RIP Robin Williams: "Make Fun, Not War"

Remembering one of the best loved actors of our time, whose appeal crossed generations.
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Remembering one of the best loved actors of our time, whose appeal crossed generations.

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"Mork calling Orson, come in Orson." As familiar to me as the taste of cheese Hula Hoops or Tizer, my favourite half hour of TV would always end the same way - as the bemused and befuddled Orkan would post his weekly report on human behaviour, long before E.T. ever reappropriated the insides of a Speak N Spell. Many people forget that Mork & Mindy started out as a spin-off of long-running nostalgia-fest Happy Days. While Fonzy was busy waterskiing over an unconvincing shark and entering the lexicon of jaded TV viewers everywhere, Robin Williams was a shot of pure adrenalin into the chest of lazy sitcoms. With his rainbow braces and a rug of uncontrollable chest hair that completed his image as a live action Tazmanian Devil, Mork brought irreverence and improvisation to a format that, Norman Lear's output aside, was usually content to lean against boundaries, rather than push them.

After four successful years, Hollywood came calling, as did the dealers. Williams famously noted that, unlike most people who took cocaine to get hyper, he used it to slow down. After all, when talking a mile a minute is your default setting, where else is there to go? His first bout of cold turkey came after the death of John Belushi, having been in the big man's company the night of his fatal speedball. Having kicked the habit (for the time being, at least), Williams launched into a largely fruitless big screen career. Struggling to reconcile his anarchic persona with the dramatic roles that appealed to him, most of his early eighties material was forgettable at best - the sole exception being The World According To Garp.

In fact, it wasn't until 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam, that he found a vehicle that played to his strengths as both a virtuoso comedic force of nature, and an empathetic dramatic actor. Despite triggering several years' worth of shrill and unfunny impersonations, Vietnam was a smash hit. It also provided Hollywood with an instant shortcut whenever they needed a combination of laugh-out-loud humour, as well as calculated moments of pathos. Awakenings, Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King all followed, achieving varied levels of success and helping Williams develop his standing as a 'serious' actor. One high profile misfire was Hook, which seemed to fly in the face of Steven Spielberg's long stated ambition to avoid casting celebrities in lead roles. The combination of Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and a 'troubled' Julia Roberts resulted in a gaudy, interminable pantomime, redeemed only by Williams' all-too-rare flights of literal and figurative fancy - calling one unlikeable brat "You lewd, crude, rude bag of pre-chewed food dude."

Williams' next breakthrough came from the most unlikely of sources - the Walt Disney Company. Much like Spielberg, the House of Mouse had always studiously avoided stunt casting, instead allowing the animation and, more recently, the songs of Ashman and Menken, to reverse the troubled studio's fortunes. With their latest animated adventure sent back to the drawing board by a disappointed Jeffrey Katzenberg, it fell to Williams to revive the floundering project. His chaotic, heavily improvised shtick paired perfectly with the Al Hirschfeld-inspired animation style, and helped create the studio's first animated comedy. Since then, hundreds of high profile comics, from Ray Romano and Sarah Silverman, to Ellen Degeneres and Eddie Murphy, have made a beeline (sorry, almost forgot Jerry Seinfeld there) for the recording booth. The results may have varied, but the impact is inarguable.

The nineties were probably Williams' golden period, as he juggled high concept comedies (Mrs Doubtfire, Jumanji) with more esoteric work, (Barry Levinson's much-maligned Toys, and Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come). Although the choices were always interesting and rarely predictable, audiences still seemed to connect best when he was in full comedy mode. One of his biggest hits was the Hollywood take on La Cage aux Folles, retitled The Birdcage for American audiences. Not only did he achieve his own moments of sublime brilliance (particularly the whistle-stop choreography demo), he was content to play the 'straight' man to Nathan Lane's more showy breakout role.

It wasn't until 1997 that he finally won a long-deserved Oscar for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting. Unfortunately, audience goodwill was more fleeting, as a series of mawkish flops, including Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man and Jakob The Liar, ended his incredible box office run. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who might have attempted to revisit former glories, Williams found in his exile from blockbusters a new kind of freedom. He courted darker material; thrillers and sombre character studies that no longer attempted to straddle comedy and drama. Instead, these were pared down, subtle and haunting performances. His turn in Armistead Maupin's proto-Catfish The Night Listener was a masterclass in confused melancholy; a subtle variation on his first villainous roles in One Hour Photo and Insomnia.

Coming full circle, his most recent role was in a new sitcom called The Crazy Ones, where he played the head of an ad agency alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar. The show was cancelled in May after an inauspicious first season, although network executives had expressed delight at having Williams back on TV after all these years.

Early reports suggest that Williams may have taken his own life after a long struggle with depression and a relapse into alcoholism. He was always matter of fact about his demons, often incorporating them into his rapid-fire stand up material. Perhaps he believed that old adage about laughter being the best medicine. After all, when I was sixteen, I wrote him a fan letter, to which he replied just a couple of weeks later. Inside the envelope was a signed publicity still from Toys, onto which he'd scribbled 'Make fun, not war.' In these troubled times of conflict and intolerance, I can't think of a more appropriate epitaph.

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