Things are often not what they seem. We know that from experience. We knew that about Robin Williams, yet we are nevertheless shocked by the news of his suicide. How can a person so imbued with unbridled comic instincts be, deep down, so despondent and disillusioned with life that he acts to end his own?
The public may never know what personal demons plagued Williams beyond his highly-publicized struggles with alcohol, substance abuse, and depression. That line-up is certainly symptomatic of a life gone-wrong, but the deeper root-triggers of such havoc-wreaking conditions are never so obvious. Perhaps such desperation results from a sense of self-loathing or self-disappointment, or feelings of extreme loneliness, or the conclusion that life and living are a pointless exercise. Then, too, there are the little-understood roles that brain chemistry and genetics play in influencing our lives.
One thing is certain: Robin Williams was a genius, a one-of-a-kind comic mind, capable of drawing instantaneous connections between the most diverse of thoughts and ideas and bundling those in cloaks of hilarity. I believe it was Charlie Rose who said that the time-delay between Williams’s mind and tongue was the shortest of any human he had ever encountered – and Charlie Rose has interviewed many brilliant people. Indeed, during interviews with Rose, it took Williams little time to have the normally staid and serious Rose laughing uncontrollably. Williams could routinely do that – take complete control of any situation and, without a script of any kind, turn it into one hilarious, extended three-ring circus. That was the genius of the man.
I think of him at his best when I recall one of his many appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” That particular night, Williams was hitting on all cylinders, but at double-speed; like all viewers surely were, I was blinded by the flashes of comic lightning which struck, one bolt right after the other. As quick and as humorous as Johnny Carson was in verbal give-and-take, he and co-host Ed McMahon were reduced to helpless puddles of laughter as Williams just took over the proceedings, firing one choice quip after another. It dawned on me as I watched that evening that I was witnessing something that I had never seen before – a superhuman comic alien from some other planet; it was that good!
Williams did have a serious side, without question. We certainly know that now, but we saw it earlier, in other venues including the movies he did. Aside from Williams’s take-over of the Johnny Carson show that particular night, my favorite performance of his was as Professor Keating in the film, “The Dead Poet’s Society.” His portrayal and his professorial message was, at heart, earnestly serious – with suitably effective comic overtones. The opening scene in the film featuring Professor Keating’s advice to a class of young prep students at a prestigious academy is my favorite in all of movie-dom. I related it in detail in a previous post of mine (June 23, 2013, Refresh Your Life Perspective! Old Yearbooks, Cemeteries, and the “Dead Poets Society” ). As part of this tribute to Robin Williams, I repeat the section of that post describing my favorite movie scene.
More Life Perspective:
My Favorite Movie Scene of All!
Although not in my top six favorite movies (see last week’s post, June 16, 2013), “Dead Poets Society” contains my favorite film scene of all time; it relates beautifully to today’s post. The staging of the scene is brilliant as is its message, and Robin Williams’ acting is superb as Mr. Keating, the new-hire, maverick English teacher at Welton, an old, very toney, and rigid prep school with a direct pipeline to the Ivy League.
The opening scenes during the credits constitute fine film-making, but the fun begins on the first day of class as we briefly follow a group of male “preppies” through their initial classes in chemistry, trigonometry, and Latin. Now, they file in and take their seats in Mr. Keating’s English classroom. As they patiently wait for their instructor to appear, the front door to the classroom opens; Mr. Keating walks slowly down the center aisle, whistling quietly to himself, and then disappears back into the hallway through a rear door. The students look around, puzzled; some tittering is heard. Suddenly, Keating pokes his head back through the door and shouts, “Well, come on!” while motioning the class to follow him.
They are now standing in the building foyer, just steps removed from Keating’s classroom. He herds them closely together, facing the built-in glass display cases along the wall which house athletic trophies and numerous team and student photographs dating back to the early 1900’s. He hands one of the lads a hymnal and identifies a verse for him to read out loud – page 542.
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a-flying, and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.”
“Why did the writer say that?” Keating asks. A voice in the back offers, “Because he’s in a hurry?” “No, thank you for playing anyway! It’s because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating replies. “The Latin equivalent of all that is, ‘Carpe Diem’. What does that mean?” “Seize the day,” responds a capable Latin scholar in the front. Now, Keating asks them all to step forward as a group, closer to the display wall in order to carefully peruse those faces from the distant past, there on display – faces that almost nobody ever stops to notice in passing.
“Look at them, boys – they are just like you, hormones racing around and all.”
Keating assures his charges that, by listening closely, “You can hear them whispering their legacy to you….hear it?” Expressions are intent and ears are cocked toward the frozen images on display – only the steady ticking of the clock on the wall can be heard. After a long pause, a soft, barely decipherable and throaty whisper floats among the assemblage as Keating inauspiciously moves to the rear of the group: “Caaarpe….caaarpe ….carpe diem! Seize the day boys!”
Keating reminds the group that these lads “speaking” to them in this manner are now “fertilizing daffodils.” Did they live up to their potential, their high hopes and expectations which were not much different from those of this, the current class at Welton? Did they seize the day – each and every day that they were given?
As the boys exit the hall together on the way to their next class, one exclaims, “That was weird!” Cameron, the by-the-book student with the red flat-top seriously wonders aloud, “Think he’ll test us on that?”
Life will test them all on that; they were indeed fortunate to land in Mr. Keating’s class and receive such a valuable lesson so early in their young lives. End of excerpt.
Comedy is a Serious Business
I suspect the serious side of Robin Williams relished the role of Professor Keating in that film. I believe the professor’s offering of a life-perspective to his prep students was applicable to Robin Williams, the private man. It surely must be true that, in private, he pondered the very messages he delivered to his prep students in those movie lines, and yet…..! It is regrettable that the real Robin Williams ultimately concluded that life’s offerings were no longer worth the pain and trouble.
A long-standing contention purports that comic genius is only possible when it germinates from a tragic personal sense. That theory strikes me as likely true, especially when pondering the well-known fact that that another acknowledged comic genius with a similar manic style, Jonathan Winters, was Robin Williams’s comic role model. Like Williams, Winter also suffered from depression and other issues. It is also true that the genius of such early master comics like Chaplin, Keaton, and Langdon seems related to their ability to project lovable characteristics and comic situations on basically pathetic and sad characters. Even circus clowns typically sport sad, painted faces. The most effective way to highlight a particular characteristic is to present it in stark contrast with another. Robin Williams deserves a place alongside the best purveyors of comedy that this old world has ever seen. Are we not fortunate to have known him?
Rest in peace, Robin Williams. Thank you for
brightening our lives while you were here among us.
The laughter and joy will resonate for a very long time.