I first saw Robin Williams when I was in grade school. Like most kids my age, I saw him when Mork & Mindy debuted in 1978. Interesting, when I think about it now, I don’t remember Mork & Mindy lasting four seasons. It came and went like everything I remember about Robin Williams — with a big splash that settled quickly. It seemed like Robin Williams was always moving on to the next thing and succeeding at it.
A couple years after Mork & Mindy, when I was at the perfect age to enjoy a new technology called cable TV (and some might say too young to be watching it), my parents got HBO. It was the classic little gold and faux-woodgrain box with a little black switch. The box sat on top of your TV, and when you wanted to watch HBO, you had to get up and walk to the TV and flip the switch to descramble the picture.
I recall watching HBO by myself in the living room one night. It was Robin Williams’ standup special and it was funny. I was about 13 years old and laughing my ass off. My Mom walked in the room, saw that I was watching Robin Williams, and said something like “I don’t think you’re old enough to be watching this, Troy,” but she walked out without making me change the channel.
Robin was like that. He was kind of dangerous, but he was too funny and too nice to stay away from.
Just when I thought Robin was gonna be the biggest comedian in the world, he started appearing in movies, and not just comedic roles. He played the straight man too.
The first movie I remember seeing Robin in was the World According to Garp. I didn’t like the movie and I was surprised that Robin was acting. I must have been an idiot. You look back on it now, my God, what else would someone like Robin Williams do? Dude had a million voices. Good Morning, Vietnam made him a legend. Aladdin reminded us what a perfect voiceover could do for an animated feature, a template that was replicated later by Tim Allen, Tom Hanks, and Ellen DeGeneres.
Robin was nominated and won Academy Awards in his career. Good Morning, Vietnam got him a nod, and he won Best Supporting Actor for Good Will Hunting. The quality of his movies frequently outperformed the box office. Dead Poet’s Society was the role of a lifetime. What Dreams May Come was avant-garde, but Robin Williams was right at home. Awakenings was so good, I recently sought it out because I found out my wife had never seen it.
Robin’s movie success could have easily taken him to a gated estate in the hills where he would have never had to work again, but he wanted to make people laugh. He channeled his energies into worthy causes like Comic Relief. Without Robin, it wouldn’t have been the same.
I am an unapologetic Robin Williams fan. I didn’t like that Robin had become something of a punchline in pop culture recently. Yes, he was coked up pretty good in the 80s, and his standup routines show it — they don’t stand the test of time. He struggled with substance abuse for decades, and after a period of sobriety, he had a relapse via alcohol in 2006. But Robin was a national treasure, and his body of work is a gift to us all.
He was a family man, and movies like Mrs. Doubtfire reminded us what it must be like to have someone like Robin in your life — sidesplitting. It’s a shame that Robin was so afflicted with depression, and that he couldn’t see how much we loved him and how terribly we will miss him.
Rest in peace, Robin. You made me laugh more times than I can count.