It is with enormous sadness that I heard the news that Robin Williams passed away today, apparently the victim of a bout with severe depression. Although not related to Williams, his passing evokes a sadness and sense of loss similar to the passing of my sister more than fifteen years ago. To be sure, the death of a celebrity isn't anywhere as devastating as losing a family member, but there are similarities in their passing that evoke parallel emotions.
I won't recount Williams' career, his triumphs, his battles - the press should and will do that over the course of the next day or two far better than I. I just wish to express appreciation for someone who I admired for all his talent with all his humanity.
I first saw Robin Williams perform when I was in high school. This was just about the time that his Mork & Mindy work was taking off: his first successful media vehicle into the public arena. He was doing stand-up comedy and I used to frequent The Ice House, a small comedy nightclub in Pasadena, CA that showcased up and coming talent before they could get their break at the big clubs on the Sunset Strip. Robin was already crossing that divide but, true to form, didn't abandon the tribe that raised him. As a teenager, I couldn't get into a club like The Comedy Store (you had to be 21), but I could take a date and sit not six feet away from him while sipping a root beer I'd soon spray all over the room in laughter. Yeah...pretty impressive date...right up until that moment!
Subsequently, 30 years later, I met this amazing artist at the airport as I was traveling back from a fencing tournament accompanying my son. Williams was on the same flight and it was a thrill just to be able to look him in the eye and say, "Good evening, Mr. Williams." (and no, I didn't mimic Robin's immortal line from Good Morning Vietnam) Silly, yes. But we all get starstruck by someone, God willing, should we have any appreciation for the wonder of the universe in which we live. I endeavored not to be intrusive, so our exchange was limited to his brief and friendly acknowledgement of my greeting and we were done.
Williams' artistic hero was Jonathan Winters (Williams described Winters as his "comedy Buddha"): a comedian, not unlike Williams who was both brilliant and felt outside the norm of the tribe in which he lived. I always thought Williams cherished that role, but I suspect I may be wrong on this score. I am confident that Winters' view was for more bleak and he did not celebrate his unique view of humanity and our experience with it with the relish we might assume from his comedy. I met Winters when I was a very young boy: my father worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and so, even after his death, we went to the MGM dentist and it was there that I met Mr. Winters in the waiting room. A four year old boy was pretty much the perfect audience for Jonathan Winters...and he was pretty much the perfect playmate for a four year old boy! Being able to connect the two ends of this artistic circuit is meaningful to me.
So why would Williams' death weigh so heavily on me? Well, beside the shared grief with countless others at losing one of the great creative and performance geniuses of our time, Robin Williams' death evokes a set of emotions that I last felt when my sister passed: not complete shock (in both cases, understanding their tumultuous relationship with the mainstream of society and culture about them), but a deep and abiding sense of loss of such a great wonder of humanity, lost tragically feeling disconnected from all that held them dear.
Again, I won't attempt to list the multitude of accomplishments that this gifted individual gave to us, as others will do so countless times in the coming hours and days. But I will reflect on the fact that we have lost one of the kindest, most fragile and hysterically poignant expressions of the human psyche to ever walk this planet. Thank you Robin for all you gave to us. Not only do I have precious and beloved memories of great packages of enlightenment gift wrapped in laughter from you, but you have provided me with countless priceless moments with my children who have loved your creations from Mrs. Doubtfire to the Genie in Aladdin. I will cherish the multitude of memories of you "being real", whether in an interview or doing stand-up, showing amazing courage and enviable brilliance in your understanding of how "it all works". I sincerely offer my condolences to your wife, Susan Schneider, and your children: Zak and Zelda. Thank you for enriching my life and those of millions of others.