Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams (1951-2014)

Williams was doing lines with John Belushi the day Belushi overdosed in 1982, and said afterwards that Belushi's death helped scare him straight. Williams's proximity to that tragedy had a "there but for the grace ..." quality at a time when it seemed that any of the really funny men might go at any time. Williams's antics on the Mork and Mindy show only hinted at the mania to be seen in his standup act. The term "off the wall" seemed to have been coined for him, and it carried a sense of danger. His stream of consciousness always threatened to crest over the banks. But his greatest stardom in movies came after he had more or less sobered up. For most of the Eighties, starting with Robert Altman's Popeye, his work in film was hit or miss, the highlights including The World According to Garp and Moscow on the Hudson. For most of the Nineties he hit more consistently, really beginning with his inspirational-teacher turn in Dead Poets Society. By mid-decade he had reached the height of his stardom. Amid his massive, crowd-pleasing hits a more formidable character actor also emerged, a darker figure who projected genuine malice in small doses in the likes of Dead Again and The Secret Agent and then most prominently in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia. He won an Oscar by splitting the difference and lending gravitas to Good Will Hunting. The qualities he revealed in such roles kept him working when the masses suddenly decided, around the time of Bicentennial Man, that he was too desperate to entertain them. His filmography in the new millennium was far more modest, until finally he returned to series television last fall, only to have The Crazy Ones fail after one season. He apparently killed himself today, but he is no more gone yet than Philip Seymour Hoffman -- or for that matter, Mickey Rooney, who joins Williams in the forthcoming Night at the Museum sequel this Christmas, while Williams stars in something titled Merry Friggin' Christmas, which may now get a wider release than it would have otherwise. It's probably wrong to say that the demons of Williams's youth finally caught up with him, since he had been clinically depressed recently. Instead, there's actually something bittersweet in the fact that he survived and even thrived long enough that we're surprised to learn of his death. That in itself is some sort of success.

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