“I didn’t know I could be so sad, angry, stunned and grateful at the same time. RIP Robin Williams.”
– Jim Gaffigan
There’s a certain visceral quality to characters I connected to as a child, most likely due to the way that the barrier between fantasy and reality was so thin back then. Like the aliens from Galaxy Quest, to my child self, all the stories were true. As I was born in the early 80s, Robin Williams was almost ubiquitously present for my childhood: in Aladdin, in Fern Gully, in Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji and Toys, and most vividly and memorably for me, in Hook and in the reruns of Mork and Mindy. And that visceral connection has lasted through adulthood in a way that made his unexpected death a gutpunch of grief and sorrow.
Robin Williams had a remarkable quality of innocence and vulnerability that went hand in hand with his full-throttle personality. It was not the innocence of naivety, but of experience: of someone who embraced the world completely and utterly and loved without restraint. That simultaneous impression of youth and age was something rare and wonderful that made for an enthralling performance, even in his more forgettable films.
There’s a scene in Hook where one of the Lost Boys starts manipulating Robin-as-Peter’s face, seeking the child in the adult, and finding him with a joyful, “Oh, there you are, Peter!” As a child, there was a certain element to becoming an adult that was rather terrifying, but with this scene I was reassured that me-as-child would always be hiding somewhere under adult me, and as long as someone cared to look, I could be found. As an adult, I am even more moved, because it is a scene that says that we are known, that we are recognizable as individuals, and though we might misplace important parts of ourselves for a time, they are never completely lost to those who care.
I am well aware that this was only a fraction of what made up Robin Williams- he was a fallible human being who struggled with addiction, who sometimes went too fast and too far, and who must have been exhausting at times even for (or perhaps especially for) those who loved him most. He had a couple disturbingly convincing turns in darker roles, and demonstrated just as much facility for them as he did for the lighter side of things.
I feel like far too many of the reflections on his life focus on his critically acclaimed roles while dismissing the parts considered sentimental and mawkish, but in doing so, I think people are missing one of the most important truths about Robin: that he poured himself into our hearts when we were children, and he had the power to call us back to those selves. I don’t even need to revisit his films of my childhood to bring forth that feeling: even his new films that I have watched as an adult have that same power. A week or so ago, I saw the trailer for the upcoming third installment of the Night at the Museum movies, and there he was as Teddy Roosevelt. Suddenly it was as if I was all of 8 years old, enthralled in a way that rarely happens to my adult, distractible, sometimes cynical, and frequently critical self.
Robin Williams felt more like a force of nature than a mortal, guilty living creature, and so the news of his death seemed like some horrible joke. Before yesterday, I could hardly imagine a world without him, but if forced, perhaps I could understand something like a heart attack during a stand-up show when he was in his 80s or 90s. Not now. Not this. But he was a human being, and now he’s gone, and it has made me feel like a child again, but not in the joyful way; instead I feel like a child bereft, trying to understand the whys and the hows.
I never met him and I never knew him, but I loved him and I will miss him.