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Robin Williams

Robin Williams passed away.

It took a moment to let that sink in, to accept that we would be talking about Robin Williams in the past tense. Although the news broke in the evening time in the United States, it was announced in the middle of the night in Irish and European time. Over here, most of us fell asleep in a world where Robin Williams was a perpetual and much-loved screen presence, only to wake up in a world where Robin Williams was gone. It is very strange and very difficult piece of information to process, and something very hard to wake up to.

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Williams career stretched from the 1970s through to the 2010s. He was a prolific performer. His IMDb profile lists five completed movies for 2014, as well as any episodes of The Crazy Ones filmed in this calendar year. However, his influence was so vast and so expansive that he touched generations of movie-goers. You can probably guess the age of most film fans by the Robin Williams movies that they cite in the loving obituaries that are springing up across the internet.

I’m too young to have seen much of Mork and Mindy. Although I love Good Morning Vietnam, The Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, I discovered these in hindsight. I bought DVDs and watched them on late-night television. As much as they coloured my impression (and encouraged my love) of Williams as a performer, they were not the films where he made his first impression on my young mind.

A child of the late eighties, I came of age just in time to catch the Robin Williams family movie boom of the early nineties. I might take a great deal of national pride in Pierce Brosnan’s performance as James Bond, but I’ll always recognise him as the new boyfriend in Mrs. Doubtfire. It may not be the best children’s movie of the nineties, but Williams’ performance enlivened Jumanji. Similarly, Williams’ vocal performance as the Genie in Aladdin was the first time my young mind recognised a voice in a Disney film. It made it more magical, not less.

Williams’ career trajectory is somewhat interesting. Even his early work exposes a yearning to demonstrate his legitimate acting talent – Good Morning Vietnam, The World According to Garp and Dead Poets Society sit on his filmography between films like FernGully, Hook and Popeye. Williams always balanced his serious work with lighter fare, even if there were points when it tipped more firmly in one direction than the other.

While Williams may have had a tendency to pick cheesy or overwrought projects like Jakob the Liar or The Bicentennial Man in the late nineties, I remember my excitement at his early twenty-first century reinvention. Watching an integral part of my childhood stretch himself and expand his range in films like One Hour Photo and Insomnia was a cinematic revelation. Williams may have cultivated a manic and energetic screen (and stage) persona, but he was also elastic.

As is the case with any actor so prolific, there is a point where the filmography comes to feel a little uneven or unbalanced. Considering the sheer volume of Williams’ twenty-first century output, it was inevitable that a significant portion of it would be of somewhat questionable quality. Obituaries like this will politely (and understandably) gloss over some of the performer’s later films like License to Wed or Runaway Vacation.

While it’s understandable that these admittedly lesser films will not take up too much space in pieces celebrating the life and work of a beloved performer, it should be noted that Williams was never less than a professional performer. There is something heartwarming in the suggestion that there’s likely a whole generation of children who will affectionately remember (and hopefully rediscover) Robin Williams as the voice of Fender from Robots or as Teddy Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum movies.

Which brings us to a rather awkward footnote, considering the nature of Williams’ death. Williams was never a bad performer, or even a lazy one – and there are a number of late-career highlights that can be found while sifting through his more recent films. Although perhaps not a film that will be comfortable to watch for quite a while (if ever) due its subject matter, Williams’ performance in World’s Greatest Dad ranks among the best of his career and demonstrates that he was still a world-class actor.

Robin Williams was a formative influence on me. He was among the first movie stars that I recognised, and one who was a massive part of my childhood. However, he was also one of the actors who was a formative part of my transition into the world of grown-up films. As a teenager, he made the work of Terry Gilliam more accessible than it might otherwise have been, and he provided a friendly face as I transitioned into more serious and hefty fare like Good Will Hunting. Perhaps like no other performer, Williams was an essential part of both my childhood and my adult life.

He will be sorely missed.

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2 Responses

  1. It’s difficult to even say his name without welling up, but you’ve expressed what many of us are feeling.

  2. Indeed, Darren. Wonderful tribute. Thanks for this.

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