As I write this, social media has been overtaken by the news that actor and comedian Robin Williams was found dead in his northern California home, apparently the victim of suicide. His publicist noted that Williams – who openly admitted to his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction – was battling severe depression recently, possibly fueled by reported financial troubles. Williams had also recently checked into rehab to “fine tune” his sobriety.
Williams had a long and prolific career. He was known in the 1970s for his particularly manic standup style, which he then brought over to his breakout gig as the titular spaceman Mork on the sitcom “Mork & Mindy.” Williams was famous for ad-libbing his character so much that scripts were left with entire pages blank just to give Williams room to do his thing.
Williams then turned to movies, and starred in no small number of them, including a number of critical and box office successes. Along the way, he won pretty much every accolade an actor like him could have won, including a 1998 Academy Award for Best Supporting Role in Good Will Hunting. He had three projects in post-production at the time of his death.
While Williams was known as a comic, not all of his roles were light. About half of his filmography were serious roles that revealed how, for all of his supercharged clowning, he was also capable of tapping into the kind of deep melancholy that seems to drive many comedians. Williams’ work was about tears, whether they came from laughter or sorrow. Maybe with him, there was little difference.
There have been a number of online tributes to Williams. The one that matters most is a statement from his daughter, Zelda. What comes second are from those who knew Williams best, as a man of genuine sensitivity and generosity. It is hard to resist the urge to mythologize those who have died, but Williams left behind a huge number of people with no small number of good things to say about him as a professional, but more importantly, as a person.
But the most numerous tributes are from his fans. One features a screenshot from the Disney animated feature Aladdin (in which Williams was the voice of the Genie) quoting the line, “Genie, you’re free.” Another features a quote from Williams in which he says, “We are only given a little spark of madness. We mustn’t lose it.” Lines he said from the film Dead Poet’s Society, when he exhorted young men to seize their own destinies. Lines from the film Patch Adams, where he plays a pediatrician, and speaks on the difference between accepting death and battling illness. The list goes on.