Appreciation: Robin Williams, more than a star, never seemed to age
One of the drawbacks of a life captured on film is the irrefutable evidence of time passing. The camera can hide many things, but not the fact that people, even famous people, grow old. Right before our eyes.
With the possible exception of Robin Williams.
Even as his hairline retreated and the wrinkles appeared, Williams, who exploded into the collective consciousness at 27 as the irrepressible rainbow-suspendered alien in “Mork & Mindy,” never seemed to age.
He exuded a manic energy that, if anything, seemed even more youthful as the years passed. His eyes sparkled with ideas that you could all but see streaking past like a thousand bright blue fish. His comedic signature was the free-form, free-wheeling monologue, a frothy torrent of words and voices and sounds that poured out of him in no apparent order, save his own essential, mysterious understanding of comedy.
Even when he wasn’t speaking, his mouth turned down in a perpetual twitch of one more thing, a thought unsaid, or about to be said, or too rash to be said.
I could now tell you the story of a time we met, which was funny and sad and now seems strangely meaningful, as these things often do in the wake of such a tragedy. But the fact that I spent some time with the actual Robin Williams doesn’t matter because even though I know he was simply a man, with talent and troubles like the rest of us, that is not what he was to me, or millions of other people.
He was more than a star. He was a fixed point in the universe.
No matter how many times we are reminded of the relentlessly democratic nature of mortality, there are people who seem exempt. For those of us who came of age with “Mork & Mindy,” who spent our lives watching the zany sitcom star shift to successful stand-up comedian, then to serious film star and back again to TV, Robin Williams was one of them.
His brain defied gravity, his face was made of rubber, the laughter he inspired surely must echo far into deep space and his death at 63 seems almost impossible.
We knew that he, like so many of his colleagues, battled drugs and alcohol and had a somewhat scandalous love life. Yet there he was, year after year, reinventing himself, resurrecting himself, finding some other way to channel what must have been an exhausting if inexhaustible will to perform.
He gave voice to Vietnam, carpe diem, a drag-queen nanny and a blue genie; he brought board games and penguins and Teddy Roosevelt to life. He was nominated for an Oscar for “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society” before winning with “Good Will Hunting.”
It’s hard to think of another actor who has moved so fluidly through so many genres, whose roles remain so disparate, so desperate, so high-percentage iconic.
Indeed, his many one-man shows, live and on television, were almost redundant — whenever Williams performed, he was a one-man show, the physical embodiment of drama’s weeping and laughing masks, proof positive that puer aeternus was neither a myth nor necessarily a pejorative.
He traded on it, sure, the boy who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, grow up. He played Peter Pan, literally in “Hook” and figuratively in many roles, including “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “The Birdcage” and, most recently, the brilliant ad man of “The Crazy Ones.” But it was real, that effervescence, and child-like in that it seemed based more on hope than experience, tinged with pain as hope so often is.
Indeed, his work in “The Crazy Ones” felt at times almost uncomfortably autobiographical. In the David E. Kelley sitcom, Williams played Simon Roberts, a post-middle-aged ad whiz who, after finally getting sober, has taken his co-dependent caregiver of a daughter (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) on as a business partner.
Though leaning hard on the manic angle, Williams brought such genuine fear to Simon’s desire to see if he still has it, such palpable conflict to his mix of regret over and nostalgia for the bad old days, that the show suffered from an identity crisis.
People looking for one version of Williams or the other got instead something caroming between all of them. Something so real it seemed out of place.
Stars fall and fade, collapse or burn out. But sometimes they just vanish, impossibly, for no good reason, and the universe crowds in on itself wondering how something that blazed so bright could suddenly just be gone.
Robin Williams was 63 when he died, but we will never have a chance to see him grow old. Because he never did.
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