It has been only a day, less than twenty four hours since the news of Robin’s passing had been reported. Social media has exploded since then. People from all walks of life talking about how Robin and his work touched them. And I am no different.
As I had written recently on death, my way is to share stories and memories of the one lost. It is through our memories that we hold on to them. The more painful, abrupt and profound the loss, the more difficult it is to do. To whomever reads this letter, I offer the ways in which the work and life of Robin Williams affected me.
The Disney movie came out when my son was the perfect age. It had a monkey and that funny blue guy in it. Before he was old enough to watch Robin’s stand-up with me, or even understand all the jokes his ad-libs were telling, we laughed at Robin’s humor. Which came into play several years later, by the time we’d already had to replace the VHS tape once.
That day sixteen years ago, walking through the Humane Society, we were faced with walls of dogs that weren’t even close to a match for our family… and one uniquely shaped Black Lab – Australian Shepard mix. He sat calmly in his kennel looking sad and lonely. More so, I felt a connection to him, and bonded to him right away when we took him out for a walk. When we found out his named was Aladdin, the title of my now nearly eight year old son’s favorite movie, it was the lynchpin in the serendipity.
This one role brought me the beginnings of bonding over comedy with my son as well as my best friend for the last sixteen years.
This one dates back even further. It was my first year of college and I was considering if the choice to major in English and minor in Education was a good one. Back in high school, when I’d made this decision, it had seemed like the only correct one. Similar to the way I had – at five years of age – told my parents we should get a dog because I would have one when I moved out anyway, we should get started now. Unlike with that first childhood pet, I’d questioned my choice. A rough semester of nothing but education classes will do that to a guy.
Enter Dead Poet’s Society to answer those questions. John Keating picked up where Susan Erickson, Pat Meyers and Mrs. Olsen had left off. He inspired me from the screen. Had I been sitting in a desk while watching it, I would have stood on top at the end calling out “O Captain, My Captain.” And I have. Several times through my life. I may not be teaching, but that movie didn’t tell me I had to be a teacher. It showed me to find my own walk.
I stand firm in the belief that the movie was about Todd (Ethan Hawke’s character), about his transformation and growth. Neil’s role was nearly as important, but the effect of that was to drive Todd’s change. And John Keating’s. The message wasn’t really about the teacher inspiring them to stand on the desk, but the strength of that first young man to step on the chair… to lift himself to the desk. People can inspire you every day, but the choice is yours to take that first step.
The influence this movie had on me was profound, long-reaching, and still affecting me today. It was one of those things I looked back to when I decided to work seriously at this writing thing.
Back in high school, when I was establishing myself in the arts, we used to recreate stand-up shows. But not just any shows. This was the 80’s, a time of change and flux in comedy. Whoppi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Yakov Shmirnov (whose name I likely butchered)… these were comedians who were finding their own step, their own voice.
I remember distinctly during a partially scripted, interactive skit at the end of my final year in drama of a comedy awards banquet. It was modeled after the one that had been recently shown on television. During one of the bits, I gave an award to one of our dramatic actors for the bravery to modify Shakespeare’s lines on stage with, “Alas, poor Yorrick… steeeeee-rike!” (The bowling stance alone at the end of the line makes this a sight gag.) But it was a direct pull from Williams’ show – Hamlet being my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays.
His brand of comedy, and especially his improv, taught me as much about being funny and making people laugh as any of the masters from the birth of American comedy. Like Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, or Conway and Korman.
Much like Richard Pryor before him, he didn’t hide his addiction issues once he was through them. He worked them into his act. A wise man once taught me to face your fears you had to name them. Identifying them and calling them out was as important to putting them down as the strength to fight them.
When I was thriteen, my grandfather died. The man who passed his last name down to my family. Grampy and Nonna were my favorite relatives. I’d also learned that he wasn’t a perfect man, his death was an effect of one of his imperfections. But he was my grandfather, so that didn’t make me love him any less. Learning another of my heroes had similar demons chasing him reaffirmed for me that anyone can stumble and fall. And that anyone can pick themselves back up again. They just have to take that first step onto the top of the desk.
I leave this train of thought and memory with this last piece drawn from that drama class so long ago. I cannot remember if this was a direct quote dropped into my speech, or if it was simply inspired by him…
Dramatic acting is easy, comedy is hard. Even clowns can cry.
And with the only blessing I can think of fitting for the man…
O Captain! My Captain!