It’s been a long time since a celebrity’s death affected me the way Robin Williams’death did. The news hit me like a punch in the gut accompanied by a gasp, similar to what I experienced when I heard about John Lennon being shot.
I never met Robin Williams, but like so many fans, I felt like I knew him, or at least really wanted to be caught in his orbit, just to see where his latest explosion of creative imagination would take us.
I know it would have been somewhere fun, exciting and funny as his brain ricocheted around the world without leaving the room, which would be filled with laughter as soon as he got started.
Watch his riffing in an interview, or the way he played disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” or the Genie in “Aladdin” and you feel all things are possible. There were no borders on his imagination, no blocks to any idea that might stir a laugh.
Something as simple as a hat could turn into a million things in his fertile mind in just seconds. And the more people laughed, the more Williams dug in for more.
So many of us can only imagine what the dark side of all that creative energy must have been like for an entertainer who clearly thrived on his audience laughing. We are told he battled severe depression for years, along with drugs and alcohol, which sent him to rehab on more than one occasion.
But as his wife suggested, it’s a time to focus less on what led to his death at age 63 and rejoice in the legacy of laughter (and some drama) that he shared with us.
Like many in my generation, I first remember watching him in his breakout role as Mork from Ork on “Mork and Mindy,” a spin-off of the then top-rated “Happy Days.” I didn’t much care for the show, but couldn’t stop watching because despite the ridiculous and simple-minded plots, Williams kept you glued to your seat. You didn’t know what he would do next and the producers worked off that.
I can only imagine how short the scripts for the show were because they had to leave time for his antics. I kind of felt bad for his co-star Pam Dawber, who was always there, but almost like a shadow in his bright light.
I had earlier discovered the genius that was Jonathan Winters and I remember thinking what it would be like to see them together. And then there they were, with Winters playing Mork’s son, Mearth, on the show’s final episodes.
To heck with the scripts. The show might have lasted longer if the writers just put the two of them in a room and let them go.
Williams then went on to prove how much more he had to offer. He had studied at Juilliard, and we saw the evidence in his later dramatic film roles and on stage, in his roles in “Waiting for Godot” (with Steve Martin) and on Broadway three years ago in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” He had heart and honesty amid the lunacy that often wasn’t far away.
But I suspect that audiences were drawn to those films, like his role as an analyst in “Good Will Hunting” or an inspiring teacher in “Dead Poets Society,” because of the warmth he engendered from his comedy. We liked him and were mostly willing to trust him wherever he took us. Of course, there were misfires, like “Death to Smoochy,” but most of his films have their defenders.
Williams’ death comes just a few months after CBS canceled his promising, if flawed, comedy series “The Crazy Ones,” in which he played an advertising agency owner recovering from his own drug-addicted past but still showing signs of genius.
Created by David E. Kelley, the show wisely gave Williams an opportunity to do what he does best, go on wild flights of fancy while coming up with advertising campaigns for whatever product was up for bids that week.
I stuck with “The Crazy Ones” for the entire season, and enjoyed watching Williams build a wonderful rapport with his terrific co-stars Sarah Michelle Gellar, Hamish Linklater and James Wolk. The show wasn’t perfect, but I laughed at least a few times in every episode — more than in most comedies — from the wit and frequent surprises, the qualities that Williams delivered at his frequent best.
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and president of the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.