Sunday, August 17, 2014

Robin Williams: A Tragicomedy


Copyright © 2002, 2009, 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Robin Williams in One Hour Photo

I went to junior college with Robin Williams. No, I didn’t actually know him, but I certainly knew of him. At the time I was an aspiring journalist and political activist who’d just got out of high school in the spring of 1970 and edged my way back into academia at the College of Marin in spring 1971. Robin Williams was the reigning star of the college’s drama department — which, after it acquired a national and even international reputation, got rather grandly renamed the Department of Theatre Arts — and in the fall of 1971 he and the other stars of the school’s most famous production, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew relocated to the American West, had just got back from the Edinburgh Shakespeare Festival. Not only had they been invited to perform there, but Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II’s sister, and her husband had been at their last show in Scotland.
Thanks largely to Robin Williams’ popularity and the royal cachet from Princess Margaret’s attendance, The Taming of the Shrew was revived at the start of the 1971-72 fall semester and I got to see him on stage for the first time. As the play’s male lead, Petruchio, he delivered a swaggering performance that more fully lived up to Shakespeare’s demands for the role than many other actors with greater Shakespearean reputations. Later I saw him in another Shakespeare role, as Orsino, the romantic lead of Twelfth Night — which the Theatre Arts people, looking for another triumph on the level of Shrew, had intriguingly relocated to California during the Mission era. When I told this story to people after Robin Williams had become a star — but one identified with zany comedy rather than finely honed acting — those who knew the play immediately assumed he’d done one of the openly comic supporting roles. No, he was the leading man, and a fine one, too, full of romantic yearnings and thinly veiled passions.
Thanks to the success of these productions, the College of Marin Theatre Arts Department became one of the most important parts of the school, able to lease an off-campus theatre for productions for which neither the barn-like 600-seat campus auditorium nor the 100-seat workshop theatre were suitable. I saw Robin Williams at least once more, in the 100-seat space, in a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest that veered annoyingly between 1890’s period and modern dress. Williams’ costume was blue jeans and a T-shirt with an airplane propeller motif, but despite the handicap of that silly costume he was as able to make Algernon Moncrieff come to life as he had been in Shakespearean parts on the big stage.
I mention all this not to do an I-knew-him-when brag (as I said, I saw him on stage but didn’t actually know him), but because just about everything written about Robin Williams from the time he signed to do his late-1970’s sitcom Mork and Mindy until the obituaries ignored this part of his career. To read the standard histories of Williams’ career, you’d think he sprang full-blown from the stage of the Comedy Store in L.A. in 1975, got seen there by executives from Paramount and ABC and signed to do that dorky but screamingly funny show that made him a household name. I would tell people that I’d seen Robin Williams perform in Shakespeare in junior college productions, and they wouldn’t believe me. It’s not that different from the legend that America’s Queer rights movement sprang full-blown from the Stonewall Inn riot in New York City in 1969 — ignoring that there’d been sporadic Queer activism in the U.S. at least since 1926 and a continuous movement since 1950.
So when my then-girlfriend urged me to watch this great new show called Mork and Mindy with this hilarious guy named Robin Williams, I didn’t make the connection to the young man who’d started out in my junior college until I actually watched the program, and it dawned on me who Robin Williams was. I can’t say I really was a huge fan of Williams — I didn’t follow his every move or watch his every movie (some of which were pretty forgettable) — but what I saw of him, I generally liked. I remember watching Good Morning, Vietnam — his breakthrough film in which he played D.J. Adrian Cronauer, a real person (who, naturally, protested against the inaccuracies in the movie) who had done a pop-music show for the “grunts” in ’Nam. Though I found the film a bit too arbitrarily divided between a relentlessly comic first half and a tear-jerking second half, nonetheless Williams deserved the kudos he got from critics who were finally discovering what we early-1970’s College of Marin alumni had known all along: that Robin Williams was a great actor and not just a crazy improv comedian.
