Thursday, August 14, 2014

"That's where I'll always love you..." - Robin Williams: 1951 - 2014

Celebrity death is rather complicated.
First of all, there's the one-sided relationship that celebrities of all kinds create with us. There's a quote about how Johnny Carson was essentially invited into the living rooms of millions of peoples' houses four nights a week. We see someone like that so often, that we feel a connection to them, and it's sometimes hard to remember that they don't share that same connection with us. Some are very nice, and gracious to fans, and we feel-good stories of them trying to connect to fans, people who have enjoyed them over the years. But again, it's not the same on their side of the street as it is for us.

There is also the fact that we, in our obsession with celebrity, have created an extra step in the process that we believe we are entitled to.
You see, I believe that when someone does something, and someone becomes a fan of it, that is where the relationship more or less ends between the two. You as a fan can go on liking it, but it is unnecessary for the outputting artist to thank anyone. The work itself is enough, the continued work is sufficient. If they do thank the fans, I take that as a bonus.
People should be kind to fans out of regular human decency, there should never be this sense that fans are "owed" this type of treatment. You chose to consume the product they produced, that doesn't entitle you to anything more from that person.
Earlier this year, Phil Brooks, a wrestler better known by the ring name CM Punk, walked out on the WWE before his contract expiration. As far as the viewers were concerned, this was done with no warning and no reason. And I saw people get lit up and incensed that he would do this to the fans. But really, when you boil it down, it was just a man, leaving a job he was aggravated by. He didn't owe it to the fans to stay and I was disappointed that people acted in such a way. The work is enough. The work is sufficient.

It's what makes celebrity death so complicated.
Of course we should be sad for every death, because death is sad. Losing people in their physical form is tragic. Humans are actually really awful at dealing with grief, and language constantly falls short of expressing truly what impact death has over us.
To be honest, the way some people feel about celebrity death is the way I feel about animal death sometimes. I used to get really insensitive about it. Then I had a fish given to me as a Christmas present one year, and a year and a half later, he died. And I got unbelievably sad over it. I can't imagine that the fish was even vaguely aware of who I was. But you form a connection with those pets, without ever fully grasping the kind of impact you have on them. And celebrities die without ever fully realizing the impact they had on so many. 
Some people react pretty harshly to it. "Get over it," they say.
And maybe, in the previous paragraphs, interpretations of it might lead you to believe I feel the same way.
But I don't.
There are ones that will impact me more, and there are ones that affect my friends more. People had different influences growing up. There were different people that spoke to them than I had. 
For me, I recognize the power of these artists, performers, entertainers, celebrities, whatever you want to call them. There have been a few who have had an influence on me, on who I became as a person, they influenced what I wanted to do as a career, they kept me company on lonely nights when all I could do was watch movies, or later, YouTube videos.
And that's the incredibly difficult part for me. These performers, these heroes of mine, will never know fully the impact they had on one awkward kid from San Diego who was crazy enough to believe he could be an actor one day.
And far and away, the most influential of these figures is Robin Williams.

I can only think of one other celebrity who was anywhere near as influential, and that was Michael Jackson. But the fact that when I grew up, MJ was elusive and kind of out of the public eye made him this already-mythical figure.
Robin Williams was different. Robin was family.

This is how I first met Robin Williams.
I saw Beauty and the Beast a year earlier in theaters with my parents, but Aladdin in 1992 is the one I really remember. It's the only movie I can remember vividly seeing it when I did. I don't remember anything else of that era.
Aladdin was and still is my favorite Disney protagonist, but it was the Genie who captured my heart and my imagination.
"I can't wait to grow up so I can know what he's talking about!" I remember thinking to myself.
In a lot of ways, this is what helped make Robin Williams so accessible to my generation, because this was many of my peers' first encounter with him. He was loud, energetic, witty, and while we didn't understand all the references, we understood his cadence, we understood that, "oh, he's doing a funny voice now," and we had a bright blue magical being to look at while it was all happening.

