Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

O Captain My Captain: Farewell To One Of The Greatest

Some links before I get started today. Norma had two passages from upcoming works here and here. Eve has this message at her blog. Hilary asks where summer is going. The Whisk has computer problems. And Maria profiled Esther Williams at her blog.

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for." ~ John Keating, Dead Poet's Society 

On Monday the world lost one of its great comedians and actors. Robin Williams burned bright through his life, gracing the big screen, the small screen, and comedy stages in a career that touched many lives in so many ways. With his passing, the world feels less bright. He lived with depression and addictions, fought battles against them for years, and in the end, those demons caught up to him.  We have his work to remember him by, both the rapid fire hilarious stand up comedy in which he'd skewer any available target and his work as an actor. Sometimes the two worlds would mix- many of his roles on television and in film were comedic. Other times, when he was serious, he could show us just how great an actor he really was. 

He got his start in standup comedy, performing with an exuberant, manic energy that never really left him on stage. He'd switch into various characters on stage, comment on life or politics, and his sharp wit always showed itself in his routines. Years later, even after moving into television and movies, he'd still come back to the stage regularly, performing for audiences in that same style, leaving people in stitches with his sense of humour. He would work repeatedly with friends Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg on standup specials for charity fundraising too. It didn't take long before he ended up moving into television. Mork & Mindy came along, and he spent several years playing the part of a bizarre alien visitor to Earth and living with a local. 

His fame transferred to the big screen, as it surely had to. The World According To Garp, Moscow On The Hudson, and Popeye were early films in his resume. Along came Good Morning, Vietnam, where he played a real life disc jockey in the Vietnam War for director Barry Levinson. Many of his radio monologues in that film were improvised, and the film really took off. He won a Golden Globe and secured an Oscar nomination for that role, and it played to his manic strengths as a comedian while also showcasing him as an actor. A few years later Williams would reunite with Levinson to do a guest spot on his series Homicide Life On The Street, getting an Emmy nomination for the role, playing a grieving husband trying to help his children deal with the death of their mother. It's a wrenching, heartbreaking performance on a show that still stands as one of the best television programs in the last thirty years.

After Good Morning, Vietnam came what's still my favourite film from Robin. Dead Poets Society featured him as John Keating, an English teacher at a prep school. His unorthodox ways of teaching and zest for the subject matter give his young students a different way of looking at the world, something unexpected from their parents, who would expect them to be educated to be future captains of industry. Keating teaches them to broaden their horizons, to seize the day. Though the film seemingly ends on a seemingly downbeat note for the character, drummed out of a job, he leaves knowing that the spirit of his students has not been subdued; it is, in fact, an uplifting ending. I was watching clips of it the other night; comments on the message boards suggested some people could not bring themselves to watch the film again, knowing that Robin is gone. It's a role that has great dignity, wisdom, and light in it, and it's all Robin in that moment, being shown that respect in those words: O Captain My Captain.

The Fisher King was a film he did for Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam. He was cast as a homeless man , Parry, with a tragic past who crosses paths with a disgraced former shock jock (Jeff Bridges). It is Bridges' character Jack who grows in seeking redemption after his words inadvertently led to the shattering of lives- their pasts are linked, and the tragedy that broke Parry started with him. The film follows Jack in trying to help this man, into following the path of his hallucinations, and is a story of redemption and friendship. It featured two outstanding performances by the leads, got Robin another Golden Globe and another Oscar nomination, and continued to prove his brilliance as an actor.

Another one of my favourite roles for Robin is a cameo, actually, in Dead Again, the noir fantasy by director Kenneth Branagh, featuring he and Emma Thompson as lovers in two different time periods. Williams turns up as a disgraced former therapist sought out by the private eye played by Branagh in the current day. He's a cynical, bitter man, so unlike the motormouth we might expect of him in a standup setting. We can see the reasons he's a former therapist- his sense of ethics seems profoundly shaky to say the least. And even so, in the performance, Robin makes the character compelling. He would later appear again in a cameo for Ken Branagh in the epic adaptation of Hamlet. 

He voiced the Genie in the animated Aladdin for Disney, bringing his usual manic energy to the role- there are many people now who are remembering the words at the end of the film with poignancy: "you're free, Genie." He worked with Steven Spielberg to play an adult Peter Pan in Hook, forced to remember his lost past when his old adversary kidnapped his children. It seems, watching that film, that only Robin Williams could pull off the exuberance to play Peter Pan. And he did- he brought the character completely to life in his performance. Robin kept going from dramas to comedies to fantasy during this period. Awakenings, Jumanji, Mrs. Doubtfire, and The Birdcage were among his works through the Nineties. 

I do have to admit; there are two films in his works that I have not seen. What Dreams May Come had his ghostly character travelling through the realms of the afterlife for the sake of his late wife, a riotous display of fantasy and the incredible. It is a journey undertaken for love. The other film from this period I have not yet seen (and why on Earth not?) is Good Will Hunting. He won an Oscar for his role as a therapist trying to help a young genius (Matt Damon) out of his shell. It's a film that connected with audiences in a big way, and Williams was a huge part of making that connection.

