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Like millions of others, I knew Robin Williams as a famous actor and comedian extraordinaire. I was also familiar with some details of his personal life, like that he had a house in San Francisco, was married more than once, and was a recovering addict. Other than that, I didn’t know much about him.
On the other hand, I’m not sure how much the details circulated by the gossip and celebrity industries tell us about a person. It seems like the more minutiae we are peddled — what the celebrity eats, who he is seen with, behind-the-scenes gossip about his quirks and idiosyncrasies — the less a sense of him we really form.
But, as is the case with all genuine artists, I think it is also true that the connection we feel to him through his performances is absolutely real. Whether he finds expression as a painter, writer, musician, dancer or actor — there are some aspects of an artist we can only really know through his work.
Many fans first encountered Robin Williams on the TV show Mork & Mindy. That was also the case with me, but I don’t remember the show so well anymore. If ever it finds its way onto the rerun channels, I’d like to check out Williams’s lightning wit and spontaneous inventiveness in their first broad public reception.
But I will never forget my first screening of “Dead Poets Society” which happily coincided with my first exhilarating weeks at university.
In the film Williams plays a sympathetic, soulful and irreverent English teacher at a 1950s boys prep school. The film follows a group of seniors as they form a secret club to read aloud expansive and daring poetry in a forbidden, spooky nighttime cave. As they become inspired and emboldened by the camaraderie of their poetry society, the sparkling and evanescent words, and the antics of their fearless teacher, Williams, they begin, with mixed results, to learn the consequences of their exultant motto carpe diem.
It is a movie with many themes — the tribulations of coming of age, the value of mentorship, class and societal expectations and restrictions, and the desires of the soul weighted against the imperative of earning a living. It also celebrates the transformative potential in art — in this case, poetry — and the power and meaning of inspiration.
It was one of many movies, like “Patch Adams”, “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Good Will Hunting”, where Williams plays a variation on a theme: an iconoclastic, funny, creative and deeply moral presence whose rare combination of spark and goodness influences the lives of others.
The more we came to know Williams — not only through these performances but in his many appearances on talk or late night shows — the more it became clear that he was not simply handed a lot of great lines, but pulled many of them out of the air in virtuoso riffs that awed and dazzled even the most jaded, seen-it-all host.
So inescapable was Williams’s unusual combo of improvisational gusto and sensitive perceptiveness that I think that it was impossible to completely strip either of these traits from his roles. He was not the kind of actor who disappeared completely into a part. Instead it was as though we saw Williams as he would be in another life as a dazzlingly fast-witted and compassionate doctor, teacher, shrink or wartime DJ.
Williams rarely played a figure of authority but he was often a de facto moral leader — the light that shines in moments of darkness or doubt. He was the wise and laughing prophet who delivers sincere and believable pep talks, radical understanding and truth-telling, and, on the emotional side, compassion and a sense of wonderment in the crazy and strange miracle of life.
When I saw the news of his death, which quickly turned to news of his suicide, various images of Williams in his many guises flashed through my mind. And I was saddened to think that they will all now be informed by his tragic end.
But I also think it is important not to mistake the end for the whole story. It would be a disservice to his incredible life and artistry to allow his departure to overshadow his entire legacy.
I have always been struck by the fact that you can know someone for years and years, and, in spite of your best efforts, never really jibe with them. On the other hand, it is possible to know a part of someone you have never met through a meaningful, almost magical, connection to their art.
Someday soon I plan to see “Dead Poets Society” again. Some parts will undoubtedly be hard to watch, especially the last scene where the boys defy convention by staging a courageous, spontaneous tribute to Williams — their sad, and, in some ways defeated, departing leader — who is deeply heartened by this final, touching gesture of love and gratitude.
It is indeed a heart-wrenching ending. But of a wonderful, unforgettable story.