I’m trying something here, and I already know it will fail, because I can’t quite wrap my brain around this. But bear with me, or give this one a miss, if you prefer.
When I was a boy, I listened to a lot of music (mostly rock, but there was motown and there was country, and there was pop, and the best of the bunch were those that crossed the streams and synthesised something fresh and spectacular. But I digress. Or do I? I also watched an inordinate amount of television. And there were a few very special people on the television who were there from almost the beginning of my life, guiding em through every stage, advising me in ways that my own father never could. And the best of these–the most ever-present–was Robin.
You see, the great thing about the small pantheon of men and women I call heroes is, they’re all genre-bending, convention-flouting, deeply human, and thus deeply flawed, but also deeply perfect specimens of the species. We have had sore few creatives who not only took top honours but redefined our very preconceptions about what we believed their job, their very purpose was.
In Robin Williams, we had the Pagliacci of our times, for a good three or four generations. He wrote and starred in the laugh track of our lives. And yet, even in the early days, he knew he had so much more to say and do than simply make us laugh. He committed to screen that most dangerous of all acts: the comedian as dramatist. He gave us Mork. He gave us a living, breathing Popeye. And then he gave us his take on T. S. Garp. He continually bounded between the twin poles of humour and pathos, but in him, they were the same thing. Is it any wonder he isn’t with us today? A man who felt so deeply about his times and his world; a comedian who risked his career to give us drama before nearly anyone, with the possible exception of Bill Murray. Nowadays, we all know and even expect that comedians can and should expose their more serious side. In many ways, we don’t trust or love comedians as much if they can’t show us their soft interior, even though many comedians would very literally rather die than expose themselves so. But Robin Williams dared to go there, at a time when Hollywood was ill-prepared to take a comedian seriously. And in so doing, he kicked open the door for everyone else to follow, if they dared.
I used to have a stage name, which fairly presumptuously assumed I was ever going to be a famous singer/songwriter: Philo Layne, the Philosophical Clown. I hadn’t really thought about it too much, but when I created that archetypal mask to wear, I was thinking more of Robin Williams than anyone else. Sprightly, quick-witted, humourous, but with barbs and teeth, and also with grace and humanity. Hmmn. Maybe there’s some George Carlin and Bill Murray in there, too. But Robin is the giant. He was the first to truly nail the comedian-as-dramatist schtick. He brought warmth and humour to drama, and dramatic depth–what we call gravitas–to comedy. He could be the light-hearted clown for his children, the manic pixie for his stand-up audiences, he could play a boy and a hero, a teacher and a healer, an angel or a monster, a politician, a mad king, a father, a mother, a dreamer, and lest we forget, he could even play an alien, a pirate or a sailor on occasion. He did all of those things and more, and he was successful at it. George never really got to play anything other than George Carlin. Bill played dramas, but it took him decades to get the accolades he deserved. Robin prefigured all of that almost from the start.
Everyone knows Robin struggled with addiction. Mostly very successfully, but his high-octane work ethic sometimes brought him too close to the edge. He fell off the wagon in 2006, but got right back on. Fallible, human, but determined and devoted to the safety of the people he loved. He made no secret of his struggle, but he usually came out on top.
I’m not the only person eulogizing Robin this morning. I’m not even close to being the first or the last, and I’m certainly nothing like the most famous. But I write just the same, because the man was important, special, unique, in that absolutely correct sense of the word that is so often abused and misused by pundits in popular media. I’m detecting some mawkish sentimentality in my tone. Time to bring it down.
Robin taught me more about how to be a man, through his work and through his words, than pretty much any other actor or comedian I can think of. I’ve only really been touched by writers and musicians as deeply. I find it interesting that he proclaimed Genesis his favourite band at the VH1 awards ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_Uhhiqf7MA ). I find that connection very telling. I don’t know if he was being entirely honest there, but I choose to believe so, because the Robin I knew would never lie to me… unless he really had to.
Perhaps that’s why we’re all in such shock. Robin lied. He made us believe he was healthy, that he was holding it together. He had returned to stand-up, returned to hard work, returned to delivering laughs with lessons, returned to teaching us as he entertained us. Perhaps we should have asked the question, ‘why now?’ But can we be blamed for missing the signs, if indeed there were any? He was a brilliant actor. He made us believe in so many things. What was one more trick from the Trickster? Child’s play, really. Just keep working, just keep smiling, and never let them see your tears.
