Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams

When I first heard the news that Robin Williams was dead, the immediate feeling was very close to what I felt upon hearing of Elvis Presley's death, almost 37 years ago now.  It was a punch in the gut.  It was an immediate sadness that went far beyond what one feels when a beloved public figure dies at an advanced age.  In the cases of both Williams and Presley, we're talking about someone who was beloved by so many, but also someone who was gone much too early.  Another example would be John Lennon.  It's the kind of death where you remember exactly what you were doing at the moment you heard about it, for the rest of your own life.

You can tell a death has had a major public impact when someone you barely knows wants to talk to you about it.  In August 1977, it was the young guy who washed my car windows (remember when they did that?) as I filled my tank on the way to work.  Earlier this week, it was the security guard in our building.  "Did you hear about...?"  A stunned, hurt quality to the conversation.  That's what it felt like when Elvis Presley died, and that's what it felt like when news of Robin Williams' death spread like wildfire on Monday afternoon.  

And if anything, the emotional impact has only grown over the past two days.  The confirmation that this was a death by suicide, coupled with the stories and information about the severe depression that Williams had fought for so long have added to the sense of tragedy, and made what was already sad almost unbearable.  Williams (and Presley and Lennon before him) was larger than life in a way that few outside the entertainment world can achieve, and so immensely popular that it was tempting for us to think that we knew him - that the performer we saw on Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Mork & Mindy, and his many other television appearances and films was the man. When someone achieves that level of popularity it's also tempting for many to think that he/she belongs to us, which sadly seems to lead to the type of inappropriate and thoughtless comments that we've seen from some in the media and from too many on social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.

A death such as that suffered by Robin Williams is frightening.  We think about the daily pressures and stress that are a part of our own lives, and the coping mechanisms that we employ.  We may think we have it hard, and sometimes maybe we do.  And when thinking about our own difficulties, it's hard to wrap one's head around the concept of a level of depression so deep and severe that death seems like a preferable alternative to living, to the person who is suffering.  So it is heartening that so many are using this tragedy to educate and help others who are suffering from a similar affliction.  The more we know, the more that we can help others.

Many wonderful things have been written about the career accomplishments of Robin Williams, and it would be impossible to link to them all.  I'll settle for linking to pieces written by four of my personal favorites:

R.I.P. Robin Williams, by Sheila O'Malley.  O'Malley is one of the very best writers around at getting to the core of what makes a performer successful.  Her pieces about actors and acting are always insightful, and her pieces about Elvis Presley should really be compiled in book form.  This might strike some as heresy, but the things she's written about Presley rival the work of Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh about the same subject.  She's also great on an endless number of topics.

The TV Legacy of the Late, Great Robin Williams, by Alan Sepinwall.  When I read his work for the first time, Alan Sepinwall was in college and writing weekly reviews of "NYPD Blue" on this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web.  Upon graduation he became the television critic for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and is now a TV critic for  I have no idea how you objectively measure such a thing, but at least among the people I read, he is one of the country's most-read and respected TV critics.

A Constant Quality: Robin Williams, by Matt Zoller Seitz.  Reading Sepinwall led me to Matt Zoller Seitz, his partner-in-crime at the Star-Ledger.  He is now the Editor in Chief of, where he writes frequently about film and television.

My thoughts on Robin Williams, by Ken Levine.  Ken Levine (with his partner David Isaacs) has written for two of the landmark comedy series in television history, M*A*S*H and Cheers.  He was then a baseball announcer.  In other words, he's pretty much living the life that I live in my wildest dreams.  In this piece, he imagines what Robin might have liked his own funeral to look like.  The piece also includes a link to Levine's earlier piece about performing an Improv piece with Williams.  Wrap your head around that for a moment.

Not every performance by Robin Williams was perfect.  But more than enough of them were great.  And thanks to the Internet and YouTube, there is a rich history of his talk show appearances, where he was almost always beyond brilliant.  When considering his place in history, those appearances have to count for something.  My own personal favorites?  The Birdcage.  Aladdin.  "Bop Gun," an episode of  Homicide: Life on the Street.  And, Good Will Hunting.

Farewell.  May he now find the peace that eluded him in life.

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