O Captain My Captain: RIP Robin Williams, Seriously Funny.

robin williams the fisher king (blog)

Last year, upon the passing of legendary humorist Jonathan Winters, I offered up an affectionate but unquestionably smart-alecky Facebook eulogy: “He did everything Robin Williams ever did – only first, better, and with less body hair.” Williams, the famously hirsute comic actor who died today of an apparent suicide at age 63, was a lifelong fan of Winters’ fiercely individualized comedy – and he often gave much of the credit for his improv-flavored stagecraft to the unmistakeable style of his spiritual mentor, even long after he had  transformed that inventive style into something unique and utterly his own.

But I was wrong: Ultimately, Williams went places that Winters never did. He gave us so much more than comedy; in fact, if it weren’t for the actor’s surprising facility for heartfelt dramatic roles, I wonder if his long and accomplished career would have made the same lasting impact on film history. His boundless energy and joke-machine charisma served him well, and catapulted him to Hollywood A-list status with Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987. But that early performance became so instantly iconic that it’s easy now to forget it was actually his seventh starring role, and that in two previous films – Moscow on the Hudson (1984) and The World According to Garp (1982) – he had already distinguished himself as a serious actor of serious talent.

Williams’ name will always be synonymous with comedy, but he achieved screen immortality on the strength of performances that took offbeat paths to nuanced drama. In Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989) he gave new lift to a hoary Hollywood cliché – the inspirational teacher – by adding a splash of enigma that fascinated his audiences in the theater as well as in the classroom. In Good Will Hunting (1997), the film that won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, he toned down the comedy even further, limiting his one-liners to wry comebacks that punctuated the scenes of painful healing between his psychotherapist character and Matt Damon’s tortured genius.

And in my personal favorite of his performances – as Parry, a damaged and demented homeless man who is saved by an act of friendship – Williams gave us the first, best onscreen avatar for Terry Gilliam’s peculiar brand of artistic inspiration in 1992’s The Fisher King (above). In that dark, unjustly forgotten jewel, Williams showed us an astonishing range that channeled his comic intensity rather than giving in to its uncanny power. It transcended the stereotypical sad-clown role, and I can’t think of another performer who could have pulled it off as flawlessly as Williams.

Sixty-three is an obscenely few number of years to spend on this Earth, and no less for the talent and passion Williams brought to his work – and for the laughter and grace he gave us all along the way. Rest in Peace, sir.

And please – if you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. As Williams noted in Hook, “To live would be an awfully big adventure.”