Robin Williams saw us.
Robin Williams heard us.
Robin Williams paid attention.
Too many of us, myself included, see the Other only to the extent that we do not bump into each other as we move from here to there in the course of our day. Too many of us, myself included, do not want to look too closely at the human condition. And, when we do set a steady gaze on our humanity we too often look with shame and blame. We judge with a false consciousness created by a social and cultural system that undergirds a political economy that allows for and justifies economic inequality and an ideology that some people are just better and more deserving than others. We judge with a judgment that tells us that the pain that other human beings feel, that the tragedy they suffer will not touch us because we are different.
The life and death of Robin Williams show us that we are all vulnerable. Williams wore both dramatic masks of comedy and tragedy in such a way that hid him from us and revealed us to ourselves. This is what great artists do. However, Williams did his work with a virtuosity, brilliance, and purity that will cause that work to last through time.
An actor trained at The Juilliard School, Robin Williams was also a stand-up comedian who brought together a legion of characters to make us laugh and think. He was an improvisational genius, doing comedy on the jazz, and like Charlie Parker, he took an art form to an entirely new level. Many comedians do impressions and most are good at improvisation. The late great Jonathan Winters, a mentor and a friend of Williams, presented a comedic stream of consciousness that could cause one to laugh until it hurt. Williams did the same thing with more characters inside more situations at rapid speed. His carried inside his heart and mind a late 20th century and early 21st century global cast of characters that helped us see that our world truly is a global village.
For example, in an interview with James Lipton for “Inside the Actor’s Studio”, he uses a woman’s scarf to present a variety of characters. In a little under five minutes, he evokes a magician, fashion designer, female Bollywood movie director, an Iranian woman, a gay Jewish rabbi, an iron chef, a bull fighter using a pink cape and a bull who is annoyed by the pink cape, a prisoner under Amish house arrest and a car coming out of a car wash. His ability to riff off of almost any subject required a different kind of collaborative process.
In the 1999 documentary Get Bruce, a movie about Bruce Vilanch, an Emmy Award winning comic writer who has written several Oscar shows, Vilanch says that one does not write for Robin Williams but at Robin Williams. “You kind of throw the material in a cage, and you see what happens,” Vilanch said. In the movie, Williams takes off on being a privileged only child who grew up in a large house that the family’s African-American maid thinks is haunted. His gives us the voice of the maid within the context of the “X-files” television show that becomes an impression of Rochester, Jack Benny’s butler, then to Jack Benny. Moments later, he is a Latino who says he was abducted by aliens, then the alien police. He speaks of rhythm, love, and aliens all with a Latin vibe.
Vilanch observes, “Most of Robin’s stuff happens when he is on the stage working the material through. Writing with him is basically hanging on while he goes through that process.”
On the surface it would seem that his was a gift from God that required no work. This would be a mistake. It is the same mistake some people made when they heard Charlie Parker play saxophone and thought it was a cacophony of notes that anyone could pick up a horn and blow. My guess is that Robin Williams put in a great deal of effort perfecting accents and body movements. He no doubt put in hours of practice to be able to move from one impression to another and from one sentence to another. He was very much a physical performer, known for a kind of frenetic presentation. Yet, at the same time, he could act with great control. In the movie Insomnia his portrayal of a killer is chillingly spare.
While he won the Golden Globe six times and won an Oscar for his performance in the movie Good Will Hunting, we remember him more for his comedy. And when we think of the great comics of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, those who rise above the rest are those who challenged the status quo. Williams understood that Lenny Bruce’s trouble with the law was not so much about this or that particular word, rather it was about the concepts that the words represented, concepts that challenged and chipped away at an oppressive status quo. As a young performer, he appeared on Richard Pryor’s short-lived television show and observed first hand Pryor’s battles with network executives. He also watched as Pryor battled his demons of drug addiction, and he saw multiple sclerosis reduce Pryor to a shadow of his former self until at the end of his life he was telling jokes from a wheelchair.
Williams did not fight the high profile battles of Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, but he gave his time to causes such as homelessness and traveled to several countries to entertain US military personnel. In the best prophetic tradition of the comic fool, he showed us the absurdity of our politics while he made us laugh.
In the movies he often played characters who lived on the margins of society. In The Fisher King he plays a professor gone mad with post-traumatic stress disorder, and in the movie World’s Greatest Dad, he plays the loser father of a despicable teenage son who accidentally kills himself. He eventually finds his place and his peace with a reclusive neighbor and his son’s only friend, all of whom exist at the edges of life unnoticed. In the movie What Dreams May Come, he takes us to heaven.
Now, he is gone. He suffered from depression, and since his death, we have learned that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In the great Shakespearean question — “To Be or Not to Be” — he decided not to be. In the brilliant light of his celebrity, we are forced to see depression and suicide that takes too many loved ones from too many people. Because we love Robin Williams, attention must be paid of the threat to all the others who we do not see and do not know.
On one level, if we are depressed, it is evidence that we are paying attention to this world where we see war, poverty, disease, police armed with military type equipment, unarmed men choked to death and shot to death in the streets by the police whose purpose is to protect and to serve. We see existential nihilism and absurdity on a daily basis. However, when depression becomes so deep, so thick, so heavy, so ubiquitous, so relentless that we can see no glimpse of hope or joy, we should seek professional help quickly without hesitation or shame. We should do it in memory of Robin Williams.
When suicidal thoughts take up residence in our minds and refuse to move, we should call a suicide hotline. We should do it in memory of Robin Williams because he shared his genius and his work with us in ways that brought joy to our existence. Sustenance and joy are the moral purposes of life. We can demonstrate our gratitude to him by taking mental health and depression seriously, by removing the stigma attached to them, and by encouraging those we know who have suicidal thoughts to seek help.
In a movie released in early 2014 — The Angriest Man in Brooklyn — Williams plays Henry Altmann, a man who believes that he has 90 minutes to live. The drama occurs as he tries to find and to tell his family he loves them. The main character’s dates are the same as Williams’ — 1951-2014. Altmann tells his son that the dates do not matter, but it is the dash, what happens between birth and death, that matters. In the time between his birth and death, Robin Williams achieved fame as a young man. He partied hard with John Belushi and with singer songwriter Harry Nilsson and survived. He went into rehab when his children came and stayed clean and sober for twenty years. When his addiction returned, he went back into rehab and was clean and sober at the end of his life. He took his stand with the least among us and made the world laugh and cry and think. Robin Williams’ dash is splendid. His legacy is intact and will live for years to come.
At the end of the movie, Altmann says of himself, “He knew he could rest in peace secure in the knowledge that somehow he would live in the hearts of those who loved him.”
Robin Williams will live forever in our hearts because we love him for the joy he brought to us. He will live in the hearts of human beings not yet born because he has left a body of work that will continue to challenge, enlighten, and entertain for many years to come.
There is more laughter in heaven now that he has arrived.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.