Not that Robin Williams was the first person to balance those talents. One of the most annoying aspects of biography writing is what I call “first-itis,” the tendency of people who write about someone to assume that they were the first person ever to do this or that. When I heard one of Williams’ TV eulogists say he was uniquely innovative in his ability to combine comedy and drama, my immediate reaction was, “Does the name ‘Charlie Chaplin’ mean anything to you?” Over the next few days I found myself ransacking my brain for the names of other actors equally adept in comedy and drama, and equally skilled at coming up with nervy combinations of them: Cary Grant, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Jack Lemmon. It doesn’t take away from Robin Williams’ enormous talent to note that there were other actors before him who could make you laugh and break your heart — sometimes, like Chaplin, at the same time.
The last time I saw Robin Williams live was in April 1981, when he was one of the stars of a big peace rally at the Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park put on by something called the April Coalition, an uncertain and internally divided group of people agreeing on little except their opposition to President Reagan’s military buildup. I actually have stronger memories of a much less well-known performer on the bill, Earl Robinson, who in the 1930’s and 1940’s had written such Popular Front classics as “Ballad for Americans” and “The House I Live In” and whose song “Black and White,” written to celebrate the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, had been a major hit for Three Dog Night. On the stage of the Starlight Bowl, Robinson proved charmingly funny and warm, even when he was lamenting that Three Dog Night’s version of his song had left out its most politically pointed verse.
What I remember about Robin Williams on that day was a routine he did spoofing the various weapons President Reagan wanted to add to the U.S. military arsenal — including the cruise missile. Assuming a stereotyped Gay-queen voice, he had the cruise missile say, “Ooh, a city! Let’s destroy it!” Almost nobody who wasn’t at that rally, whom I quoted that line to later, thought it was funny. That’s why Robin Williams became a huge star and I didn’t. So much of great comedy is timing — the way a joke is delivered so that something that looks only slightly amusing on paper can evoke huge belly-laughs when spoken by a master. The late Lenny Bruce was frequently put on trial in the early 1960’s for obscenity, and he’d have to sit in court while police stenographers solemnly and humorlessly read from transcripts of his act. (In self-defense he started recording his performances, which meant that after he died of a heroin overdose in 1966 plenty of “new” Lenny Bruce albums were released from those tapes.) Bruce would claim, usually in vain, that an act that sounded obscene when delivered in a monotone by a bored cop wasn’t when a trained stand-up comedian did it. Likewise, Robin Williams’ cruise-missile routine sounded outrageously homophobic when I repeated it — and brilliantly funny and not at all anti-Queer when he did it.
I also found myself lamenting when Robin Williams started pursuing the self-destructive path that tempts a lot of people who become famous. “Going Hollywood,” they called it in the 1930’s — indeed, a movie of that title starring Bing Crosby was made in 1933 — and it took much the same form then than it did in the 1970’s when Williams made it, and it does today. Drinking. Drugs. Partying. Women (or men). Late arrivals on set and diva-ish behavior when you actually do show up for work. And a lot of forgettable pieces of presumably commercially appealing trash to make quick money to pay for it all. Williams lasted a lot longer than many burnout stars — he didn’t drink himself to death, he didn’t O.D., he didn’t disgrace himself completely, and he did enough genuinely good movies in between the mediocre or downright wretched ones that periodically he reminded people of the sheer range and breadth of his talents.
One I particularly remember because I reviewed it when it came out was called One Hour Photo. “Basically One Hour Photo is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom meets Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver,” I wrote. “Sy Parrish (Williams) is a pathetic character who bears all the indicia of motion-picture alienation: a grungy downtown apartment in which he lives alone, an obsessive-compulsive commitment to do his job absolutely perfectly; a bare minimum of emotional connections — he’s on a first-name basis with the waitress who serves him at a coffee shop but she seems to be the only woman he knows at all outside his work — and a fixation on a particular family that leads him to print extra copies of their photos and literally paper his wall with them. Needless to say, it also leads him to stalk them, and worse … ”
One Hour Photo wasn’t much of a movie — “Williams Shines Brighter than Film,” I headlined my review — but it offered its star one of those haunting performances he remained capable of throughout his entire career. Even after he got too old to get huge roles in blockbuster properties, Williams could still get jobs from oddball “independent” producers and directors — and it’s a tribute to his open-mindedness that he took a lot of parts most stars of his reputation and history wouldn’t have considered. Former Monty Python member Terry Jones recalled approaching Williams in 2010 asking him to provide the voice of a talking dog named Dennis for an upcoming film called Absolutely Anything — and having to approach him again four years later after Jones finally got the money to take the script into production. “I e-mailed him with a sinking heart, fearing that so much time had elapsed and he may not want to voice Dennis,” Jones recently recalled. “But I need not have feared. He wrote back that he was up for voicing the dog.”
