What Robin Williams Meant To Me

"And just when I thought I’d grown out of Robin Williams, it turned out he’d spent my whole childhood making films for me to discover when I was ready..."
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"And just when I thought I’d grown out of Robin Williams, it turned out he’d spent my whole childhood making films for me to discover when I was ready..."

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Robin Williams has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. That’s hardly a unique experience, obviously - the generation before mine had Mork and Mindy, the one after had Happy Feet - but I’m going to write about him anyway, because I can’t look at Twitter any more.

I was born in 1989, a couple of years into Robin Williams’ solid decade of iconic film performances. Good Morning, Vietnam came out in 1987, Dead Poets Society in ‘89, Awakenings in 1990, The Fisher King and Hook in ‘91. Aladdin was ‘92, Mrs Doubtfire ‘93, Jumanji ‘95, The Birdcage ‘96, Good Will Hunting - for which he won his Oscar - ‘97. He then made Flubber, Fathers’ Day and Patch Adams in about thirteen months, which is about as spectacular a way as I can imagine to end that sort of run.

There are a few films in the list above that might not fit everyone’s definition of ‘iconic’. Hook was slated when it first came out, The Birdcage is gently ridiculous, and I’ve got no idea what grownups thought of Jumanji. I just know that I loved them all, fiercely and without qualification, and I still do. Some I saw at the time - Jumanji is still lurking on VHS somewhere in my childhood bedroom, while Hook was recorded off the telly one Christmas and watched until the tape snapped - and some had to wait until later. Dad showed me Good Morning, Vietnam when I was about nine and my mum had gone out; it contained my first exposure to the word ‘fuck’, without which I’d be incapable of writing anything much these days, so that memory is doubly joyous.

I think the reason I feel so attached to Robin Williams is that he managed to create an oeuvre which could comfortably take you from cradle to grave. As a kid, Jumanji and Hook delivered the sudden, flashing, all-encompassing excitement that I could only otherwise find at the hands of the school bullies. A few years later, mawkish drivel like Jack bridged the generations so my family could all watch something together, and when I started going to the cinema with friends I was welcomed by One Hour Photo, which scared us all to death though we wouldn’t admit it. And just as I might have been inclined to feel like I’d grown out of Robin Williams, it turned out he’d spent my whole childhood making films for me to discover when I was ready.

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I saw Dead Poets Society when I was about fifteen, Good Will Hunting just before I went to university and Awakenings as an earnest second-year with a head full of psychology classes and psychiatric treatment. That was it for a while; and then, two months into my post-uni job as a film critic, I reviewed what turned out to be the only Robin Williams film to come across my desk in four years. World’s Greatest Dad isn’t Williams’ best film, but I think it’s the best of his last decade - a dark, unforgiving comedy drama that picks a fine line between the freestyling genius of Good Morning, Vietnam and the terrifying bastard of Insomnia to create an intensely relatable character whose worst enemy is himself. Lance, a high-school teacher with literary aspirations, has never quite made the grade - the film charts his rise and fall as he takes advantage of a horrible situation to fast-track himself to stardom, before finally coming clean. Director Bobcat Goldthwait chose to give Lance a happy ending of sorts, framed by his exuberant naked dive into the school pool in one of the film’s closing scenes. There would have been just as much artistic merit in a Thelma and Louise-style leap off a cliff, but I’m very glad he resisted the temptation.

Robin Williams is not the first brilliant actor we’ve lost this year - he’s not even the first brilliant actor from the decidedly wobbly Patch Adams we’ve lost this year. Both he and Philip Seymour Hoffman had a searing talent that made them superb dramatic actors as well as gifted comics; both he and Philip Seymour Hoffman struggled with alcohol and substance abuse problems; both he and Philip Seymour Hoffman died alone, unexpectedly, and, one way or another, by their own hand. I was horribly upset when Hoffman died this February, because he was a brilliant actor with a thousand towering performances left in him - but I sobbed in the night when I heard about Robin Williams, because his films have measured out my life. He was Peter Banning when I watched him with my sister, Daniel Hillard with my mum, Adrian Cronauer with my dad, Armand Goldman with one girlfriend and Theodore fucking Roosevelt with another (we were students and Night at the Museum 2 was the only thing on). Mr Keating, Dr Sayer, Sean Maguire. The Genie, for God’s sake. Few actors have enjoyed Williams’ level of success; few have merited it. He was powerful and inventive and relentless whether he was popping up in a stupid cameo or steering a film single-handed. He was worth $50 million, if that’s the sort of thing you care about. And he still killed himself.

Both he and Philip Seymour Hoffman had a searing talent that made them superb dramatic actors as well as gifted comics; both he and Philip Seymour Hoffman died alone.

It’s been increasingly apparent to me for the last few paragraphs that I haven’t got up in the night to write this simply because Hollywood is one star poorer today. In recent years, depression and alcohol have been my constant companions, and although I’m pretty chipper these days I know I’m only ever one bad week away from starting to scar my legs and my liver all over again. That’s something I can live with; the knowledge that someone can be so successful, so apparently happy, and never be rid of that spectre is a lot more troubling. Like Philip Seymour Hoffman and so many others, Robin Williams had his demons - but he also had generations of fans, enduring critical success and what by all accounts was a close-knit and loving family. He even had the confidence to speak openly about his bipolar disorder, years ago, when our attitude towards mental health was even more savage and devoid of empathy than it is today.

I don’t know if he talked to people about how he felt this time round. I don’t know whether, for those with eyes to see, the signs were there last week, or last month, or last year. I don’t know why he’s dead. But I know that every time we lose another human being to mental illness we are failing as a species - failing to recognise and treat conditions that will affect at least a quarter of the people reading this. Suicide kills almost as many people worldwide as AIDS-related illnesses - in fact, given the way that AIDS deaths are falling and suicides are rising, it won’t be long before they meet and pass each other. That is a testament not only to our ability to treat physical illnesses, but to our failure to properly address mental ones. It is not enough to talk about the Samaritans or mindfulness or going for a fucking jog. Even before this government started to destroy the NHS, its mental health services were underfunded and overstressed - and for as long as we continue to whittle away at what little support is offered to the mentally ill, more and more people will die.

I’ve been writing for a few hours now. The sun’s come up and, outside my window, the Mile End Road is getting loud, which means it’s time for me to write something that’ll pay the rent. When I’ve finished I’m going to do three things; make a donation to Mind, call a couple of friends who’ve been having a hard time recently, and watch Good Morning, Vietnam; a film I first saw with my dad back when he seemed as unstoppably alive as its star. I have such a vivid memory of the three of us roaring “Good morning, VIETNAM!” together, Robin Williams in his Saigon radio booth and Dad in his armchair and me on the sofa, laughing fit to burst. It seems impossible that fifteen years later I’m the only one left alive.

Thanks to his unique body of work, Robin Williams will always be there when we want to remember - rockin’ it from the Delta to the DMZ, banishing J. Evans Pritchard PhD, telling us that it’s not our fault. And it’s not, not really. But failing to act on the essential lesson of his death - that a single person lost to mental illness is one too many, and that all ill people deserve the same care and support regardless of whether you can see their scars - that would be our fault. That would be unforgivable.

John is a writer and editor living in London. Follow him on Twitter, @JM_Underwood.