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Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams: My View of a Man We Never Saw

Robin Williams.  As of this writing, just hours after the world learned of the death of Robin Williams, we have been told that the man who entertained millions has apparently died from suicide.  Shock is hardly a worthy term.  We are tempted to giggle; it must be a joke.  Some hoax thrown at us from the zany man who gave us Mork from Ork and Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire.  This is just the sort of gag he'd love to pull.  And when we'd learn of the hoax, when we'd discover how we'd been hoodwinked, we'd laugh, just as hard as we ever laughed at the man's improvised iambic pentameter.

We are also tempted to get angry.  How in the world could a man this successful, this accomplished, succumb to depression?  Who is he to be depressed?  How dare he?  Did he not learn anything from his own movies?  Wasn't he paying attention to what he'd been telling us all those years?  Didn't we see how tragic it was when Peter forgot how to enjoy life once he'd become an adult?  That we must seize the day and suck the marrow from its bones?  That in a world at war we could still look around and find those who need to be shown a little love and respect?  That we must never, ever, give in to despair lest we be damned in our own dismal hell for all eternity?

But we know that it matters little how successful the man was.  It matters little what inspirational moments he gave us on the big screen or our little screens at home.  We'll never know what was inside the man.  We may have caught glimpses of him.  We may have been witness to a few of the deeper recesses of his being.  But for those of us who never knew him--his fans, his critics, his voyeurs--we'll never know who he really was.

We'll read plenty about him in the next few days, weeks, and even years from now.  Exclusive interviews will tell us who he really was under all his Popeye muscles and Jumanji jungle clothes.  We'll learn the real Robin Williams shined through in his performance as a frustrated professor of English in a mid-century boys school, or that he was revealing the true Robin Williams when he slipped into his child-like wonder-filled beloved alien role of Mork.

That will all come later.  The sage co-workers and friends and estranged family members will nod wisely, speak softly, allude to inner demons, and finish with a profound anecdote that won't have a chance in Dante's hell of matching Williams' powerful delivery of such lines as "that the powerful play goes on...and you may contribute a verse."

I never knew this darker side of Robin Williams.  But let me tell you what side of him I did know.  You see, I raised five children from the early nineties until today, and Robin Williams played a part in that.  His were the movies my children picked out time and again to watch, re-watch, then watch all over again.  Hook, Aladdin, Flubber, Jumanji.  That pixie smile that erupted on Peter's face at the end of Hook was the same smile that blossomed on everyone's faces watching his movies.  All of us, adults included, were easily reminded of what it was to enjoy childhood, to imagine ourselves flying through the air, to see and partake of the wonders that surround us every day.  To find a friend and hold on to him or her to the very end.

And yet, even as he laughed, he would occasionally frown and allow a tear to roll down that cheek where once a smile had flourished: What Dreams May Come, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam.  These movies also came along for our kids, as they grew older, learning more about the world and all its complexities.  We didn't always agree with the world-views presented in them, but they were always invaluable for stirring debate and discussion with our teens.

And for this I would thank Robin Williams if I could.  And while it is too late for that now, I can still do it here, in this shocking moment just hours after his passing.  Only a few days ago I'd seen a movie listing with him in it and I said to my wife "you know, we haven't heard or seen anything about Robin Williams for a while." I don't know the whys and hows of what he went through these last few years.  There will be plenty of people who will want to tell us all about it.  And when that happens, and we think we've discovered the real Robin Williams, I suggest you take a little time to remember the man we did know.  The man on screen.  The man who entertained us.  The man he gave us on the world's stage.

He did, indeed, contribute a verse.

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