Robin Williams died August 11, 2014 in Tiburon, California — not far from the College of Marin where I’d first heard of him and seen him. The matter-of-fact press conference given by the Marin County sheriff’s department, which I watched on CNN, told a story straight out of one of Williams’ edgier movies, made even more frightening by the Jack Webb just-the-facts-ma’am understatement with which the cop told it. They’d found him hanging by a doorway in his home, holding a knife whose blade was stained with a red substance. The cop giving the press conference resolutely avoided making even the most obvious inferences, but it seemed clear that in his last minutes on earth Robin Williams had been so determined to end his life he’d hacked at his wrists, trying to slash them, and then hanged himself when that didn’t work. (If it hadn’t happened for real, one could readily imagine this as a screamingly funny Robin Williams comedy sequence: the hapless man who can’t even kill himself properly.)
In the six days between Williams’ death and my writing this, there’s been endless speculation attempting to answer the unanswerable question: why? Why did a man who seemingly had it all become so desperate to take his own life? And a more poignant question, at least to me: how did a brilliantly talented performer who brought so much joy and laughter to millions of other people have so little left over when he needed it himself? The bitch-goddess aspects of celebrity — the Faustian bargain any sort of stardom brings with it, the fishbowl existence that’s the dark side of renown — have been expressed so often they’ve basically become clich├ęs. When you’re a star, you can no longer have a normal life. You can’t eat out, go for a walk, date or do any of the things normal people take for granted without being followed by paparazzi and so-called “fans” who think the money they’ve paid to see you on screen entitles them to horn in on your life any time they get the chance.
And in Robin Williams’ case there was another factor that haunts every celebrity who doesn’t do a Byronic flame-out and exit in their 20’s and 30’s. It’s called age. A performer like Williams who makes it big on the basis of youthful exuberance and energy is going to have a good deal of trouble later on when the energy gets drained and the exuberance is harder to sustain. When I finally caught up with his’ 1997 film Flubber — a remake of Walt Disney’s 1961 The Absent-Minded Professor with Williams playing a part originated by Fred MacMurray — in 2009, I wrote on my movie blog that “it probably would have been better if Williams had made it about 10 to 15 years earlier (when he wouldn’t have had to rely so heavily on digital effects and stunt people to do his pratfalls for him).”
Williams may have been a giant talent, but when he died he was already on the downgrade, no longer considered for leads in big blockbusters and instead playing big roles in independent movies and small ones in commercial films (like the Night at the Museum series, in which he played a wax statue of Theodore Roosevelt which comes to life), and his TV sitcom The Crazy Ones — heavily hyped by CBS as Robin Williams’ long-awaited return to series television — had been canceled after just one season. The downside of fame is not only the loss of privacy and connection to normal humanity, it’s also a cruel awareness of how quickly the brass ring can pass you by on the next ride on the merry-go-round. An old Hollywood proverb says it best: “You’re only as good as your last picture.”
Other comedians managed the transition without taking their own lives. Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd saved their fortunes and were able to spend their last years in quiet, dignified retirement. Buster Keaton and Groucho Marx made late-in-life comebacks as elder statesmen of comedy. Jerry Lewis and Danny Thomas did charity telethons that kept them busy and before the public long after they could no longer get cast in the sorts of roles that had made them famous. Age is usually more of a curse on celebrity women than celebrity men — in what other line of work is a woman considered washed up in her mid-30’s? — but among men it’s particularly difficult for comedians because making people laugh, especially in the strenuous high-energy way Robin Williams made us laugh, is pretty much a young person’s job.
Goodbye, Robin Williams. May your restless soul that made us laugh so hard find peace at last. I feel like I’ve grown up with you; maybe because you’re an old school mate of mine that your death hit me a lot harder than most celebrity deaths. I’m sorry that your career and your talents cost you so much in the end. And for the enjoyment you gave me, I can only say a quiet, dignified, “Thank you.”