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A Force of Nature: A Tribute to Robin Williams

We asked our writers to submit their thoughts on the passing of Robin Williams this week, following Editor-in-Chief Matt Zoller Seitz's beautiful obituary. From personal memories of encounters with him to choosing their favorite films to discussions of depression—it was entirely up to the contributors what to share. Here's what they had to say:

BRIAN TALLERICO: It took his passing to make me realize how much Robin Williams has simply always been a part of my life. The loss feels more personal than most because of that fact. Robin Williams was always there. Like so many of my generation, "Mork and Mindy" was a part of my childhood, and I can vividly remember my dad allowing me to see "Good Morning, Vietnam" at a relatively young age. I remember seeing "Dead Poets Society" with him as well. Williams had the kind of unwavering passion for his work that inspires someone to pursue such unprofitable forms of employment as acting and writing. I’m not sure I would be here if not for those works of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, films like "Awakenings," his amazing stand-up work, and, most of all, "The Fisher King," a truly inspirational piece for me. Even for the two decades that would follow what I considered his creative peak, Williams was just a constant presence, the kind of force of entertainment that seemed built into the fabric of it all. And he wasn’t done finding those great turns, whether they be in "World’s Greatest Dad" or "Louie." And there is no doubt that he had more of those memorable characters in him.

But it wasn’t enough. As someone who has dealt with depression in his life, what strikes me about this passing is the hope that his mental illness could help those struggling to keep their own demons at bay. Depression is like alcoholism/addiction in that one never fully "cures" either, and it only takes a trigger for them to resurface (and poor Robin dealt with both). I’m also reminded of how cruel depression can be in the way it cycles into shame. Society often looks at people who are depressed and wonders what they have to be sad about. People have said about Williams, "He seemed like he had it all." Those of us who deal with depression have the tendency to do the same thing to ourselves—"I have my health. I love my family. I love my job. Why am I sad? What is wrong with me?" And, of course, that kind of self-shame only increases the depression. Robin Williams was beloved by millions for longer than many of us have been alive, and yet even he couldn’t keep depression from taking him away. So, don’t ever think it should be "easy" for you either. It’s a deep tragedy that changes film history in that we’ll never be able to watch his films the same way again, but there’s hope that this serves as a call to emotional arms as to how serious this problem can be, and how reaching out for help or reaching out to those who you think need help are the only answers. Watch one of Robin’s movies this weekend. And then do something to help those who know the pain he felt.

DANNY BOWES: Robin Williams was one of the first famous people I ever saw in the flesh. They shot a day of "Awakenings" at my elementary school in Brooklyn and Williams and De Niro were both there. The latter kept a relatively low profile (as not a lot of kids were allowed to see his movies yet) but Williams hung out and talked to people and signed autographs and was very gracious. Eventually he had to go, and when he was walking away, I yelled out (for reasons lost to history) "good day, sir!" And he turned and waved and said "and a good day to you, sir!" It was a performance by Robin Williams as "Robin Williams," but from a seemingly quite genuine impulse that this is the way he had to brighten people's lives. I'm very sad that he's gone, but damn glad he existed once; light that bright lingers, and keeps the world warm even from the past.

SUSAN WLOSZCZNA: The first time I met Robin Williams in person, he had put in a cameo appearance during my interview with Billy Crystal, his co-star in 1997’s "Fathers’ Day." Imagine a mini-version of "Comic Relief" and far more entertaining than the movie they were promoting. Williams tiptoed in and whispered to his buddy in a Yiddish accent, "I have tickets to Shivadance–want to come?" They did dueling imitations of Woody Allen, in honor of both being in the then-upcoming "Deconstructing Harry." Crystal, a connoisseur of fine whines, had the edge, though.

Later that year, I had my first official sit-down with Williams at the Essex House in New York. The topic, ostensibly, was to be "Flubber," Disney’s aptly titled flubbed remake of a childhood favorite, "The Absent-Minded Professor." But a savvy studio publicist strongly suggested I should also ask Miramax to screen "Good Will Hunting" for me as well, intimating that it had the aura of Oscar about it. After three previous tries at an Academy Award, it was starting to feel as if this was Williams’ time take home the gold.

