I recently came across a heartfelt message that Josh Gad wrote the day Robin Williams passed away, and I think it’s something everyone should read.
“Every actor has that idol that inspires them. That makes them want to bring joy and laughter to the masses; to make people cry and think; to give people a two-hour escape from the pain of their daily lives. For me that actor was Robin Williams.
As a product of the ‘80s, I grew up with Robin’s antics. One of my first cinematic memories was seeing a one-eyed, muscled Robin singing and dancing in Robert Altman’s Popeye. His spinach-chewing drawl and bow-legged walk were fodder for imitation in my house. Looking more like a younger Bluto than Popeye, I never quite got it down, but it never stopped me from trying to emulate a master. I remember sitting through Hook and watching as Peter Banning remembered what it was like to be a boy again; to fly above the clouds and to remind us all that the power of imagination and childlike wonder is as ageless as the stories of Neverland.
I remember learning about unique words for male and female genitalia when I accidentally tuned into Comic Relief and laughed until it hurt (up to the moment my pale and mortified mother walked in and changed the channel). But above all, I remember sitting in a dark theater in South Florida in the winter of 1992 and watching a Genie come to life in Aladdin and tear a hole in the very fabric of space and time for me. It was at that moment that I realized … “That’s what I want to do with my life.”
Cut to the summer of 2011 when I was performing in The Book of Mormon on Broadway. By that time, it was common for celebrities to visit. Everyone from Bono to Oprah had come to see what the buzz was all about. It was always a thrill to look out in the audience and see a familiar face that had inspired me. But on this particular summer night, May 15 to be exact, I looked into the audience as I sang the opening lines to Hello and saw a bearded hero smiling back at me. That night, I gave what was probably the best performance I have ever given on a stage. I felt intoxicated with the knowledge that I was entertaining a man who had raised me on his comedy specials, his movies and his TV series. It would be like Luke Skywalker bringing the Empire down as Obi-Wan sits atop the Death Star and simply smiles. Or in this case, a heavyset Jedi warrior, who is desperately out of breath, performing for a master Jedi.
At the end of the show, I went up to my dressing room and received a message over the loudspeaker. Someone was waiting for me backstage. I slowly walked down the stage, trying to think of what to say when I came face to face with my hero. I remembered that he had just moved into my building on 63rd Street. As I turned the corner and saw him beaming like a proud father, I blurted out, “Hey, you live in my building!” He smiled at me and without missing a beat, exclaimed, “No boy. You live in my building!” And so began my relationship with the idol I was fortunate enough to call a friend.
That summer, as Robin was a delivering his brilliantly fierce and underappreciated performance in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, he and I became Broadway buddies. Every night, we would get back from the theater around the same time and share war stories about our respective shows. Soon, however, our nightly encounters evolved into a written correspondence that began as a joke and ended as one of the most cherished collections of letters I have in my possession. About once a week, we would leave notes to each other at the front desk. Opening up a letter from Robin became a ritual that I would look forward to like a child opening a gift on Christmas morning. The contents of those letters are too personal to share, but what they meant to me can never fully be expressed. Sadly, Robin’s show ended all too soon and he retreated back to San Francisco. He left me his bicycle, the same bicycle he would ride around the Hudson River daily before his shows, taking in all the splendor and beauty of the city. A moment of tranquility for a man so desperately in need of it.
As many know, my performance as Olaf in Frozen is inspired by the great Robin Williams. When I first met with the film’s directors, I told them I wanted to create a character as free and as wonderfully surprising at every turn as the greatest Disney sidekick I had ever known: the Genie. Olaf will never remotely touch the tour de force that is Robin’s Genie. Because there is only one Robin Williams. But the joy and laughter that my little snowman has brought to children is because of the man who has left this world far too early. A man who taught me to be free, to be childlike, and a man who taught me to get out of my own way as a performer. His gift was to take all of our pain away and to allow us to escape. If only we could have returned the favor.
As my best friend, Seth Gabel put it, I feel like we just lost our life coach. The one who always reminds us that regardless of the hardships we face, he will always be there to lift up our spirits. But, I like to think of him more like the clown. The one in the kingdom who entertains and lifts up the spirits of kings and paupers, knights and yeomen. The one who juggles, distracts, dazzles and mesmerizes at every turn. The one who brings us all together, despite our differences and holds court by virtue of the fact that he is not like any one of us, for he is unique and talented beyond the rest. Unfortunately, as we all too often forget, once the makeup comes off, the clown is just a man like the rest of us.
Well, today we’ve lost the clown. And now we’re left with the fools. Goodbye, friend.”