The words “genius” and “icon” get tossed around far too easily these days. When anyone does something of merit, especially in the arts, they should be rightly celebrated but the idea of true creative genius, of being worthy of iconic status is when you create a sustained brilliance, when a paradigm is truly shifted forever. Looking back, once this or that person came along, things were never quite the same. Robin Williams was such an artist and it feels so strange to write “was” now instead of “is.
Being an artist can be a really thankless job in a lot of ways. Yes, you get the fame, the fortune, the power, the access, but you also are placed on a pedestal that is impossible to live up to. Your new work is never as good as your old work. You age and we as the public resent that because it means that we too have aged. Achieving a sort of stability point is just about any creative person’s dream in that they have sustained their craft long enough to make a stable living out of it but just as soon as you get there, someone comes along to tear you down and place the next hot thing above you.
Yet, what we failed to understand is that performers like him don’t know how to stop performing. Very rare does an artist get to retire gracefully or even at all. Instead they are asked to constantly keep entertaining, to re-invent the wheel they’ve already made, regardless of the damage it can do to the psyche.
In many candid interviews, especially post heart surgery, Robin Williams talked about his own demons. How “Cocaine was God’s way of saying you had too much money” or that he drank to fight off his anxiety but, “It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t”. There can often be a great loneliness in art and in stand-up comedy especially as you are almost always quite literally ALONE on stage.
Your voice, your journey, your humor are all that stand between you and the audience who have come seeking entertainment and really, some sort of truth. Comedians seek to speak truth to power but also truth inside of themselves and while they often are using it as a deflection from their own fears, the truth still comes out.
People speculated forever about why Dave Chappelle walked away from his show, all the money, the fame, etc and deep down, I believe it was because he was tired of feeding that needed truth with an artificiality of his work. As he said, he grew tired of hearing his catch phrases shouted at him while he was at the mall with his kids. He felt like the tenor of his show had gone from knowingly satirizing to almost a parody of it. Instead of a racial debate, it was becoming almost racist itself. So, he walked away. He grew tired of always being “On”, which in most circles means: performing, funny, the life of the party, just like you see on TV. He wanted to just be Dave, the person, not DAVE CHAPPELLE 24/7.
Which leads me back to Robin Williams.
There are countless stories of what he was like to work with. How there is a fine line between true genius and insanity and he often gleefully danced back and forth. His free-association comedy, while it WAS in fact practiced, was still something to marvel at and will almost certainly never be matched in the same way.
He was infinitely giving to other actors on set. Yes, he would ad-lib lines or scenes and sometimes bewilder everyone else but it was never with malice, it was in search of the truth of each scene, the perfect alchemy of the joke or the punch line. He just wanted to play. Everyone around him was not pretending to laugh in their scenes with him, they WERE laughing. He also loved entertaining the crew, often the forgotten people on set. Putting in long, tough hours day after day, it can be a grind after weeks and months. He said that making a movie or TV show was like a battle and he felt it his duty to always rally the troops.
Likewise, he did rally for REAL troops on USO tours all across the world. This was a man who was always, always “On” when called upon. As you skim the internet tonight and over the next few days, I have no doubt you’ll find story after story of his kindness and sudden humor to fans and strangers who he would give his all to. Everyone knows his famous visits to long time friend Christopher Reeve after his tragic accident and how laughter helped get him through such dark times.
What is so much less known are the anonymous visits to hospitals, to medical wards and especially children’s wards. He wanted to give everything he had whenever he could and could not give anything less. How he spent time with a reporter’s son and encouraged him when it was told the boy had been bullied by telling him of his own troubles with bullies. Or how he had written in his contracts, known as “Riders”, that several homeless or impoverish people be given jobs on set whenever he worked. This was a man interested in giving back to anyone, not just the powerful.
One story that was relayed to me just this morning helped give a window into his mind just a bit too: As a guest on an early morning TV program, he arrived early with no fanfare. Far from being the center of attention, he, like many actors and performers was actually quite shy but ever so polite. He shook hands with everyone backstage but then withdrew to his own thoughts for a few minutes until….SHOWTIME. Like an uncoiled jack-in-the-box, he sprang to life, energy poring out of his very essence. He charmed not only the hosts but everyone in the studio who just moments before wondered if maybe he was feeling under the weather since he’d seemed so subdued. He was incredibly well read and could talk about just about any topic, making references that even experts would be stumped by.
Such was his great gift, a mind that seemed to run laps around everyone else. As his time on the show ended and he walked off set, he once again returned to this quiet man. Humbly, simply thanking everyone in sight, he was happy to release all of that energy. Very rarely did anyone get a real glimpse of this side of him.
I bring this story up to point out that everyone seemed almost disappointed when he first walked in because he was so low key at first. When all you see are stars in their element or in polished projects, one comes to expect that all the time. We fail to realize that everyone deep down is the same: human, with fears, anxieties and not able to be “On” all of the time. Yet we ask of this for so many in every walk of life.
Not just with performers, but teachers, police officers, firefighters, even Presidents. We expect flawlessness, a kind of unrealistic mix of grace, brilliance and calm that is all but impossible and are quick to strike down when the reality sets in. Jokes aren’t as funny, edges seem lost, people lost their skills or maybe, they never really were that funny anyway. The revisionist history can be swift and brutal.
Robin Williams’ greatest performances oftentimes were not the loud bombastic humor that was his trademark, but the more quiet, human ones where he shined through, his own intelligence and sense of giving. The humor was always there because that was the lens that he examined the human condition through, but more importantly, the empathy and sense of internal yearning was there as well. Roles in “Awakenings,” “The Fisher King,” “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting” will last just as much as his work in “Aladdin”, “Good Morning Vietnam” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” and when you taken together, the sheer diversity of it all is staggering.
As this sense of tragic loss becomes part of the collective unconscious in the days and weeks to follow, much will be written about his depression. How he could never seem to overcome whatever it was that scared him so much and that comedy and performing were his only shield against it.
We must mourn for his family, who have suffered such a heartbreak and it is my sincere wish that their privacy and own wishes are respected. May we never forget this man, who was a genius and yes indeed an icon, but first an foremost, a man, striving to give us what we most yearn for ourselves, the truth beneath the suffering, a window in to the human heart. That’s all anyone can ever hope for and all anyone can ever really give:
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse