Christmas Day, 1997. Chris and I had just gotten married two months earlier and moved back to Dallas, where I’d gone to college at Southern Methodist University, because he had a great producing gig at the local Fox TV station, KDFW. Chris was stuck working on that holiday, as journalists so often must when they’re young and childless.
Ten days earlier, my mother had died of leukemia back home in Los Angeles, two years after my father’s death from a heart attack. I happen to be an only child. On this most heartwarming of family-friendly holidays, at age 25, I was alone — truly alone — for the first time ever. So I did what I always do on happy days and sad days and regular days in between: I went to the movies.
The film I chose was a matinee of “Good Will Hunting.” My mother had been a Gus Van Sant fan — I recall cackling with her at the dark absurdities of “My Own Private Idaho” — and I thought Matt Damon was cute. I still do. Maybe it was because of my state of solitude and melancholy, but “Good Will Hunting” touched me deeply that day. Maybe I would have been a mess if I’d gone to see “Scream 2″ or “Tomorrow Never Dies” instead. But I know that a major part of the experience for me was Robin Williams’ performance as the psychologist who dares to delve within the tormented mind of Damon’s character, the brilliant Will Hunting. Although Williams was playing a man at sea following his own loss of a loved one, his calming, reassuring presence soothed me when I needed it.
I wasn’t a film critic yet — that wouldn’t happen until 1999 — but I recognized even then how disarming Williams’ performance was in its quiet honesty, albeit with some glimmers of his trademark mischief. It was so different from the wildly hyper-verbal persona he’d carved out for himself over the previous two decades, from Mork From Ork through Mrs. Doubtfire. And it was so full of hope for the possibility of forgiveness and redemption and even peace.
Peace eluded Williams off-screen, despite his turbulent efforts to achieve it. He was found dead on Monday, having hanged himself at his home in the picturesque Marin County town of Tiburon, Calif. He was 63.
For years, Williams had spoken candidly in interviews about his battles with cocaine addiction, alcoholism and depression. He’d been in and out of rehab, in and out of AA. So many comics derive their humor from a sadness that lurks within them, but the disparity between Williams’ light and dark sides seemed especially gaping, even though both elements of his personality could coexist simultaneously within his greatest roles. This is a man who was joy incarnate — a radiant ball of energy with a rapid-fire wit and unstoppable stamina. Consider the groundbreaking stand-up routines of his early years and his unparalleled ability to shift seamlessly between voices and personalities, historical references and pop-culture riffs. He didn’t miss a beat or catch a breath. It was a thrilling and exhausting spectacle to behold. His improvised voice work as Genie in the animated “Aladdin” (1992) is another excellent example of Williams firing on all cylinders.
But many of my favorite Williams roles are the heavier ones he chose over the past decade or so, and I wonder if those were closer to his heart and soul — the ones that were free of the lively patter that worked so well elsewhere in films like “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society.” He won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for “Good Will Hunting” in 1998 following three previous nominations, prompting everyone in the audience to leap to their feet in a showing of genuine love and esteem. (The YouTube clip of his acceptance speech will bring tears to your eyes.)
But then, over the years, he went on to play a deeply creepy stalker in Mark Romanek’s chilling “One Hour Photo” and an Alaskan killer in the early Christopher Nolan thriller “Insomnia,” both in 2002. In Bobcat Goldthwait’s dark and daring comedy “World’s Greatest Dad” (2009), he played a father who fabricates his teenage son’s suicide to ride a wave of sympathy to a book deal and multimedia fame. This is the same man who played the feel-good doctor in the mawkish “Patch Adams”?
That’s what’s so astounding as we look back on Williams’ career — the range and depth he displayed and the longevity he enjoyed. Within a scene, a film, a lifetime, he could be do so many things at once, with great care and passion, and make it all look effortless. Despite his varied choices and off-camera troubles, he was a constant and reliable force.
Whenever a celebrity dies so suddenly, it’s a shock; we think we know these people. Look at the recent outpourings of love and respect for actors as disparate as James Gandolfini, Paul Walker and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But when the death is a suicide, the sense of loss comes from an even deeper and more helpless place.
If only Robin Williams knew how loved and appreciated he was — and if only it had been enough.