Remembering Robin Williams
and his Lesser-Seen Roles
We in Northern California took the death of Robin Williams personally and keenly. Williams sightings were common, and we felt, however presumptuously, that he was one of us. If, as the Northern Californian critic David Thomson put it, "'The Robin Williams Picture' had become a warning signal" we could make it a north/south thing and chalk it up to the stupidity of The Industry. They thought of Williams as the eternal boy, the alien in rainbow suspenders, all the way to the end; they judged that Mrs. Doubtfire required a sequel every bit as tedious as the first one. It was like Ian McKellen's line in Gods and Monsters about how if you gave a farmer a giraffe, the first thing he'd try to do is put a harness on it and force it to plow his fields. Admittedly there were popular exceptions, such as the marvelous Tex Averian Genie. And Williams' great warmth deserved to be used. No one rises to where Williams rose without a belief—and is this presumptuous?—that a comedy force is both an educator and a healer. So the dreaded Patch Adams must be counted as something essential to the mission he was on.
Let's remember the less-seen work. Bobcat Goldthwait's acidic World's Greatest Dad (2009) now on Netflix, is about suicide, or rather the romanticizing of it, which makes it tough as a memorial. Yet it has some of Williams' finest acting: it's an unsparing comedy about gullibility and the side of teaching literature that is not at all like Dead Poet's Society. The late Harold Ramis' Club Paradise gave us Williams ring-mastering a Caribbean circus of most of the SCTV cast. It needs some of the vast audience Caddyshack has. In Cadillac Man he was a comeuppanced creep of a car salesman. Williams showed his Juilliard skills as an appropriately fey Osric in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. In The Best of Times—scripted by Bull Durham's Ron Shelton—he was the sap who lost the Bakersfield-Taft football game, and who can never live it down. Lastly, the staring terrorist in The Secret Agent, fighting his way through a crowd, while carrying the means to kill them all in his pocket. See how good Robin Williams was in that film's last minutes and understand the loss we have suffered.