Remembering Robin Williams: The Actor We All Felt We Knew
“Can you believe Popeye is played by the guy who plays Mork?” These words from my mother blew my seven-year-old mind.
That's my intro to a piece I don’t know how to write and, honestly, probably shouldn’t be writing so soon after learning about Robin Williams’ death. I only had one encounter with Williams professionally – an interview promoting ‘Happy Feet 2,’ of all things – yet there are tears coming down my face as I type this for what is essentially a stranger. Even though he’s not a stranger. Everyone knew him. This is everyone’s loss.
Oh, yes, Popeye. I was seven years old and I was watching ‘Popeye’ on HBO when my mother told me that the title character in Robert Altman’s live action adaptation of the popular comic strip was Robin Williams, the same guy who played the alien Mork on the weekly ABC television show ‘Mork & Mindy’ that would end a year later. I could not believe this was the same person. He didn’t even look like the same person. It was, at this moment, that I became infatuated with Robin Williams.
Williams came to prominence in the L.A. comedy scene of the mid to late ‘70s and was a showstopper at Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store. He became such a big star after landing ‘Mork & Mindy’ that his sets at the Comedy Store became overrun with fans of the show, shouting out “Nanu Nanu,” to the chagrin of Williams and anyone else who might be performing that night. Williams’ talent thrust him into the spotlight, but his manic monologues got him into some trouble with fellow comedians. (According to William Knoedelseder’s book ‘I’m Dying Up Here,’ fellow comedian Tom Dreesen confronted Williams about a few instances of Williams repurposing other comedians’ material. After listening to an obviously upset and embarrassed Williams, coupled with Williams’ known ability to pretty much absorb everything and regurgitate it back out, Dreesen believed Williams did nothing malicious.)
‘Popeye’ was Robin Williams’ first major motion picture. Whereas most comedians might tend to play maybe an edgier version of his or her television persona for a first movie role, Williams became almost unrecognizable as Popeye. When I interviewed Williams in 2011, there was no way I wasn’t asking him about his experience on ‘Popeye,’ he remembered:
Crazy-ass movie. Amazing people to work with. Literally, near the end of the movie ... the studio had pooled all of the money, so all the special effects people left. It was 'Ed Wood' the last weeks of the movie. Shelley Duvall was in a pond, basically, with an octopus with no internal mechanism, having to drape it over her body like a feather boa. I'm in the water and I'm kind of like sitting there. And, eventually, Robert Evans, who is there, is kind of wandering around going, "How do we end the movie? How do we end the movie?" And I joked, "We could walk on the water like Jesus." And he's like, "That's the way! That's how we'll end the movie!" That's how we'll end the movie!" It was just, you know, we're there on Malta, which is a very small island in-between Italy and North Africa, and it was some of the worst weather they had had in 60 years. So it was a pretty crazy experience. But! I got to work with Robert Altman and I'll never forget that. It was amazing.
His next two movies, ‘The World According to Garp’ and ‘The Survivors,’ proved that Williams wasn’t about to be typecast. Even though ‘The Survivors’ was a critical and financial failure, it still wasn’t the type of movie that we’d expect someone like Williams to make, at least at that point in his career. During the filming of ‘The Survivors’ – Williams played a man who thinks society is imploding and joins a survival camp in Vermont – he (in a story he shared during that same interview) thinks he saved his co-star Jerry Reed’s life:
I knocked on his trailer and he wasn't answering the trailer. So, all of a sudden, I was just going to go get him for the take -- or to ask him some advice -- so I knocked on his trailer, he didn't answer the door. So I opened the door and I went in and he was really groggy. I went, "Hey, man, you OK?" He went, "No, I got a really awful headache." It turned out his trailer had carbon monoxide leak and if he had stayed there another five minutes, he would have died. So, I think I may have saved his life, so that's not a bad thing.
The first movie that Williams did that actually felt uninspired was 1986’s ‘Club Paradise,’ a Harold Ramis film about a Chicago firefighter who uses his disability money to move to a Caribbean island. Williams could have easily been an actor who coasted on movies like ‘Club Paradise.’ Instead, a year later, he received his first Academy Award nomination for playing disc jockey Adrian Cronaur in ‘Good Morning Vietnam. Williams would be nominated again for 1989’s ‘Dead Poets Society’ and then again for 1991’s ‘The Fisher King.’
Williams would finally win an Academy Award for 1997’s ‘Good Will Hunting,’ playing Sean Maguire, a therapist who tries to mentor an aggressive and erratic genius played by Matt Damon. Williams’ famous, “Sorry guys, gotta see about a girl,” scene is almost impossible to watch right now.
Again, I know I’m repeating myself right now, but writing about the death of Robin Williams is like writing about the death of someone I knew personally, even though I certainly didn’t … he just seemed to always be a part of my life. I suspect a lot of people feel this way, judging by the overwhelming love that has been pouring out over social media since this news became public. Reacting to the death of famous people is an odd and complicated thing. When James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman died, they were gut punches. We respected these men as actors and we would miss what we knew about them as human beings. Losing Robin Williams like this, it wasn’t just the performances, we will miss the human being, too, because we all felt like we knew him.
I just relistened to the audio of my interview with Williams. As we were wrapping up, I apologized for the lack of questions pertaining to ‘Happy Feet 2,’ as it was a rare occurrence of not having been given an opportunity to see the film before the interview. Williams replied, “No worries. It’s an honor.” He told me it was an honor? God, I’m an idiot for not correcting him right there and telling him how much it meant to me to have even that slightest bit of time with him.
Whatever pain caused Robin Williams to allegedly take his own life, I can only hope that he knew that this love for him was out there. I suspect that, deep down, he did. At least, I really hope he did.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.