'I sound my barbaric YAWP!'

RIP Robin Williams

morkI’ve slowed down a bit with posts here, we both have. We’re all grown up and busy with work. But my two most recent posts have both been tributes to funny men who had a huge influence on me. This is truly turning out to be an emotionally mixed year.

image06When I started working for Borders Books in what must’ve been 2001 by my guess, I quickly discovered I was something of a workshy layabout. We were split into around 8 groups of five people and had to fill up the newly built shop from top to bottom. Three floors of books, music and DVDs. To this day I’m always left uneasy about coincidences but I met a guy that day who seemed to be my film and television twin. Our tastes crossed in so many areas, although music probably wasn’t one of them comedy clearly was. Over the two weeks of sorting that shop we bonded over our combined love of Bill Murray, Rik Mayall and Robin Williams.

picture-of-robin-williams-and-michael-gambon-in-toys-1992--large-pictureMy mate Kev (Kevin Stayner, hi Kev) seemed to have the same, weird and probably autistic trait I had when it came to Robin Williams and a few other actors: the need to find every single performance by that actor. Not just film or TV, but appearances on Letterman, even Oprah and anything else that was out there. Kev and I had both taped Mork & Mindy off-air and weirdly had typed identical labels for each series. We knew them so well, word for word, scene for scene. I finally met someone who knew about Seize the Day! (Fielder Cook, 1986) and Moscow on the Hudson (Paul Mazursky, 1984). Kev and I were freakish, long-distance Robin Williams twins and what’s comforting about this is I know exactly how Kev feels today and he can empathise with me.

Bobcat Goldthwait, Robin WilliamsThe appeal of Robin Williams is a hard one to pin down these days because it’s true to say he made some pretty awful films. Like any performer you have good and bad patches. In his case, his really bad Patch was clearly labelled as such. But my first exposure to him was on Channel 4’s repeats of Mork & Mindy. Here we had a pretty dreadful sitcom premise bizarrely springing from Happy Days and more bizarrely entwined with Laverne & Shirley even though they’re set in different decades. Mork was a child who didn’t fit in and found the world a confusing, dishonest and sometimes dangerous place. What better role model for a kid? Mork would try to apply naive logic to modern day problems and fail. He wanted to help, he wanted to do the right thing and most important of all: He wanted to have fun while he did it. This made Mork an ideal best friend.

936full-dead-poets-society-photoBy the time Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989) came along, folk were hailing Williams as a surprisingly good straight actor. No surprise to me – I’d seen his previous films. There were some dark moments in Mork & Mindy as well and the comedy toward the end only worked with the pathos. Mork coming to terms with death, drug use, homelessness, mental illness – there were some hardcore lessons to be learned in life. In one cathartic episode Mork has to interview Robin Williams on TV about the pressures of fame. These days we know what Williams was going through at the time. Clearly on drugs, drinking too and dogged by depression.

4520231_l5The World According to Garp (George Roy Hill, 1982) runs a close second in my favourite Williams films. A very early performance and based on half a beautiful book, it’s Williams at his best. He gets to do the comedy, he gets to do the rage and he gets to prat about with John Lithgow. That Williams never took a role in Third Rock from the Sun is one of life’s great shames.

worldsgreatestdadjpg-2a4706a62d84da8b_largeHe was a bloody good actor but he was making straight films at a time when audiences had become cynical. Dead Poets Society at the time was dismissed as sentimental, but these days is being hailed as a classic, rightly so. In fact that accusation of sentimentality runs through so many of Williams’ choices: Awakenings (Penny Marshall, 1990), What Dreams May Come (Vincent Ward, 1998), Jakob the Liar (Peter Kassovitz, 1999) and even Mrs Doubtfire (Chris Columbus, 1993). In fact those choices probably say a lot more about his state of mind over the years than anything else.

25He’d still dip into the comedy roles too, even making a Disney film tolerable in Aladdin (Ron Clements, John Musker, 1992). One of his most recent films was World’s Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2009) which is the blackest of comedies tragically about suicide, or not as you’ll see if you watch it.

Robin Williams in 1978But all of this comes a close second to his frantic, Marmite stand-up work. He was a dangerous man to interview. Not many people would be brave enough to have him live on prime time. I had a great collection of Letterman appearances over the years, all of them he’d just go that bit too far during. He loved an  audience and knew how to work an audience. His shows never felt scripted and certainly seemed improvised but I reckon this was all part of the act. His stand up was frequently character-based, be it a camp dance instructor or an angry redneck he’d channel all these characters and more in just 30 seconds of jokes. His earlier shows where he’s fueled with cocaine are a tough set to watch, but his more recent shows show him sober and are more structured, almost observational. Unusual for him. An observant mimic and occasional impressionist, sure, but suddenly he’d become a ‘What’s that all about?’ comedian and was doing it so much better than the current generation.

db173160-baa4-11e3-aa1f-3d31b431f253_104510_D1931bJust as there was with Rik Mayall, I had this feeling that there was still more to come from Robin Williams. His best work seemed ahead of him and for him to take his own life lends his comedy a new, darker and tragic edge. The tears of a clown has long been a cliche I’ve loathed, and when you have a performer like Tony Hancock you can deal with it better in a grumpy, dissatisfied screen character. But Robin Williams’ characters were always so full of life and optimism. Even Seymour Parrish was looking for something better!

Any logical, sensible person knows there isn’t an afterlife – life isn’t that fair. But if there were pearly gates, and Williams did shuffle through them, I do hope the first thing he heard was a loud ‘Mork!’ followed by a man in white robes, pushing his way past imaginary crowds to get to him. Exidor will look after him.

Rest in peace, Robin. Thank you for being my childhood friend and introducing me to a grown up friend.

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