I get associated with Aladdin quite often.
I've sung "Proud of Your Boy" in musical theatre auditions, I've sung "One Jump Ahead" and its reprise at karaoke.
But the best part about that association in my head, especially when I was younger, was that I got Genie as my best friend. When I got older, because that had already formed in my brain, I couldn't let go of it, and I believed that maybe one day Robin Williams would be my friend.

Around this time too, Nick-at-Nite was airing all the episodes of several shows. Mondays was Bewitched, Tuesdays was I Love Lucy (which me and my cousins loved), etc. Thursdays was Happy Days, and our parents kinda had to watch it with us, because you know, teens were making out on it.
But there was this one random episode where an alien inexplicably showed up on the show. But I recognized the voice of this "Mork, from Ork." It was the Genie.
My head exploded at the time. Wait, the Genie was a real person? Not an alien, right? Oh, an actor? Cool, I want to be like that when I grow up.
Mork was mesmerizing. And going back and watching those Happy Days episodes now, he's one of the most endearing moments on that show.
Robin Williams had this amazing ability to up everyone's game. For that one episode, in that run of adequate season 5 episodes, Mork energizes everyone. The characters are all weirded out, and I think all the actors realize they're in the presence of something special.
Outside of the Happy Days episode though, I admittedly don't have much more exposure to Mork. I know the references in passing, I saw maybe three or four episodes altogether. Years later though, I would just watch YouTube compilations of him on the show. You couldn't take your eyes off him.

Later on, Robin Williams was at the forefront of movies I loved and still love. He played an iconic character of fiction in a new way, he inspired my creativity as only a teacher could, and he was in my first rated-R movie.

There's a reason I wanted Hook to kick off Unseen Footage. It is so indelibly linked to my childhood, that I feel it shouldn't be missed. Years later, it's certainly not perfect, but that's some of its charm. And Robin Williams as Peter Pan is pretty perfect. The childish whimsy and energy, the youth and joy he brings to it when he finally awakens as the Pan, is awesome.
I don't know who else could have done that role without looking like an old man trying to act young. Williams just is young and enjoyable in the role, and drew me back to the Peter Pan myth several times over the years.
Similarly, this movie shouldn't have worked. For some it doesn't, but I find it to be quite entertaining, and surprisingly tragic when you think about it for too long. Robin Williams is perfectly acceptable as an overgrown child, because there's no threat to him. I can't think of another person you can say that about. The movie was made for him.

And this movie should definitely not have worked. When you boil down the plot, you have a father who, in trying to prove he is mentally stable enough to care for three kids, dresses up as an old woman to babysit them right under the nose of their mother and his ex-wife, and against the orders of a court. But it's billed as a cross-dressing comedy, and Robin Williams is damn funny.
Mrs. Doubtfire is a movie I will still watch to this day, and laugh just as hard as I did when I was a kid. Maybe it doesn't hold up storywise, but Williams is what keeps this fresh. He's got so much to work with, and the only thing I can say has been said countless times over: he's just too damn funny not to be appreciated.

As I grew up, so did some of the films I saw Williams in. (I saw both Good Morning Vietnam and Fisher King much later, not 'til college, and I could fully appreciate the depth Williams had.)
John Keating's answer to the Walt Whitman quote still lives on in my head:
"Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?"
Delivered so succinctly and so beautifully. And you have to remember that this is now the same voice delivering this call that was once the Genie to me, that was Mrs. Doubtfire, that was Mork.
How could someone be so deeply funny, and yet so deeply passionate?
And Robin Williams stood at that crossroads with me, where I realized that just like anything else in the world, if you want to be really funny, you're going to have to be really passionate about it.

