I felt lucky every time I got to chat with Robin Williams, but when I once said, “I’d love to get inside your brain,” he replied, “Leonard, you don’t want to go there.” It’s a sad fact that many people who possess great gifts are also greatly troubled. Some of them hide it from the world, while others can’t. It’s a crushing blow to learn that this wildly talented man took his own life. How sad for his family and friends, not to mention fans and admirers. We’ve been robbed of his presence and his talent.
The first time I met him was during a press junket for the 1990 drama Awakenings, in which he starred opposite Robert De Niro. At the time, Entertainment Tonight’s modus operandi was to roll tape the minute our interviewee walked in the door, and Robin didn’t disappoint. We used up a 20-minute cassette and afterwards I told my boss that he could have (and should have) used the entire tape, start to finish. It wasn’t just that he was funny: he riffed on everything around him, including me, but he also knew when and how to be serious. He could turn on a dime and change the air in the room.
Other comedians have turned out to be good dramatic actors, but when Williams revealed that facet of his talent it was surprising because his comedy was so manic and spontaneous. People either forgot, or didn’t know, that he had studied at Juilliard under the imposing John Houseman before becoming a street performer in San Francisco. Beyond that, he clearly had a keen insight into human nature: the same observational skills that fueled his comedy enabled him to explore the serious, even darker, side of a character.
I like a lot of his films, from The Fisher King to Aladdin, but two of my favorite performances are in movies that didn’t reach wide audiences. In One Hour Photo (2002) he plays a clerk at the photo-developing counter who takes more than casual interest in his favorite customers. He was so convincing that as I left the theater I kept thinking, “I know that guy.” He also did exceptional work in Bobcat Goldthwait’s dark comedy/satire World’s Greatest Dad (2009) as a failed writer who seizes an opportunity to achieve notoriety following a family tragedy.
I feel devastated by the news of Robin Williams’ death. What a loss it is for all of us who enjoyed him on television, stage, and film. I looked forward to every talk-show appearance he made, because he never let an audience down.
We’ll always be able to see him, thank goodness, but now the experience will be bittersweet.