So many important and wonderful people have died this year (your Hoffmans, your Stritches) that it’s starting to seem that I mostly write obituaries for people I have long loved from afar. But the death of Robin Williams yesterday morning, in what seems to be a tragic suicide, I feel particularly personal. People of my generation grew up with Robin Williams. His frenetic humor, the dizzying runs of free-association, resonated across all ages; as children, we might not exactly get all the references, but we knew we were in the presence of a virtuoso.
He was the King of Playing. We watched his films for kids (can you watch the end of Mrs. Doubtfire without crying? I can’t, and my parents aren’t even divorced) and his films for adults; we howled with joy when we caught a glimpse of him during a Nick at Nite rerun of Mork and Mindy and realized that, too, was Robin Williams. Our Robin Williams. Our favorite uncle, our silly big brother, our captain, our genie. He existed before we did, and somehow, that made him even more magical.
A lot of writers and colleagues will want to share their personal experiences of Williams, and for once, I can join in the chorus: I met Robin Williams. More than that, I had one of the most pleasant dinners of my life with him.
I had tagged along with a college friend to a giant, three-day party given by her family at the hotel they owned: the kind where Smokey Robinson and Huey Lewis and the News are the hired performers. Robin Williams was one such performer, and I was duly impressed, especially at his set. I’d never seen him live before, and I couldn’t believe how incredible he was: improvisatory, wild, and free. There was nothing rehearsed about his performance, nothing that seemed honed. He seemed as though he were taking genuine inspiration from the buttoned-up crowd.
My friend was called away to speak to various family friends, and I felt very lonely sitting at the table, until I heard a familiar voice pipe up behind me.
“It’s okay. I don’t know anyone here either.”
It was Robin, seating himself beside me. He wasn’t expected to stay for dinner, but he sat with me for the entire meal, all the way through dessert. We talked about experimental theater, linguistics, politics. He was so famous, or maybe just so approachable, that it didn’t occur to me to be nervous; I just felt like I was talking, say, to a cousin of my mother’s I hadn’t seen in a while. (She has a lot of them.) When the meal was finished, he wished me luck and thanked me for talking to him. “You definitely made me feel at home,” he said.
The best artists give us everything of themselves. We rarely think about how much it costs them to be the person we turn to in times of need. Robin Williams used to tell a joke: “A man goes to the doctor and claims of being depressed. He feels hopeless, like he has nothing to live for. The doctor says, “You’re in luck. I have the perfect cure. The famous clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. See his show and laugh and forget your troubles for a while.’ The patient says: “But Doctor, I am Pagliacci.”
There will always be a hole where Robin Williams was.
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