The encounter did not disappoint, even if Williams was more in a mood to reflect than riff, being somewhat out of touch since spending the past five weeks in Europe shooting "Jakob the Liar." To prepare for press duty, he had dropped in unannounced at local comedy clubs to catch up with the headlines. Not that he did not kid around, describing the Web as "electronic cocaine" and comparing the act of reading his own reviews online to being "a hemophiliac in a razor factory." He said that they were considering calling what would be released as "What Dreams Would Come" as "Dreams Would Come," "because too many people said ‘wet.’"

No awards flogging, even if the Miramax man himself, Harvey Weinstein, was lurking downstairs. Williams seemed equally psyched by "Flubber," which he did to please his kids, as he was "Good Will Hunting," which he declared "a tough film." The hour went swiftly by, and since his now-cold lunch was awaiting him, I hurried to gather up my belongings and take my leave.

But before Williams started to dig in, he asked me to stay and talk to him while he ate. In all the years I had been doing celebrity interviews, no one had ever wanted me to extend my stay. He asked what movies I had seen that fall – I made sure to mention his pal Steven Spielberg’s "Amistad." I also told him I had spoken to his "Birdcage" co-star, Nathan Lane, the day before for "Mouse Hunt" and shared his request that I should twist Williams’ nipples for him. He laughed but, alas, the request went unfulfilled. He finally went full-blown crazy for our photo shoot, mugging like a mad man for multiple shots that would be turned into a collage.

Reading all the countless stories about Williams’ generosity and kindness to others through the years made me realize that he wasn’t treating me any differently that day than anyone else he encountered. This was his nature. To Robin Williams, everyone was special.

We talked several more times through the years. For 2005’s "Robots," doing his first animated voice since the Genie in 1992’s "Aladdin." For 1999’s "Bicentennial Man," as a robot who takes on human traits. Because of Williams, I even had even spent a very, very long afternoon in the company of the real Patch Adams. As sincere and dedicated as the clown doctor was to his mission, I preferred the movie version.   

When Mr. Williams came to Washington in 2006 to promote "Man of the Year," his reunion with his "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Toys" director Barry Levinson, I spoke to him for what would be the last time.  A decade before he was energized and grateful for the bonanza of opportunities afforded him, even if he missed connecting with live audiences the way he did in his stand-up days. The Robin that day was older, calmer and somewhat wiser, but no less generous.

Levinson, who accompanied him, hadn’t had a hit for a while and there was the sense that Williams was doing press rounds, even going on "Real Time With Bill Maher" and facing off on "Hardball With Chris Matthews" while in town, mostly because he was dedicated to his friend and colleague. After all, the actor had just come clean about spending two months in rehab in Oregon for alcoholism. Most stars would probably have shied away from meeting the media under such circumstances. But not Williams, even though he conceded to me that talking about his recent rehab experience isn't his favorite pastime: "Getting out of rehab and promoting a new film is like getting out of heart surgery and doing a marathon. 'Arrrrrgh, my heart!' " Little did he know he would have to face that situation, too, after undergoing heart surgery in 2009.

Yet he did not shun the subject and, in fact was quite candid about it unlike many a celebrity who have found themselves in a similar situation–one suspects because he knew he might help others in similar circumstances. He admitted to drinking in private for about three years, "and thinking I could stop. And I finally realized that, no, I can't do it alone and I need help. You make the commitment and realize you are not alone. There's a lot of us out there." He then added in a stage whisper: "Some of us are even in Congress."

If there is any good that might come from Williams’ death, it is that it has opened up a national discussion about depression, which too often carries a stigma despite how many people suffer for it.

