Carson or Craig Ferguson that will work with Williams’ insanity. More often than not TV interviewers, unable to keep up with Williams’ intellectual spontaneity, insistently stick to their script of trite questions asked five million times before.
One particularly epic moment of television was when Williams appeared on Inside the Actors Studio. Under the reins of host James Lipton, the program is a dry laundry-list of an actor’s most famous movie/TV roles. Williams wanted no part of this generic line of questioning and in his usurpation, gave the audience a master class in the art of improv, and not to mention, entertained the hell out of everyone.
If I had a magic lamp, my wishes would be 1) Robin Williams would still be here 2) He would be doing a ton of stand-up 3) filmmakers and producers would get their act together and use his gifts rather than suppress them.