As the live-action adaptation of Aladdin hits theatres, Michael Vecchio takes a moment to remember the late great Robin Williams.
“I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.”
It is easy to look at the list of the all-time greatest comics, and see a long and varied collection of names; from the pioneering team of Laurel and Hardy to such modern names like George Carlin or Richard Pryor. But while the names on this list may vary from person to person, there is undoubtedly one singular name that would be present on everyone’s rankings, that of Robin Williams.
Five years after his tragic death, the void left behind by this master performer remains most noticeable; yet as time moves on to ten, twenty, thirty years, the gift of Robin Williams’ comedic genius will forever remain in our collective hearts and minds. Like the greatest artistic geniuses in world history, the name of Robin Williams will remain an immortal symbol of excellence.
An immensely talented entertainer whose energetic and manic performances could bring anyone to laughs, what further distinguished him from his other comic peers was his tremendous versatility. His ability to draw smiles was certainly never in question, and yet he proved on numerous occasions that he could put on the mantle of drama and everyday humanity to embody stirring, emotional and sometimes creepy characters. And so Robin Williams wasn’t simply a comedian or dramatic actor, he was an entertainer in every sense of the word.
Throughout his 40 year career, he managed to do one thing consistently until the end—- to entertain. After training at the Julliard School he would begin his stand up career in San Francisco, before his breakthrough in the early 80’s sitcom Mork & Mindy. It was the beginning of a most brilliant career and whichever role he tackled he impressed all with his boundless enthusiasm, energy and genuine joie de vivre. Whether it was his turn as an irreverent army DJ in Good Morning Vietnam, an actor masquerading as a Scottish maid in Mrs. Doubtfire, or the voice (and heart) of the shape-shifting, joke-cracking Genie in Aladdin (a role for which he improvised many of his lines), he never ceased to amaze audiences with his never-ending exuberance.
But true to his gift as an all-rounded entertainer, he could transcend comedy to deliver some of his most acclaimed dramatic roles. From an inspiring teacher in Dead Poets Society, an experimental physician in Awakenings, or a solitary photo technician obsessed with a loving family in One Hour Photo (and so many more), he displayed an admirable versatility in portraying a bevy of different characters. When he won the Academy Award in 1998 for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting, he solidified his place as not only an actor of great comedic ability but as a well-rounded performer comfortable in numerous characterizations.
It is precisely because of this uniqueness that a profound sorrow was ever present at the news of the death of a person who brought the world so much cheer. To think that a man renowned for his joyousness could be consumed by thoughts of the darkest nature is most distressing; thoughts that would lead to the taking of his own life. How is it possible we asked that a man who could bring laughter and joy to everyone could not bring it to himself? Although we may never know, the need to understand and treat the crippling disease of depression has never been more relevant.
If there is anything to be gained by the terrible incident of his suicide, perhaps it is an increased spotlight on the illness that is depression; it is necessary to recognize the illness is more than just a feeling of “being sad”, but a potentially disastrous malady. Yet there is hope for those who feel there is no way out, from counseling, hotlines, medication, and other services. We must as a collective society erode any stigmas of having depression and embrace those who suffer from it unless we want to further impoverish the world through loss of talents. Why Robin Williams, a man whose public life was widely celebrated but whose private one was clearly troubled, felt trapped with nowhere to go may be unknowable, but we can only to hope to recognize and treat this sickness in others.
And so five years have now passed since the sad goodbye of this ultimate entertainer, but still, his legacy remains. While his life’s journey may have ended in tears, it was a joyride from the beginning. Each of us has a favorite role of his and can remember when he brought us laughter, tears, and admiration (often all at once). Five years after his passing, his closing act continues to shock but he leaves us with performances ready to entertain us whenever we are in need of laughs, inspiration, and fun. It is assuredly the greatest legacy of the modern day genius Robin Williams. An entertainer who left us too soon, but will live on through his timeless art.