It also seems silly now that, even in 1997, such outlets as "The New York Times" took Williams to task for being in too many movies. Now, it feels there can’t be enough Robin Williams movies out there to continue to remind us of how incredibly gifted and unique he was as a performer. Yes, he had more than a few turkeys in his flock of films. But even "Patch Adams" might start looking better now that we know there soon will be no more.  

SIMON ABRAMS: In thinking about Williams's death, my mind immediately wandered to his performance in Bobcat Goldthwait's grim, hysterical "World's Greatest Dad." That film is bracing because it reminds me that, while it's not borne of malicious intent, we often use the dead to comfort ourselves. Our grief is often an indirect reflection of our feelings towards the people we mourn. This isn't a bad thing, but it is something we do to protect ourselves, to fill a sudden hole in our lives. I can only speak specifically about my own feelings, and...well, I'm a bit stumped. My mind went blank when I heard about his death. I am heartened by all the frank, loving talk it's inspired about depression, and suicide. But I'm also ok with being selfish now, and not dissecting my feelings too much. I know that doesn't add up to much, and knowing that does leave me feeling a little more empty. But Williams really was a marvelous performer. I knew this when, as a kid, I watched "Moscow on the Hudson" in my grandparents' den ("I defect, I defect!"). And I love a lot of the films I discovered him in when I was younger: "The Birdcage," "Jumanji," "Hook," "Deconstructing Harry," and yes, even "Toys." His performances are great. I just wish that was enough right now. I wrote more about "World's Greatest Dad" here.

MATT FAGERHOLM: It’s an impossible task to list the number of ways Robin Williams changed my life. I continue to feel his influence every single day. I see him in my father when I watch him morph from his identity as a veteran social worker and into the gloriously kooky character of Count Nickel, the unofficial school mascot of Thomas Jefferson School in Hoffman Estates, who recites the morning announcements with the same improvisational exuberance as Mrs. Doubtfire. I think of him every time a movie makes me hyperventilate with laughter, which so memorably occurred when I watched his side-splitting impersonations as the shape-shifting genie in "Aladdin." I see him in every performer who takes the risk in being unashamedly themselves, even if it means going against the grain and refusing to fit into the sort of marketable persona preferred in Hollywood. There was never anyone like Robin Williams and there never will be again. Read more here.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: For years, Williams had spoken candidly in interviews about his battles with cocaine addiction, alcoholism and depression. He’d been in and out of rehab, in and out of AA. So many comics derive their humor from a sadness that lurks within them, but the disparity between Williams’ light and dark sides seemed especially gaping, even though both elements of his personality could coexist simultaneously within his greatest roles. This is a man who was joy incarnate--a radiant ball of energy with a rapid-fire wit and unstoppable stamina. Consider the groundbreaking stand-up routines of his early years and his unparalleled ability to shift seamlessly between voices and personalities, historical references and pop-culture riffs. He didn’t miss a beat or catch a breath. It was a thrilling and exhausting spectacle to behold. His voice work as the genie in the animated "Aladdin" (1992) is another excellent example of Williams firing on all cylinders.

But many of my favorite Williams roles are the heavier ones he chose over the past decade or so, and I wonder if those were closer to his heart and soul — the ones that were free of the lively patter that worked so well elsewhere in films like "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Dead Poets Society." He won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for "Good Will Hunting" in 1998 following three previous nominations, prompting everyone in the audience to leap to their feet in a showing of genuine love and esteem. Read more here.

PETER SOBCZYNSKI: In the wake of the enormous success of "Mork & Mindy," Williams was presumably inundated with movie offers and I would be willing to bet that nearly all of them were for ramshackle comedies that would have simply asked him to do the exact same thing he did on stage and on the tube, only for more money and with the freedom to swear a little more. Instead, he chose to take on what must have seemed like an absolutely insane project for his big screen debut—a live-action musical adaptation of "Popeye" that would be directed by Robert Altman—not the first guy that most people would have thought of for such a project and then at an ebb in his roller-coaster career—and which would find him playing a constantly mumbling character that prevented him from indulging in his rapid-fire verbiage.

