(Originally posted August 11th, 2014.)

I wanted to write this tribute to Robin Williams as a poem, but I’m not quite up to it right now. What I’m going to present instead is my personal history with Robin Williams.

Of course I’ve never met him, and never knew him, but I still grew up with him. My parents and I watched Happy Days when it was first being aired. We saw the goofy Mork episode where he first made his appearance, and then when I was a bit older, he made us all laugh with his own show with the same character.

But he’s been seemingly ever present in my life from then to now. Dead Poets Society confirmed for me my choice to major in English in college. Yes, I thought that essay was BS too. And yes, I said to myself “rip it out” right before Williams voiced that line. When, a little bit later, life was going rough with me, and I was facing the prospect of loss — a real, significant loss — I watched The Fisher King. It told me it was okay to grieve. And it told me that it was okay to grieve so much that you’re a little bit unhinged, even. When my family needed to draw itself together we found ourselves watching Hook quite a bit. And not long before my wife and I divorced, she rented Mrs. Doubtfire, and we watched it with the kids over and over again. Again, it told us that we could still be alright, even still be a family. And some years after that I was able to watch What Dreams May Come and understand.

When I started teaching History of the English Language Robin Williams was there with his Scottish Airport routine.  And just last week my second wife borrowed season 1 of Mork and Mindy from the local library, giving my youngest children their first exposure to Robin Williams. When he sat on his head on the couch my kids all laughed. Uproariously. Just as two generations of my kids did when they watched Aladdin.

Actors, celebrities, musicians… as we experience them, they are all objects. They’re physical things. Controlled projections of an image. It’s easy to forget that they’re human beings, that they live and feel. But I’ve seen Robin Williams so often in so much for so long that I can’t help but feel that some of him has become perceptible behind all of the parts, the standup, the warp-speed silliness. Bitterness and kind sensitivity were like an alternating current projecting from his one big power source: pain.

I think that for whatever reason it finally caught up with him. Maybe it was residual from his open heart surgery in 2009, or the medication he took for awhile in order to be able to sleep after his surgery. I think he’s been in pain his whole life, though. I think his previous drug use may not have been an attempt to be cool, or to seek pleasure or new experiences, but a form of self-medication, a way to escape his pain. Either way, I do know that in so many ways his work was about pain and loss, and that more than anything else he seemed to want to laugh it away from us, or to comfort us with kindness and understanding, so that in all of his roles he was either a clown or Patch Adams. But in all of it, he was a wounded Fisher King, or maybe the fool who brought the Fisher King his grail: I don’t know about your quest. I just know that you were thirsty. And I don’t know what finally drove him to end his life. None of us can really know. I think, though, that I’m not alone in feeling that I wish I could have given back to him what he gave to me for so long, especially right at the moment he needed it most.

I will miss you, Robin Williams.

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11 thoughts on “My Fisher King (for Robin Williams)

  1. Probably the suicide had to do with the Parkinson’s diagnosis as well. Maybe he heeded the voice that said ‘jump’ instead of pulling back from himself. Whatever happened, it was a choice that went against what he knew and said was right on other occasions.

    I haven’t seen most of Williams’ films, but it seems to me like many of them repeat themes of guilt and penitence where injured, fearful men struggle to move part their damaged egos. Hollywood usually demands a happy ending for these stories, but in this case Williams denied us one. I suppose it matters a lot to us if public figures face aging and death with dignity.

    I’ve seen THK at least twice but not in a very long time, so we watched it last night. Very good. Made me look up the screenwriter. His inspiration for the plot came from a book by a Jungian-Episcopalian monk/priest/new age guru — interesting fringey stuff.

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    1. Man, thanks for posting, Dan — it’s great to hear from you here. I think Williams’s best films run from about 1987 to 2002: from Good Morning Vietnam to One Hour Photo. Not everything from that period is gold, but quite a bit is. I think TFK is probably his best dramatic film, maybe alongside Good Morning, Vietnam, with Patch Adams and Good Will Hunting with Dead Poets Society tied for a close second. Maybe Awakenings too. What Dreams May Come is very surrealistic so belongs in a separate category, I think. Cadillac Man deserves more attention than it has received. Best comic movies — Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook, Toys (my favorite — but won’t say it’s the best), and The Birdcage (maybe the best). I would recommend all of those films to you. Next one you should watch is The Birdcage, but you should know that Nathan Lane doesn’t just walk away with that movie. He kicks it in the arse and runs away with it. ROBIN WILLIAMS IS A STRAIGHT MAN in this film. Hahaha.

      I didn’t know about his Parkinson’s when I wrote this piece. Yes, no doubt it was a part of it. Maybe that plus his series cancellation — maybe he was facing the real end of his career and couldn’t imagine a life without performance? Without his mind and memory? I don’t know. His mind worked about a million miles an hour. I think there’s a certain amount of suffering involved in that.

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