I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve developed a habit where I need to watch TV in bed before going to sleep each night. I don’t always last too long, but I’m still unable to simply climb into bed and go right to sleep.
Last week I used that time to put in my DVD of “Good Will Hunting,” which I saw in the theater in 1997 but hadn’t watched in a few years. The film is notable as being the breakout moment for stars/co-writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who won an Original Screenplay Oscar for their work. It also features an Oscar-winning performance from Robin Williams in a dramatic turn that was a departure from his usual comedic roles.
The irony of choosing to watch this particular film hit me as I was driving home from Cincinnati Monday evening when the radio DJ announced between songs, her voice breaking, that Williams had died earlier in the day from an apparent suicide at age 63.
A recovered alcoholic and cocaine addict, Williams had reportedly been battling severe depression and entered rehab earlier this summer. His most notable recent work had been a starring role with Sarah Michelle Gellar on the CBS sitcom “The Crazy Ones”, which was cancelled after one season in May.
A beloved entertainer passing before their time is enough reason for sadness, but Williams’ death is even more upsetting because it came at his own hand. I have little interest in examining the way he died, and it’s impossible to judge from the outside someone battling with depression, but a question that lingers is how someone who clearly brought so much to joy to others could have been so unhappy himself that he would take his own life.
It had been several years since Williams enjoyed the blockbuster success he found at his height in the 1990s and two divorces had reportedly claimed a significant chunk of his wealth, to the point starring in “The Crazy Ones” was rumored to be as much a financial choice as a creative one. Maybe the pressure of always being expected to be “on” and to be the funniest person in the room was too much to take.
By my count, Williams is the third famous entertainer in just over a year to have died at a relatively young age after dealing with personal demons throughout their lives. In June 2013, James Gandolfini, star of HBO’s “The Sopranos” died in Rome from a heart attack. Posthumous reports detailed his struggles with substance abuse, and there had been indications late in the run of “The Sopranos” that the toll of playing a monstrous character like Tony Soprano took its toll on Gandolfini’s psyche.
Then in February of this year, news broke that Phillip Seymour Hoffman, one of the two or three greatest actors of his generation, had died of a drug overdose in his New York City apartment. An immersive method actor, Hoffman was known to fully invest himself into whichever roles he was performing.
We can speculate on the apparently glamorous and privileged lives famous entertainers lead, but these deaths beg the question of the costs and pressures of entertaining millions for years and years.
In the many retrospectives written since Monday, there are some who first encountered Williams in his star-making role on ABC’s “Mork and Mindy” in the late 1970s and there are others who encountered him in his first film roles in the 1980s.
I was born in 1983, so I came at experiencing Williams for the first time as a child in the 1990s when Williams was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, and he was at the height of his fame when he voiced the Genie in the 1992 Disney animated film “Aladdin.” After mostly restraining his manic humor in films to that point, “Aladdin” was one of the first films to perfectly capture the frenetic comedic energy Williams possessed. At nine years old, it was impossible to grasp many of the jokes and impressions, most ad-libbed, Williams poured into the role, but it was equally impossible to not be engrossed by the energy on display.
A year later in 1993, Williams had another hit comedy with “Mrs. Doubtfire,” which is basically a one-man show where every one else is playing straight man and allowing Williams to do his thing. I’d put the scene where Williams’ character is being made over by his homosexual brother and his partner up there as one of the funniest scenes ever.
What’s unique about “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the story of a divorced man going to desperate measures to see his kids, is that underneath the humor and the non-stop jokes and impressions, there a warmth and humanity present that you don’t always see in comedies, but was almost always present in Williams’ films.
I didn’t see it until I was older, but before “Aladdin” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” in 1989’s “Dead Poets Society,” Williams gave one of his best dramatic performances as an unorthdox English teacher at an elite all-boys boarding school in the 1950s. The jokes and impressions are only occasionally found here, but the likability and presence that could compel a group of teenage boys to “seize the day” is readily apparent. Most remember the final “O Captain, My Captain” scene, and rightfully so, but an earlier moment is also a highlight.
This brings us back to Williams’ performance in “Good Will Hunting,” probably my favorite of his career. Playing a psychologist called upon to counsel a young troubled genius played by Damon, Williams is restrained and disappears into a fully-realized character. He has a number of phenomenal moments in the film, but the scene below shows that beyond the jokes and humor, Williams, who was trained at Juilliard, was a fantastic actor. It also more than likely earned him his Academy Award.
Beyond his film career, Williams never let go of his roots as a stand-up comedian and starred in a number of comedy specials on HBO. I was in high school when “Robin Williams: Live on Broadway” premiered and having grown up accustomed to his hilarious, but for the most part family-friendly, brand of humor, this special was an eye-opener. For 90 minutes, Williams is a non-stop force, sweating non-stop and touching on an array of topics, often in a very R-rated fashion. I’ve seen a number of people reference the origins of golf bit, but this segment, which closes the special, might be the highlight.
Going back and watching these clips and films will never be the same as before and will always have an air of sadness to them. Who was the man who made everyone laugh when he wasn’t on stage and cameras had been turned off? And what was missing from his life that he was unable to experience the happiness that he had provided for millions of others?
Williams is gone now, but the wonderful thing about art, whether it’s film, television or a sweating middle-aged comedian espousing on the absurdities of golf, is that it never dies. For that we can be truly grateful.