The end result could have been an embarrassing disaster but it instead turned out to be a perfectly wonderful film and a good part of the reason for its success came from Williams' performance. Instead of treating the character as a joke—which would have been easy to do—he fully committed to the role in a way that somehow made the potentially grotesque character into someone who was touching, funny and vulnerable even amidst the more overtly cartoonish antics. As someone who was a child at the time that it was released in 1980, I can assure you that not only has it been a favorite of mine over the years, I have yet to meet anyone in my age group who saw it back in the day and who has been anything other than completely enchanted with it.

With "Popeye" deemed a commercial disappointment, there was probably even more pressure to make a big blockbuster, but instead, he signed on to star in George Roy Hill's adaptation of "The World According to Garp," John Irving's controversial best-seller following the trials, tribulations, tragedies and occasional triumphs that made up the life of T.S. Garp, an ordinary family man trying to make sense of the increasingly crazy and violent world surrounding him. The story had any number of colorful characters—including Garp's militant feminist mother Jenny Fields and transsexual football player Roberta Muldoon—and when the film opened in the summer of 1982 (yes, the summer), the performances by, respectively, Glenn Close and John Lithgow unsurprisingly earned much of the attention and they both certainly deserved it.

However, when all is said and done, Garp is the truly crucial and difficult role—the straight man amidst all the chaos struggling to come to grips with it all—and if that performance doesn't work and provide a solid center to the narrative, all you have is a bunch of zany characters bouncing off of each other to no real end. Once again, Williams tapped into the character's basic humanity while demonstrating previously unsuspected dramatic chops that he would show off to great acclaim throughout his career. Williams' performance was as good and understated as anything that he would ever do on screen.

Robin Williams may have never appeared in a movie or delivered a performance as wonderful as he himself was, to judge by the outpouring of genuine grief that has emerged in the wake of his passing. However, in these two cases, he came very, very close to doing just that. He will be missed.

SEONGYONG CHO: And it was around that time that I heard about his personal problems for the first time. While he has been frank about them, a number of articles written after his death give me a more detailed picture of his long years of struggle with addiction and depression. Like many gifted comedians, he had his own personal demons to deal with, and, according to the people close to him, there were several signs of him going down with another bout of depression before his suicide. He was indeed a classic example of the clown who cannot possibly cheer himself up as much as he can make others laugh.

Nevertheless, he was a very funny and gentle guy as remembered and appreciated by others, and he was always good at bringing us smiles and laughs. I still fondly remember how he easily made the audiences laugh at one point during the Academy Awards ceremony in 1998. I recently watched again a YouTube clip of Williams parodying John Houseman, his mentor who gave young Williams an important career advice during Williams’ early years at the Juilliard School, and his droll performance was as hilarious as I remembered. When his friend Christopher Reeve became quadriplegic after that unfortunate accident in 1995, Williams made a surprise hospital visit to Reeve with a comic disguise, and Reeve later recalled in his memoir how much Williams brightened up his mood (he also took care of Reeve’s children as he promised to Reeve). Read more here.

LISA NESSELSON: I'm American but I live in Paris. The runaway success of "Dead Poets Society" (Le Cercle des poetes disparus) in France baffled me until I started asking French people what it was about this particular American film that touched them. The answers were all variations on, "He's such a remarkable teacher because he cares about his students and asks them what THEY think!"

Audience enthusiasm stemmed from a cultural difference that French viewers found incredibly appealing. Why? Although there are certainly exceptions, the standard French method of instruction is for the teacher to lecture from on high and for the students to "receive" the wisdom thus dispensed. (The 1989 film was set 30 years earlier when, apparently, a French instructor asking his charges for their opinions was about as likely as Pop Tarts being served in a 3-star restaurant.)

The average French schoolkid knew what "Carpe diem!" meant but had never been assigned a teacher who urged him or her to proceed accordingly.

I was fortunate enough to breathe some of the same air molecules as Robin Williams in September 1999 at the press conference for "Jakob the Liar" at the Deauville Festival of American Film in Normandy. 