What Dreams May Come is a movie that haunts me and stands as another testament to Williams' abilities to evoke pathos. Such a carefree character plagued with tragedy.
Your mileage may vary, but Dreams was both revelatory (like Dead Poets Society) and disturbing. This was the upstanding hero I wanted to be: imperfect, but willing to go to lengths unimaginable for people he loved. Again, Williams stood at another crossroads with me, where larger-than-life heroes of immortality and untold powers give way to real, imperfect, reluctant heroes, who remain optimistic despite the odds.

Keating was a bit of an enigma, but Good Will Hunting's Shaun Maguire is an infinitely more interesting, nuanced character. And as I found myself growing older, the times I would watch this movie over, I found myself relating to Maguire more and more. And I grew more appreciative of the fact that this was Robin Williams, a figure who had occupied a completely different state of mind and tone in my brain. I also appreciated that it was an Oscar-worthy (and -winning) performance.

Years later, these two though, are how I mostly remember Robin Williams.
At its peak, Whose Line is it Anyway? managed Whoopi Goldberg and Williams as guest stars.
The Williams episode, many people think would have been a show-stealing Williams and nothing else. And those people are incredibly wrong.

Whose Line Is It Anyway feat. Robin Williams from PocketAppZ on Vimeo.

You need only watch the episode to understand Williams in an ensemble: incredibly committed, generous, and funny as hell. Everything you want in a scene partner.
The Song Styles is not one of the best from that show. But it's one of the most energetic, lively performances ever. Wayne ups his game to match Williams, as do the rest of the cast throughout the night. Ryan is particularly on his game, and Colin does seem to be a little intimidated, but gets his usual shots in as well. As an improviser, I struggle to find that balance every performance, how can I be as committed and confident as Williams, while still keeping the spotlight on all of us, as he so deftly could?

And this interview with Marc Maron, is funny, nostalgic, tragic, heartbreaking. As only Maron could make it. As I got older, I knew there might be some darkness there with Robin Williams, but only Maron could create a space safe enough for him to talk about it earnestly.
Marc Maron's interview with Robin Williams
I don't think he expected to get such a vast interview in only an hour's worth of time. There's not much else to say. Except that it's wonderful. And what Maron says perfectly: "There's nobody else like him, ever."

Looking back now, I guess I can see how Dr. Maguire might have been closest to Williams in real life. Funny, affable, a bit closed off, a bit shy, could be a bit manic, and extremely caring.

I didn't know Robin Williams. My opinion of him exists solely on the roles he chose to portray (which fills me with nothing but overwhelming positivity) and anecdotes I've heard or read from comedians and actors who encountered him throughout the years. And there is nothing but good.
I know nothing of the demons that plagued him, of the addictions he battled, and the illnesses he weathered. I only know my own, and can only imagine that they had to be so much worse.
A comedian is not only his tragedy, but it may just be more pronounced. Because so many of us never lose that childlike disconnect between great laughter and great passion. Williams seemed like he cared, so much.

But I grew up with Robin Williams. He was absolutely family in my mind. If he'd inexplicably come over for dinner unannounced, my family would have welcomed him, simply for the influence he had over me.
So many of my friends texted me or called me or messaged me and one of the first things they said to me was that I was the first person they thought of when they heard Robin Williams died. To think that in other people's minds, I'm associated with someone whom I hold so dear, is incredibly humbling for me.
My roommate immediately made us watch Jumanji and then The Birdcage, and I couldn't believe that someone who was giving such a haunted, funny performance in one, and a subdued, subtly funny performance in the other, who with movies like this had inspired me to become an actor, a comedian, an improviser, was now gone.
Williams was at various times a friend, a hero, a mentor, an inspiration, and a therapist for me. When I read that he had died, I had never felt so struck by news before. I was blown away. I was speechless. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
I can't even begin to tell you exactly what I loved about him so much, but I would watch anything with him. I wish I had a "cooler" story about him. No, I never got to perform with him, or even see him live. No, I didn't know him. But I miss him. I miss him.

Thank you, Robin Williams. Rest in Peace.