My first exposure to Robin Williams was his big break – Mork & Mindy. I remember laughing because of the physical humor. I remember laughing because he made funny voices. I remember wanting rainbow suspenders. I remember identifying with Mork who always seemed out of place, and slightly out of touch, because he was an alien. As a black, non-Lutheran Christian in a predominantly white Lutheran school, I felt very much like an alien at times. I laughed because the show made me happy. It masked the things that made me uncomfortable.
Now that I look back at it, when I wasn’t laughing at the slapstick humor, I was examining. I was examining his reactions, the other characters reactions. I was also examining myself. And it didn’t end with that single Williams’ character. I followed him to a plethora of portrayals.
Actors, comedians, artists offer us a dramatic version of CPR – a Cathartic Pulmonary Resuscitation. Sometimes they give us a change of heart. They breathe life into fictional characters. Characters whom we look in the eye and lose the identity of the actor and find someone else. Sometimes we find ourselves. Sometimes we find our flaws, our weaknesses, or nude spirit. Sometimes we find our strengths, our courage, our pride, our decorated identity. Brilliant actors don costumes in order to strip our true robed characters down to our true identity.
Which brings me to why I am saddened by this tragedy. I never met Robin Williams. I’m certain he had no clue who I am. However, true artists, people who are gifted enough to expose parts of our own identity, parts that we may not have recognized, become, in turn, a part of us. But what do they get in return? Money is the easy answer, but it’s a superficial prize for sharing your soul and baring someone else’s.
He never heard me laugh. He never heard my applause. He didn’t see me rewind Dead Poets Society multiple times to hear him utter “Carpe Diem” to students who bore a striking resemblance to classmates I had in high school in front of pictures that were doppelgängers of the hallway in my alma mater.
He never heard my children laugh at his Genie from Aladdin, or heard them try to sing along with him.
He didn’t see me tear up and laugh (sometimes simultaneously) during his performance in Patch Adams.
He doesn’t hear me occasionally greet students with his Mrs. Doubtfire voice.
And the list goes on and on and on. So many of his characters touched me in some way. Expanded my understanding in some way.
He has been referred to as the funniest man on the planet. It is humbling to hear that the funniest man on the planet was battling with depression. It saddens me that someone who brought so much joy to so many people was searching for joy himself. It doesn’t seem fair.
It kind of reminds me of the Smokey Robinson song “Tears of a Clown”. Granted his verse was about romance, yet the lyrics still seem fitting:
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room I cry
The tears of a clown
When there’s no one around, oh yeah, baby baby
Now if there’s a smile on my face
Don’t let my glad expression
Give you the wrong impression
Don’t let this smile I wear
Make you think that I don’t care
When really I’m sad…I’m hurting so bad……
I can’t claim to know his story, and frankly, it’s none of my business. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that this is a cautionary tale, a wake up call, a reminder that we need to continue to discuss mental health needs. We can’t be too proud to admit the cloudy days. We can’t assume that we know someone else’s struggle.
I have struggled finishing this post because I have so many emotions, thoughts, ideas, questions. I found myself watching clips of Williams on YouTube. I watched the aforementioned Dead Poets Society clip multiple times. I kept focusing in on one line. I kept watching him whisper to his students, “Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.” Though the way it ended was tragic, Williams certainly led an extraordinary life and touched the lives of millions. Need evidence?
One of the last videos I watched was a clip of Broadway’s Aladdin Genie, James Monroe Inglehart, celebrate the life of Robin Williams by leading the audience in a sing along of the classic “Friend Like Me” after the bows of the show. The audible gasp of the audience watered my eyes. The sound of, presumably, a predominantly middle aged and above crowd singing the song with such spirit warmed my heart, and led me to believe that it is probably true that in all the entertainers to grace the screen, in my lifetime, we ain’t never ever had a friend like he.
R.I.P. Robin Williams.