Every once in a while the world suddenly loses someone whose cultural reach is so vast, whose inspirational touch so expansive, that the collective light we all took for granted to show us the way seems dimmed. The route no longer so obvious, the way we perceive ourselves and each other somehow less clear. We may not have realised quite how much of an effect their life had had on ours, but when their presence is extinguished so quickly and brutally, that effect is thrown into sharp and heartbreaking focus.
Robin Williams was blessed with the kind of magnified charisma most actors would sell their grandmothers for. A lightning-quick wit, an unmatched ability to mine the most tender of sensitivities right at the core of the human soul, an aura that radiated warmth and approachability, and a face that could contort like silly putty being fed through a pasta maker. To say he was funny is to do him a disservice - he made you laugh to the point of disbelief, the burning in your sides only tempered by the awe at the sheer speed of the comic electricity being whipped up in his unique and wonderfully twisted mind.
As a young man, the film Dead Poets Society changed my life. I was a gawky, awkward schoolboy who loved everything about books - their musty smell, the cavalcade of ideas they housed, and the satisfying crack of their spines - and who harboured an overwhelming love of poetry that could only lead to a massive increase in underwear bills as a result of sadistically administered wedgies. I was at an all-boys school where I was informed categorically by staff (save a few) that the creative arts were predominantly a girls’ pursuit and this desperate desire to ‘act’ was a waste of a real man’s time. As a boy, that kind of throwaway indoctrination is exquisitely powerful. Surrounded by the easy bigotry of a male-dominated staff and the careless cruelty of teenagers, I keenly remember questioning what my deeply-felt passion for the unclassifiable meant. Was my love for that which couldn’t be captured in graphs and charts - for the juxtaposition of language and situation; and for that which spoke to me via metaphor, or music, or the magical collision of two words with no business being bedfellows - somehow a sleight upon my burgeoning manhood, as my peers and teachers insisted? Was my sexuality more uncertain than I had previously thought? Was I less manly? Did I have a future? Should I change? Was I normal?
Then, in the mid-nineties I came across a film that had been released in 1989, and which presented a rousing and beautiful argument for my heart just when I needed it the most. Robin Williams’ John Keating was the very embodiment of acceptance. A flawed inspiration to the boys around him - all in a similarly fluid state of self-doubt and flux. A man who not only embraced the fragile mirror to human nature that art is capable of holding up, but who also understood that it is society’s very life force - the gasoline that keeps all our cars healthy. According to Keating, there was no engine stall that some well-picked Auden couldn’t at least help to jump-start back to life for a couple more miles. Perhaps more crucially than that, these wonderful teachings were coming from the voice of my childhood. This sage advice emanating from the mouth of Mrs Doubtfire’s Euphegenia Doubtfire, in the accent of Aladdin’s Genie, and with the face of Hook’s Peter Banning. All films which I loved unconditionally. Even the latter, a film which even Spielberg himself seems to have disowned in the subsequent years, is firmly mind-wrapped for me in the cotton candy of nostalgia, and if anyone disagrees, I’ll curl into a ball and roll down a plank at them.
Every single frame of Dead Poets Society inspired me. Not to get the ‘Carpe Diem’ tattoo that a 15 year old me very nearly horrified his mother with, but to keep pressing on with what my heart was telling me, rather than letting myself drown in tears whose current threatened to carry me elsewhere. One thing is certain, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be where I am now without that film and its remarkable central performance.
I’m aware, of course, of the argument that Robin Williams was ‘merely’ delivering lines, merely playing a role, but I’d claim that very few actors would have been anywhere near as effective. Indeed, one of the defining traits of his work over the years was to play inspirational characters. That is one hell of a trope to find yourself typecast as, and a result that speaks incredibly highly of how he was perceived by both the industry and its audience. Over their careers actors invariably get repeatedly cast as baddies, as lotharios, as geeky, or as dumb. Time and time again. It’s the nature of the job. But to find yourself as the go-to guy for inspirational purveyors of wisdom and truth? That is something very special indeed - be it in Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Good Will Hunting, or even Patch Adams. Robin Williams was that man, and of course he was. I was too young for Mork and Mindy, but I had caught enough in re-runs to know that his presence onscreen from the word go was extraordinary. I had seen enough stand up to know that other comedians must have had to juggle that unseemly cocktail of admiration and jealousy from the sidelines when he was in full flow, and I had seen enough of his chat-show appearances to know that he was an affable, generous and fascinating person in his day-to-day life. Of course he was the right choice to play men who made us want to be better. He made everyone around him strive to do so even when he wasn’t lifting lines from a script tailor-made to benefit from that very quality.
Which isn’t to say he wasn’t able to do everything else. His villainy was stunningly realised in One Hour Photo and Insomnia, his touch for the grotesque in Death to Smoochy and Worlds Greatest Dad as compelling as it was cringe-inducing, and his ability to hilariously break hearts was wonderfully exploited in Good Morning Vietnam and The Fisher King. However, the common thread that unites all the work I’ve mentioned in this paragraph and the ones above is perhaps that he had that rarest of gifts amongst actors - he was always able to find the comedy in the tragedy and the tragedy in the comedy.
I just hope now he has found peace.
Thank you Robin Williams. I never worked with you, and never met you, but you had an immeasurable effect on my life. I owe you more than I ever realised. And although the lights of the world may have unexpectedly dimmed a little today, thank you for inspiring me to try and light my own little candle.
With love and respect.
12th August 2014.
- And if these pictures have anything important to say to future generations, it’s this: I was here. I existed. I was young, I was happy, and someone cared enough about me in this world to take my picture.
Robin Williams as Sy Parrish - One Hour Photo, 2002