On Monday afternoon I was listening to a news broadcast from Delhi on the Tune-In Radio app. At the top of the hour the anchorwoman listed the major headlines. Terrorists strike in Kashmir, a national anti-corruption campaign, preparations for India’s Independence Day – every story entirely India-focused. There was nothing about Gaza, Iraq, Ebola, or anything beyond the nation’s borders, except for the final item in the round-up. The actor Robin Williams had died of apparent suicide. It was one of those double-take moments. Could I have heard that right? Why would such a story make headlines in India? And why would a man so beloved choose to kill himself?
I am just about a generation younger than Robin Williams, which means I was a tween when watching Mork & Mindy: old enough to know that Mork wasn’t really from another planet, but young enough to identify with his sense of wonder at our world. At the close of every show, Mork stood alone on stage and communicated with Orson, his unseen superior on the planet Ork. He told what he had learned that week about these humans and their curious ways. Those soliloquies were meant to be funny, touching, thoughtful commentaries on society, and I can’t recall a thing he said. What stayed with me was his role as an outsider, an observer of the craziness around us. For me, this is what Robin Williams did best. He acted like a madman, a revved up, explosive jokester, but only a trenchant critic could turn mania into comedy. It wasn’t his own outrageous outbursts that made him funny.
His brilliance came by reflecting the absurdity around us.
Several years later, as a college freshman in the mid-1980s, my professor told a Robin Williams joke that struck me as so perfect that, decades later as a professor myself, I use it in my own lectures. The line is that when Robin Williams’s agent called to say he wanted Robin to star in a comedy about Vietnam, Williams answered, “I’m not interested, but call me back when you decide to make a musical about the Holocaust.”
Williams flawlessly fit the part of a misfit. He sparkled as the nutty scientist in Awakenings who dared to try an unorthodox treatment that brought his comatose patients back to life. He played the English professor who broke out of the classroom, leading his pupils into nature, into risk-taking, and away from the crushing mundanity of followed expectations. He portrayed the psychiatrist who connected with a tortured, gifted, and abused young man. Before we meet Williams in that film, we see a series of shrinks naively attempting to deal with the protagonist. They fail because they treat him as a type, a category to which their pretentious theories can be applied. Robin Williams succeeds because he sees Will Hunting as a person, not a profile. But we can imagine that Williams also relates to Hunting’s loneliness as a man with gifts that few others possess or even comprehend.
In a very different film, when a young woman asks T. S. Garp what his initials stand for, he says, “Terribly Sexy. I used to be Terribly Shy, but I changed.” Later in the film, and later in Garp’s life, when asked again, he answers, “Terribly Sad. It used to be Terribly Sexy, but I changed.” Williams made a magnificent Garp: the son of a feminist nurse who broke all social conventions, impregnating herself by mounting a dying soldier under her care. We watch Garp colliding with most clichéd life events, from losing his virginity to facing mid-life marriage troubles and affairs. All the while he seems surrounded by interesting others yet awfully alone. A skilled actor gives a character the depth that makes him seem real. But with Robin Williams you wondered if he was, at least in part, the characters he played.
In the closing scene of Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams is brought before a child custody judge to explain his unusual behavior, dressing as a matronly English nanny in order to be near his children. Williams pleads insanity, confessing that he’s crazy about his kids. He offers a soliloquy akin to Mork calling Orson. He begs the judge not to keep him from his children, but the judge finds his recent antics too “unorthodox.” Williams essentially cries out that he is not the crazy one; it’s the system that’s screwed up. It was the outsider, serving up social commentary, calling out for change. It was what Mork and Mrs. Doubtfire and most of Williams’s best-known roles played upon. We recognized, consciously or not, that Robin Williams was a man who stood apart, who didn’t quite fit in, but who had ingenious ways to make us laugh at the systemic madness we’ve created.
Maybe in the coming days and weeks we will learn what drove Williams to take his life. Perhaps we’ll hear about the daemon of depression, and maybe we’ll construct a narrative that helps make sense of what now seems so hard to swallow: that a man so gifted, rich and active, loved by family, friends, and fans, famous around the world, could not find a reason to live. Suicide is the triumph of today over the promise of tomorrow. It is when the present’s pains become so bloated that they crowd out hope of change. When Don McLean paid tribute to a different artist, another observer who stood apart and ended his life, he wrote, “I could have told you Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” I don’t know whom the world was really meant for, but our world surely needed Robin Williams. It feels heavier without him.