I had a stern high school English teacher in Chicago who once shouted at us that we should "get down on your knees and thank God that you can read Shakespeare in the original!"

I couldn't find my knees fast enough to thank the universe that I'm a native speaker of English once Williams started answering questions. A no holds Bard, Williams didn't seem to have an "off" switch once he launched into a comic riff and the result was, well, electric.

The late interpreter Waguih Takla somehow managed the clearly impossible feat of keeping up with Williams' improvisations, finding French equivalents when needed at a pace no swifter than the speed of light. I felt as if both men's brain synapses were firing through me as hilarity swept the room in waves.  It was a lesson in the power of live performance that felt like an experiential primer in neuroscience: But, but, but, how is it that he can THINK so fast and I can LAUGH so fast in response? How do I KNOW from just two syllables that he's doing an impression of this guy or THAT guy or DID HE JUST SAY THAT?! That is the funniest thing I've ever heard anybody say! Wait! Scratch that -- THAT'S the funniest thing I've ever heard anybody say!

With the more familiar English Channel visible outside the press tent I got to watch an ephemeral but expertly programmed "English channel" where all the roles in all the shows were played by Robin Williams. I would not have dreamed of touching the figurative dial.

In an eclectic filmography, "One Hour Photo" and "World's Greatest Dad" are outstanding.  And—like the entire cast of that miraculous film—Williams was superb in "The World According to Garp." And c'mon—the man was BORN to play Popeye (just as Shelly Duvall was BORN to play Olive Oyl). Whatever you think of the film itself, Harry Nillson's soundtrack is splendid.

Williams' role is small but spot-on in the recent "The Face of Love." When his widower reveals his hurt feelings to his widowed neighbor played by Annette Benning he brings the distilled essence of longing into the frame. It's as subtle a portrait of unrequited love as we're ever likely to see.

Deauville, which had invited Williams to return for a third time this year but had not yet received a reply, will celebrate its 40th edition the first week in September. Oddly enough, Lauren Bacall also came to Deauville for the fest's 25th anniversary in 1999. She was there with Kirk Douglas for John Asher's tailor-made “Diamonds” which cast them together onscreen for the first time since 1950’s “Young Man With a Horn.”

SCOTT JORDAN HARRIS: I didn’t have many disagreements with my childhood best friend but there’s one that sticks in my memory. We were sitting in front of his TV looking at the cover of an adult-rated Robin Williams stand-up video we weren’t allowed to watch. My friend said his parents loved it. “I’m not surprised!” I said. “Robin Williams is the funniest person in the world!” My friend disagreed, and we bickered for a while. I can’t remember what my friend’s counter-argument was. I was just waiting for him to finish talking so I could shout “Nanu nanu!” at him. I’d probably employ the same tactic today.

“Mork & Mindy” was cancelled before I was born but it ran, or re-ran, on UK TV when I was a boy. I watched it delightedly. I adored Mork, who had many of the same questions about the adult world I did but didn’t have—or at least didn’t heed—people telling him to be quiet when he launched into hyperactive discussions of them.

When Robin Williams died, I decided to watch “Mork’s Mixed Emotions”. If you’re only going to watch one episode of “Mork & Mindy”, “Mork’s Mixed Emotions” is the one to choose. It’s so good that TV Guide picked it as one of the 100 greatest television episodes of all-time. The story is an inspired platform for Williams’s talents: Mork decides that his emotions are dangerous and imprisons them inside himself. But they keep bursting out.

I couldn’t make it through the episode. I don’t believe the clichéd thinking that casts Williams as that most reductive of stereotypes, the sad clown. I believe Robin Williams was killed by an illness as awful as any that can afflict a human being. I don’t think “Mork’s Mixed Emotions” can be seen as a metaphor for Williams’s life (or death) but even so there are too many moments that are now too difficult to watch. It contains lines (such as “How could I do this to me?” and “I can hurt myself all day without bothering other people”) that I’ll never be able to laugh at again.

