It is with a heavy heart that we pass on the tragic news of Robin Williams’ death at the ridiculously young age of 63. One of the icons of TV and cinema for over 35 years was found dead in his home, the cause of death noted as suicide by asphyxia.
Whilst it had been public knowledge that Williams had been battling depression for some time, it is unfathomable to think a character made of such pure unbridled joy would have to suffer such pain that he would take his own life. It is both a powerful lesson to the world about the effects of depression, and an even more powerful message that it can so easily affect anyone at any age.
I’m not sure where to begin with accurately summing up the man. Robin Williams was one of those huge presences and personalities. For people like me born in the late 70s and early 80s we were brought up watching his incredible body of work. Whether that be TV comedy like Mork and Mindy or his myriad film roles that span the entire spectrum of comedy, drama and even horror. Williams could, and did, do it all.
There’s literally a gold mine of cinema magic to trawl through when looking back over Williams’ career. To list his standout work (Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Hook, Aladdin, Mrs Doubtfire, Jumanji, What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams, Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo, World’s Greatest Dad), is to namecheck many people’s formative and favourite films growing up. And yeah he starred in more than a handful of stinkers, but when you work this prolifically for this long you’re bound to have a few misfires. The key was he did keep working; an unstoppable tour-de-force of humour and uninhibited thrill making which attracted the world’s love with a magnetism virtually no other performers possess.
I’d like to say a few words on my two personal favourite Williams films, given that these are movies that changed me in different ways: Mrs Doubtfire was the first 12 rated film I saw at the cinema. I wasn’t actually 12 years old yet when it came out (I was close), but I guess my mum thought based on the upbeat farcical comedy trailers that it would be wholly light viewing for a child my age, and let me go see it. And truth be told Mrs Doubtfire remains one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, getting better with each re-watch, but that’s not what I remember most about it. Instead I see Mrs Doubtfire as one of the great tragedies depicting the modern age. It is the most soul crushingly realistic depiction of divorce and how that affects all parties involved.
Whilst the film is bravely even handed with its characters, giving everyone their point of view and letting them shine, it is Williams that we fall in love with; from his hugely improvised comedic stylings to the heartbreaking scenes in court as he begs for time with his children – we see a father; a true father in all senses of the word and it is one we both identify with and believe in. To take a generally silly natured character and be able to flip him on a dime to tear jerking tragedy is the greatest talent a performer can possess and Williams more than nailed it here.
The second is Awakenings, which I didn’t see until 16 years after its original release date. I’ll admit that the reason I sought to see the film was to watch De Niro’s transformation to the catatonic patient Leonard Lowe. But after the credits rolled all I could think of was Williams. The arc he took his character Dr Malcolm Sayer through was nothing short of perfection – starting the story as an awkward, insular and well meaning if a little detached scientist, he transforms into a man obsessed with bettering people’s lives. You can see the moments of change as his patients regain their humanity – it’s all in that Williams smile; a smile that tells you his sense of wonder, his amazed happiness and his deep love for the people around him.
It is well recounted that in life he was as his very best characters. He was loving and supportive to everyone around him, including aspiring actors and comedians with whom he was always happy to share advice and mentoring as the very best people always are. And of course his life was peppered with comedy, the man was ready to make everyone smile at any given time. And he did that. He made people happy wherever he went. Which makes the bitter taste of his depression all the more difficult to swallow.
This year has been truly horrible for the world in terms of the deaths of performing greats. But whilst Philip Seymour Hoffman rocked the world of cinephiles, and Rik Mayall shattered the UK, I believe Robin Williams had such a powerful and far reaching grip on the world that it will take some time for us all to recover.
Another hero gone far too soon. We will miss you.