I am shocked and devastated to read, just as I was going to bed, that Robin Williams has died, seemingly from suicide due to asphyxia. It’s common now for sit-com stars to move on to film – Woody Harrelson, Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston – but Williams, along with John Travolta, paved the way.
Mork and Mindy was one of the sweetest programmes of my youth. Williams’s innocent alien, Mork from Ork, first appeared in Happy Days (Williams got the part before the audition even began, when the director asked him to take a chair and he sat on it on his head), and was so popular he got his own show, and catchphrase, “Nanu Nanu” (you had to have been there).
As a film actor he always risked overpowering his co-stars, being a barely contained tornado of irrepressible energy. He was a coke addict until 1982, though he claimed it was “a place to hide”, and that whereas it sped most people up, it slowed him down. He was at his best in roles which allowed his astonishing improvisational genius full rein, such as the army DJ in his breakthrough film, Good Morning, Vietnam, or the Genie in Aladdin, both of which we featured on the cover of Time Out. I put him on the cover again for his Golden Globe-winning turn as Mrs Doubtfire, headlined “How Hollywood’s funniest man became Hollywood’s funniest woman.”
As a dramatic actor, in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), Dead Poets Society (1993) or even Good Will Hunting (1997), he could seem schmaltzy to European sensibilities. But whenever he issued some Hallmark homily, he seemed at the same time utterly sincere: eyes narrowed and glistening, face creased, smiling in pain and sorrow and empathy. You sensed a real inner grief at and understanding of the follies of human nature.
In 2002 he was given a chance at darker fare, as the lonely photo technician in One Hour Photo, and a killer in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. He was excellent in both, but it wasn’t the Robin Williams the public wanted to pay to see. He hasn’t had a bona fide hit since, aside from supporting roles in the Night In the Museum series, and his return to sit-com last autumn, The Crazy Ones, was not given a second season. He had recently signed on for Mrs Doubtfire 2, which, two decades on, might have seemed like a last resort.
Williams’s agent said he had recently been battling depression. No one but those closest to him can really know why. But it’s a trope that comedians are often not themselves happy people: it is, after all, their job to point out the absurdity of the human condition. Not for nothing did Beckett, in his original stage directions, have the protagonists of Waiting for Godot as clowns rather than tramps.
There’s an old joke about a man who goes to see a psychiatrist, complaining of depression. “Laughter is the best medicine,” says the doctor, much as Robin Williams did as Patch Adams (1998). “The Great Gandini is performing in town tonight: I’ll prescribe you a ticket to see his show, he’s hilarious.” The man looks mournfully at the psychiatrist, and says, “But that doesn’t help me. I am the Great Gandini.”