Discovering that I couldn’t find comfort in “Mork & Mindy”, something that has comforted me all my life, I realized that the loss of Robin Williams is so crushingly sad because Robin Williams is one of the people we usually turn to when something this horrible happens.

But there is one scene in the show that can console me this week. It’s a scene combining madcap comedy and earnest sentiment, elements which would become the foundation stones of Williams’s movie career, and it gives us a glimpse, perhaps the first glimpse, of the kind of acting that would eventually win him an Oscar.

It can be seen in the first 90 seconds of this YouTube clip. It appears at the end of the episode “Dr Morkenstein”, in which Mork becomes friends with a robot and programs it to feel emotions. When Mork calls Orson, his boss on his home planet, he explains what it means to lose someone you have loved–and why someone you have loved is never truly lost. It’s unbearably fitting now.

LAYA MAHESHWARI: "Oh, he died? That’s awful. He was always entertaining."

My mother’s reaction to news reports announcing the death of Robin Williams was hardly worth writing about. Yet, here I am, using it as an introduction. Growing up in a small town in central India, I never got to witness Williams’ TV work or stand-up career. Even the serious dramatic work he did, such as "Dead Poets Society," didn’t make it to our cinemas. It would be years before I would discover his superb performance in "Good Will Hunting," over DVD. What made it to our second-run theatres and TV channels was his more commercial work. Films like "Jumanji" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" aired on the few English-language channels on loop, and were watched on loop. (Yes, even "Flubber.") In school, we remembered lines from "Aladdin" more vividly than any from our textbooks. Many people here didn’t know Robin Williams by name, but whenever they saw him pop up in a movie they would pop up to exclaim, “Hey, that guy!” Something about him — that warm face, genial smile and amiable body language — calmed us down. We may not know the film’s name, its director or plot. But, with Williams' presence we were assured of, at the very least, some entertainment. My mother wasn’t that far off from the truth after all.

MICHAL OLESZCZYK: As manic as it was benevolent, Robin Williams’s screen presence was as hard to explain as it was challenging when it came to putting it to a wise screen use. His filmography a frustrating razzmatazz of classic turns and memorable disasters (from "Good Will Hunting" to "Toys" and back again), he himself nevertheless remains one of towering, instantly recognizable figures of the screen. He was at once a powder keg of mischief, a fountain of compassion, and the most earthy and sinewy of sprites – a triple balancing act no one will ever follow.

Peter Pan, Mrs. Doubtfire and Genie notwithstanding, the two roles I think of whenever Williams’ name comes up are the saxophone-playing Russian immigrant Vladimir in "Moscow on the Hudson" (1984) and the array of characters he played in Bill Forsyth’s "Being Human" (1994), possibly the most vilified movie of all time, as well as one I’m extremely fond of.

In the former, Williams conveys beautifully a Cold War-era Eastern European’s amazement at the tantalizing excess of capitalist West. The scene leading to Vladimir’s defection is brilliantly set at Bloomingdale’s shrine of consumerism, and Vladimir’s growing sense of wonder at the lush folly of American life is mirrored by Williams’ eyes: ever-widening, ever-smiling, ever-welling up (another triple feat he made into his signature shtick).

In "Being Human", Williams takes on the effort of playing humanity itself, as it progresses from caves to skyscrapers over the thousand-some years the film bravely encompasses. The longing and the fear remain constant, as do violence, injustice – and intelligence. It’s the latter, along with compassion, that is the saving grace of Williams’ hero, and he’s brilliant at expressing the frailty of hope that his character dares to feel no matter what century and predicament befalls him. Just how frail he himself was, we have all just learned; fully and devastatingly.

We have lost one of the great artists of our time, who just happened to also be the one most lovable. Had he only felt about himself the way we all did the second he showed up on the screen, the globe would not be in mourning right now.


VIDEO ESSAY: Robin Williams 1951 - 2014 from Nelson Carvajal on Vimeo.

(Photo Credit of the "Good Will Hunting" bench: Ali Arikan)

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