One of his more recent roles is another favourite- because it's so unlike his other roles. He played the villain in the Christopher Nolan directed Insomnia. A detective (Al Pacino) coming to Alaska on a case pursues a murderer (Williams) while sleep deprived and at a low ebb. His Walter Finch is a devious, malicious man, cold blooded and calculating. He plays on the vulnerabilities of Pacino's detective Dormer, and the two actors sharing the screen as adversaries is a real treat- and a frightening glimpse of a character so very different from the manic energy of the comedian on stage.

Those of us who have had experience with depression know how overwhelming it can be. Perhaps that's why the news of Robin's death struck close to home in a way that it wouldn't for someone who admired him for his work. He's left a great void with his passing, and things are darker with him gone. I leave off with the work of editorial cartoonists commemorating the great man. Farewell, Robin, and thank you for the memories.


  1. Beautiful tribute William.. He really was a wonderful person. Must admit I spent more time than I should have today watching a couple of interviews he did ages ago with Michael Parkinson, he was just genius!

  2. I saw him last night, in the role that launched his TV career: Mork from Ork, in a pre-Mork and Mindy episode of Happy Days. In his end-of-episode report to his superior, Orson, he made an unusually serious statement about humans that was almost prophetic.

    I loved him in many roles, but the one that affected me most deeply--maybe because we saw it the week before my mother died--was What Dreams May Come. It may be difficult to watch now....

  3. Dead Poet's Society is one of my faves as well, but so is What Dreams May Come - you should definitely watch it. Those two roles showed his more serious side and his diversity as an actor and a person.

    The world might be darker without him, but hopefully those still living with depression and those who know them can move into the light with this experience.

  4. Another of my favorites: August Rush. Robin was something of a con man in it, leading a group of homeless kids in a modern take on Oliver Twist. He discovers a young music prodigy who's searching for his parents.

  5. Ahhh, one of the greats walks on to the next life. He will be missed!

  6. Wonderful post today William.

    cheers, parsnip

  7. @Grace: and then along today comes word of Lauren Bacall passing away. Another legend.

    @Norma: it might well be. I have not seen August Rush.

    @Carla: this news certainly does have people talking about the condition.

    @Lorelei: he will be.

    @Parsnip: thank you!

  8. Many comedians and even writers of humor, that I have met, seemed to have a dark side too. Remember, I used to be a magician's assistant to someone who tried being funny but was still a violent man? Your tribute is wonderful and you will have to see What Dreams May Come to get a glimpse into the genius comedian's newest stage.

  9. Good Will Hunting was an incredible movie. Though Matt Damon sort of blew me away with his part. I loved that character! Big recommend from me. :)

  10. I'm still grieving. I don't believe this has ever happened to me before, when it comes to a celebrity.

  11. Lovely tribute. I don't think there's a filmgoer/TVwatcher alive who didn't connect with him.

  12. I definitely felt his loss when I heard the news. I have seen both Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting and I love them both. He was so so talented and I'm so sorry he was so troubled. The thing about this type of death is that now when I watch his movies I was he REALLY feeling while this movie was going on? I begin to think about the real man and not the character and it can distract me a bit.

  13. @Eve: I have to remedy that post haste.

    @Diane: I must see that one too.

    @Mark: I know exactly what you mean.

    @Cheryl: It would be difficult to find something in his work that someone couldn't connect with.

    @Nicole: that's something that has crossed my mind as well yesterday and today.

  14. Very nice. I loved almost everything he ever did. Loved Mork from Orl.

  15. Mental illness knows no bounds. Robin Williams brought so much joy to so many; why, oh why could he not feel it, to?

    One of my favorite moments was watching Oliver Saks and Robin Wiliams on 60 Minutes. Williams played Saks in "Awakenings." As the two sat together, Williams kept imitating Saks and making Saks giggle. It seemed clear that as they got to know each other for the movie, they became friends. There was a true warmth between them.

    I wonder if he could feel the world stop and grieve his passing, would he have stayed? Rest In Peace, Robin Williams.

  16. Robin Williams was my favorite actor of all time, so his death hit me hard. Dead Poet's Society is one of my favorite movies, and I've seen every movie Williams was in because I loved his amazing talent. I will absolutely miss him.

  17. Such a wonderful tribute, William. The world has lost an amazing comedian, a sad and happy man -- such a diverse man in so many ways.

    Thank you for this, xo

  18. lovely tribute, William. I always felt he wore a smile with sad eyes ... such a dreadful loss for the world, and his family.

  19. Aw, thank you for this wonderful and very moving piece, William! I think what impressed me most about Mr. Williams was his ability to shit from manic comedy to powerful drama, to wear so many faces in the course of his career and the fact that he did all of them well.

  20. What a wonderful tribute. I'm still shocked he's gone. My family watches Hook over and over. I loved Jumanji.

  21. What a wonderful tribute to an amazing comedian. Robin Williams was so funny he could always make me smile. We were lucky to have had him to entertain us for so many years, but I know we wish we could have had him for longer!

    Love Dead Poet's Society and really should watch it again. You must watch Good Will Hunting- such a gem. :)

  22. I was really heartbroken when I heard this news. I still can't believe it. It is so sad for so many reasons.

    I hadn't seen those editorial cartoons - thanks for posting.


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