Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Aug. 18, 19 or 20
We cry, no matter what.
There’s a profound shock and lingering sadness when tragedies involving public personalities or public events stun us, from John Lennon’s murder to John Belushi or Philip Seymour Hoffman or Heath Ledger’s drug overdoses, from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to September 11 in 2001.
Williams, 63, was an Illinois boy who rose to worldwide stardom. He hanged himself at his Northern California home, investigators said.
Besides fans’ adoration, Williams earned people’s admiration and respect. Some called him a genuine mensch – a person of honor and integrity – which he showed repeatedly.
He donated his skills as a performer to Farm Aid fund raisers, and was a regular, well-received member of USO tours for U.S. troops abroad – some in combat zones.
Politically, he was progressive. He performed in a Chicago benefit for then-Illinois lawmaker Barack Obama’s 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, supported gay rights and marriage equality for years, and was an active union member, sometimes walking picket lines. During the 2007-2008 Writers Guild work stoppage, Williams protested with striking writers, demonstrating outside the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle in New York City.
Williams was especially engaged in helping to fight homelessness, both onstage through the non-profit Comic Relief TV benefits and by testifying before U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Health and Humans Services panel in 1990 on behalf of legislation to help prevent homelessness.
(C-SPAN last week revived that two-hour Senate hearing featuring Williams, and says its Twitter post about Williams’ testimony has become its second-most re-tweeted item.)
Ken Howard, president of SAG-AFTRA (the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, an AFL-CIO union) said, “I am deeply saddened to hear of Robin Williams’ death. He was a performer of limitless versatility, equally adept at comedy and drama, whether scripted or improv. With his incomparable manic style, he could appeal to adult sensibilities in a stand-up comedy routine or elicit giggles from children as the voice of Genie in ‘Aladdin.’ Outside of his career, he used his considerable talents to raise money for charity. He was not only a talented man, but a true humanitarian. It’s such a tremendous loss.”
Williams spent 1973-76 at the prestigious Julliard School, where he was roommates with the late actor Christopher Reeve. Williams then honed his trade as an improvisational stand-up comic. His raw abilities and energy made him virtually unique. Plus, his intensity, intelligence and spontaneity eventually helped transform him from an actor tackling comedy and humorous roles into one sought for ambitious dramatic work.
His breakout in cinema, as a quirky Vietnam War-era disc jockey in 1987's “Good Morning, Vietnam,” established him as beloved and bankable. Remembered for his uncanny quickness, spot-on impressions and adaptable voice, Williams became a disciplined actor loved by generations, perhaps drawing on his appreciation to a few offbeat comedians, most notably Jonathan Winters and Charlie Chaplin – both of whom also transcended comedic and dramatic roles.
Called the "funniest man alive" by Entertainment Weekly magazine in 1997, Williams battled depression and substance abuse for decades, and recently, according to his wife, Parkinson’s disease.
He leaves behind his family, his devotion to progressive causes, an almost magical mania, and an impressive, touching body of work:
Mork and Garp; Popeye and Peter Pan, Alladin’s Genie and Patch Adams; Mrs. Doubtfire and “The Birdcage”; U.S. Presidents in “A Night at the Museum” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”; “The Fisher King” and “Moscow on the Hudson”; “Good Will Hunting” and “Dead Poets’ Society”; even villains in “One-Hour Photo” and “Insomnia”; and TV’s “The Crazy Ones” and PBS’ documentary series “Freedom: A History of Us.”
Williams was one of us, in our better selves.
As the extraterrestrial Mork, he marveled at human crying.
As we weep, we touch our tears and recall Mork’s line, “My eyes are leaking.”
[PICTURED: At top, Robin Williams (with bagels) and actor David Duchovny join the picket line of striking writers outside the Time Warner Center in New York in 2007. Photo by Tina Fineberg/Moyers & Co. Above, Williams visit with friend Jonathan Winters in 1990. Photo by Terry Miller/Pasadena Independent.]