I wish I could have said something, done something, to help this man who had helped me in so many ways. But of course I couldn’t. He knew untold millions, and I have to assume, some small few of those millions knew him far better than I ever did. The old joke goes, a man walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says he’s so sad, he just can’t see the point of living. The psychiatrist tells him, ‘Pagliacci, the greatest clown of all time, is in town tonight. Go see him, and you will surely laugh.” “But doctor,” the man replied, “I AM Pagliacci.”
When you consider how unique Robin was, perhaps it tells us the one thing we need to know about the why. Perhaps, just perhaps, after all these years, it was getting too hard to laugh off all of the disappointment and the sorrow. Perhaps there just wasn’t anyone who truly understood where he was coming from. Staying clean and sober for as many years as he did, and still maintaining the level and quality of work that he did, couldn’t have been easy. Perhaps…
Speculation. We don’t need speculation now. We need to understand. But more than that, we need to know that things are going to get better. We–and by we, I mean I–needed to hear some good news. Needed to see that there was a way through the morass. Needed to know that it is going to get better. And I know I personally was looking to the likes of Robin for that reassurance.
So much left to say. And also, words don’t want to come. WordPress tells me I’m at 1185 words, and I still feel like I’ve missed the point. So let’s cut to the chase. Robin was like the father I never had. He was certainly there for me more than my biological father was, even if he was always on the other side of the screen. Is that mawkish? I don’t know. I tried to say something here, but all I could come up with is, another of the small pantheon of special, damaged, perfect heroes is gone, destroyed by the very thing that made him amazing; his incomparable mind.
I enjoy most of Robin’s work, drawing comfort and inspiration from pretty near everything he committed to the screen (Flubber wasn’t really made for me). I never met him in person. Never saw him perform live. I’m not even aware of having been in the same city with him, let alone the same building, or the same room. He was not my father. He was just this guy I used to watch from afar. But in my life, I’ve had so few male role models, it’s amazing I even function. I figure Robin was the closest thing I had to a father figure in the pantheon of celebrity heroes. And I suspect I never thought he’d die, let alone commit suicide. Something about him seemed immortal. He’d survived the worst of it, so how could he die? He was impervious. Wasn’t he?
1415 words and I still feel like I missed. Should I start over? Delete this post and go back to the top? Would I say anything different? Probably not. My feelings are all a jumble. See, it’s not mawkish sentimentality that’s guiding me. It’s a need to put this weird loss in perspective. Lots of celebrities that meant something to me have died in the last few years. In my lifetime, I’ve lost at least a handful of heroes. Why is this one different? Could it be as simple as feeling that he was a kindred spirit? That I lost a chance to meet someone who resonated on a similar frequency? Or is it really that I lost my role model?
I don’t know anymore. I’m middle-aged, now. I’ve struggled with bipolar disorder and trying not to lose my shit for so long, the idea of loosening up and just shining brightly, even if only from time to time, is so vital to me, that the idea that someone I idolised, who did so many of the things I wanted to do, said so many things I wish I’d said… it makes me question a lot of things. I’m not likely to stop needing to reach out, but now I wonder if there will ever be a time when I can just look back on my work and feel good, look back on my life and feel a sense of accomplishment. Robin lived a life that was so much more spectacularly alive and successful than I’ve had. If a downswing could take all of that sense of purpose away from him, what does any of it mean?
1691 words. Still not there.
Damn it. Robin Williams is dead. We’re in fucking trouble now. When the Clown Prince abdicates, the kingdom follows.
Anyone reading this thinking they need to keep an eye on me can relax. I’ve been a little down over the past few days, but believe it or not, I’m bouncing back again. The medication that keeps me from overreaching also keeps me from sinking too far down. I wonder what sort of therapy would have been right for Robin. And would he have been Robin if he’d found it?
Maybe that’s the thing: what would life be like if we weren’t all always trying to be safe and secure. Would we be more like Robin, or would he still have been further out there, like a shaman, reading the winds and the clouds and stars and telling the global village what to do to bring the rains for a bountiful harvest, or how to find spiritual relief?
I don’t know. I’m still struggling with the realisation that he was my male role model. The crazy king of philosopher clowns, who showed me how to be a great human hero, is dead. 1895 words, and I still haven’t said one truly necessary thing.
Goodbye, Robin. Save me a seat, okay?