Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Light in the Darkness: A Tribute to Robin Williams

On August 11th, 2014, Robin Williams passed away. Unlike so many media outlets and other folks talking it up at the time, I didn't personally care at all how he died. I didn't need to know the details of how it all came to an end, nor did I want to know. All I needed to know, or cared about, was the knowledge that he was gone. And the knowledge that went hand in hand with that: that our world was a little darker for his passing.

When I was a little kid in the 80s and early 90s, I didn't know much of Mr. Williams except for the old TV show "Mork & Mindy" (pictured above), which at one point in my early youth saw reruns on TV. Itself a spin-off of the show "Happy Days", which I was less familiar with, Mork & Mindy wasn't a great show, but it was quirky, and silly, and had it's own kind of charm, which was mostly attributed to Robins' portrayal of a weird, naive, but friendly alien. It wasn't one of my favorite shows, but I liked it, and of course it had his unforgettable alien catch-phrase "Nanu Nanu".

Fantastic casting, weird movie.

At some point in my childhood, I also remember seeing his first major film, his portrayal in the live action "Popeye the Sailor" film. In all honesty, even having gone back and watched it as an adult, the casting was really superb, the parts of Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, Wimpy, and even Pappy, were all pretty much spot on. I don't have much memory from seeing it as a kid, except (of course) for the climactic scene involving a giant octopus. How could I forget that, it was a monster after all. It's not a bad film by any means, it just has a very off-kilter flow to it, and a very "odd" set of musical songs in it. Still, it's memorable, though hardly exemplary of how and why I would come to love and remember Robin Williams later in life.

Once again, great casting, and this time, also a great film.

I think my first two experiences, what I would call "genuine exposures" to Mr. Williams' work, came in the early 90s. One was his part as the voice of the Genie in Disney's "Aladdin", and the other, as can be seen above, was his part as an adult Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg's "Hook". Both were fantastic parts, really showcasing his talent and comedic genius, as well as just his downright likable-ness. It was during this time in the 90s when he had a real stretch of movies, in fact, that made it easy to see why a kid could become a big fan of his. Not only was he funny and amazing in Aladdin and Hook, but he also played the voice of Batty in "Fern Gully" (another great animated movie), the eccentric toy factory owner Leslie Zevo in "Toys", his unforgettable turn as "Mrs. Doubtfire", and of course one of the first movies I actually got to see in theaters (after that long childhood stretch where my grandmother said it was a waste of money), his role as Alan Parrish in the awesome "Jumanji".

It was a combination of all those movies, really, but most especially Aladdin and Hook, that really won me over and made Mr. Williams one of my favorite actors. His heart, his kindness, his humor, his frenetic energy, and his warmth, just really shined through on the screen. But this wasn't the end, fortunately. As I grew into my teens, I would be introduced to a whole other side of this man, and it wound up touching me even more deeply.

"O' Captain, My Captain"

In either my freshman or sophomore year in high school, I was finally exposed to what is, in my opinion at least, arguably his best film, 1989's "Dead Poets Society". This film really inspired me and inflamed my imagination at that tender age. After first seeing this film, and then later similar films that he would go on a stretch of in the late 90s, more somber and sometimes darker, but always more thoughtful films, it really fit right into the more somber, often darker, and ever thoughtful (and emotional) years of my teens. The changes in my own life were often very tough to deal with, and just as I had found Mr. Williams' energetic, weird, funny earlier roles an inspiration in my childhood, I found these later films (and the earlier "Poets") to be an even greater inspiration as I was struggling my way into adulthood.

Imperfect, but an amazing film nonetheless.

When I saw "Poets", it really inspired me with it's "never stop learning, question everything, and never be afraid to BE yourself" motif. Even with it's (SPOILERS) very somber ending, it still really spoke to me, and I would say it was definitely one of the most important films of that period of my life, ages 15-18. Even though I personally found it very hard sometimes to live by, I have always held onto his lesson about "Carpe Diem", trying to seize every day, and live it as if it were your last. Then in 1998, when I was 16 years old, "Patch Adams" came along, I would honestly say, right when I needed it to. I was going through very dark times, hard times, but I also had a heart full of fire, and a head drowning in ideas (and ideals). "Patch Adams", while not totally true to the life of the real man, was a great, bittersweet, but touching film, and it really inspired me on a personal level perhaps more than any other I have ever seen, before or since. Not that I want to be a medical doctor, but the story it told, of bucking rigid paradigms, and saying "Fuck the System", doing things your own way, and most importantly, trying to help people and make a difference, no matter who or what tries to hold you down and stop you.....all of that was music to my young ears. It really set my mind alight, and I was totally enraptured with thoughts of grand designs and saving the world after I walked out of that theater. That movie really meant a lot to me then, and I still remember it fondly now (even in spite of the one, super dark, totally unnecessary scene they made up for it).

Other movies from that period, that I also found inspiring and thought provoking, were "What Dreams May Come" and "Bicentennial Man". He had two really great stretches of films, first family films in the early to mid 90s, and then these more thoughtful, more mature fare in the late 90s, and it was all golden, for the most part. The 90s were really his decade, as much as they were the likes of Jim Carrey and others. And I can honestly say, that for all the other figures and persons who helped shape and mold me growing up, from Ray Harryhausen and Shigeru Miyamoto, to Ishiro Honda and Stan Lee, to Jim Henson and George Lucas, to Walt Disney and Edgar Allen Poe, or James Hetfield and J.R.R. Tolkien, etc., he absolutely stands among them.

He's gone, but of course, never forgotten. He'll always be one of the greatest of all time, and like anyone else, he should never be remembered for how he died, but instead, how he lived. RIP.