The death of Robin Williams hit me between the eyes. He was just such an integral part of my young-adult years. I’ll always think of him as Mork from the planet Ork, looking at life on earth from a perspective both uniquely askew and consistently funny. (I’m sure I have those rainbow-striped suspenders around somewhere.)
Williams had many talents. But even he couldn’t do the impossible, like save a picture whose script is faulty. This lesson was brought home to me when my husband insisted we see 1990’s Cadillac Man. Sure, the reviews weren’t great, but with Robin Williams as star, how bad could it be? After surviving 97 minutes of lame attempts at zany humor, I learned a lesson I still share with my screenwriting students: without a strong script, even the best-cast film cannot fly.
Fortunately, most of Robin Williams’ projects were considerably better. My favorite period of his work ran from 1980 into the early 1990s, when he was blending offbeat humor with a satiric edge that managed to make a serious social comment. I remember Moscow on the Hudson (1984) and Good Morning Vietnam (1987) as both trenchant and hilarious. And his portrayal of a deranged homeless man in 1991’s The Fisher King (opposite the equally brilliant Jeff Bridges) is one I’ll long cherish. I can’t point to deep social meaning in his manic vocal performance as the genie in Aladdin (1992). But of all the Disney musicals this is the one that had me (along with my kids) singing and dancing outside Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre, so delighted were we with the sheer antic exuberance of it all.
I admired the touching Dead Poets Society (1989), with its belief in the written word as well as the nobility of the teaching profession, though its “seize the day” message was undeniably heavy-handed. And this film seemed to send Williams in a direction I didn’t much appreciate: toward movies that reeked of sentimentality. I’m perhaps alone in the world in disliking 1997’s Good Will Hunting. (I do, though, admire the smarts of screenwriters Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for adding to their screenplay what they originally called the Harvey Keitel part. Here’s how film historian Peter Biskind describes it: “They tailored the part of the therapist to a Hollywood star, any star, gave him the best lines, made it small so he could fit it into his schedule.” The role would have worked for Morgan Freeman or Meryl Streep, but ultimately Williams was cast as the bereaved but still funny therapist, and won an Oscar.) The next year, he starred in an even more egregiously schmaltzy film, Patch Adams, about a doctor who plays the clown to cheer up his dying patients. I had the misfortune of seeing it (over and over) in a hospital waiting room while a family member’s surgical procedure dragged on.
Three decades ago, I was writing a magazine story about a Hollywood branch of the famous Paul Sills improv troupe, which included such lively second bananas as Avery Schreiber, Hamilton Camp, Richard Libertini, and Dick Schaal. For these talented eccentrics, the challenge was finding a way to work together, spontaneously spinning a story out of the wispiest of materials. At one performance, the newly famous Robin Williams was announced as a special guest. Of course he proved remarkably quick and inventive. But he was not a team player, instinctively pulling focus from those who shared his spotlight. It was his destiny, I guess, to go it alone. Perhaps the price of being Robin Williams was just too high to bear.