williams dead poets

Farewell to an Old Friend


I don’t want to think about Robin Williams’ death.  I don’t want to talk about it.  I don’t want to read the eleventy other opinions out there on the Twitters and the blogs.  I don’t want to look at all the ‘life in pictures’ articles.  I lost a friend yesterday, and for most of you, I bet you did too.

No, most of us never got the chance to meet him (lucky devil Stephen Kruiser shared his brief story on Facebook, which did make me smile); but he not only made us laugh, or cry, depending on the role (sometimes both at once), but he made us think.

A lot of the people my age were shaped by the characters Robin Williams played.  I remember thinking about how people were different, and what we looked like to outsiders, back in the days of ‘Mork and Mindy.’  Each report Mork would make back to his planet held some interesting observation about people on Earth, and each made us examine the way we acted, even if only a little bit.  Seeing the way we looked to an alien helped some of us see ourselves more clearly, especially in our formative years.

From ‘Moscow on the Hudson’ we got a look at communism, and at the yearning of people across the world to come to America and be free.  I remember the real-life stories at the time, Godunov and Baryshnikov and so many others, thinking ‘Good, one more got out.’  The coffee aisle scene never fails to move me, as I get to experience the joy of a man so unused to having choices that he melts down.   And I don’t know if many of my generation feel this, but one reason ‘glasnost’ didn’t impress me was because I didn’t trust Soviet leaders, even when they became Russians.  But I always loved Russian people.

From ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ we got a look behind the scenes at a war most people my age hadn’t experienced, M*A*S*H episodes notwithstanding. (M*A*S*H was always explained to me as Vietnam set in Korea, so it counts)  Williams also demonstrated, with great ebullience and poignancy, the need to challenge authority, as well as the cost of doing so.

‘Dead Poet’s Society’ was made in the same vein, in a totally different setting and time period.  How else were we going to be made to read Walt Whitman?  We grappled with suicide then, too, on the screen with the other characters, and counted the cost of conformity and individuality.  In Mr. Keating, we found a voice telling us to try, to reach, to dream.  Some of us took that advice to heart, and for some of us, those words resonate to this day in Williams’ voice.

And for our kids, Genie was the embodiment of all things fun, but also a very stern warning about power, and what it can do to people.  Dig just below the surface of ‘Aladdin’ and you find so many great lessons, conservative lessons even, that impressed themselves upon our children.  Honor.  Honesty.  Faithfulness.  Humility.  Self-sacrifice.  With his voice, Williams helped put those things into our children’s lives in a way that a Sunday School sermon might never reach.

There are too many films to list, and so much of his work informed our culture.  Many of his performances are so iconic, and many of the lines so memorable, that it’s difficult to imagine what entertainment would be without Robin Williams’ many contributions.  But more than that, it’s difficult to imagine what type of people we would be, had we not had so many challenging and uplifting and thoughtful resources at our disposal over the life of his work.

I can definitely say his performances shaped me, and influenced how I think about many things, from family to politics to work.  And as a drama teacher, I’m awed and amazed at his reach, his versatility, his depth, his skill, and his work ethic.

No, I don’t want to talk about his death.  I want to remember his life, and how much he meant to me and so many other people.  How he gave so much of his time, how he entertained troops during military actions with which he disagreed.  How he helped make us what we are.  I want to honor his life, and the skill he had in telling a good story.  The stories he told shaped us.

And no matter what, we are blessed that they will continue to do so.