RIP, Robin Williams | Thoughts on Brilliance & Legacies

In recent months, Nick and I have watched Hook and Aladdin with our four year old, Claire. It was fulfilling to introduce Robin Williams to a new generation–in fact to the third generation for my family. I recall as a child watching Good Morning, Vietnam with my parents who talked about “Mork and Mindy.” I was too young to understand the movie, but it wouldn’t be long before I fell in love with Aladdin and Hook and eventually with Dead Poet’s Society and What Dreams May Come.

In his comedic and dramatic roles, Robin Williams was intense, engaging and inspiring. His intensity was palpable; his work suffused with a persistence and a desire almost for perfection.

He was entertaining across his long career. It’s almost unheard of to see an actor with his range, his ability to be both dramatic and comedic, and his ability to appeal to audiences of all ages. His movies will continue to be watched for years to come by those craving sentimentality, to be transported back to the moment we first discovered this genius.

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For those of us interested in artistic pursuits–whether our own or others’–we can rattle off the names of authors, poets, musicians, artists, actors and more visionaries whose brilliance was cut short by their own hand. We mourn not only that person, but the loss of their brilliance. And we’re left wondering how much their brilliance had to do with their struggles, how their brilliance may have contributed to a tightening darkness. The brilliant genius with a dark side has become a trope, a cliche.

In The Wire, Dashiell Bennett wrote about an episode of “Mork and Mindy” in which Mork meets Robin Williams. In this episode, Williams himself addresses the curse as Mork. Bennet writes, “Yes, celebrities get money and attention, but they also get harassed and attacked and everyone who comes in contact with them makes unreasonable demands on their time and energy.” Mork learns that “if you can’t learn to say no, then ‘there won’t be no more pieces for yourself.'”

Between the demands for time and energy, the drive and the pressure to be brilliant, it seems, darkness lies. We can speculate that acting and substance abuse helped Robin Williams and others cope, but there comes a time that without treatment those things won’t work. It seems we need our own self worth to come from the inside, not the outside. But amidst the utter darkness found in deep depression, there’s almost no way to understand this, to embrace it.

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This summer Williams visited Hazelden in Minnesota for maintenance at the substance abuse rehab facility. He took a picture with a local Dairy Queen employee, looking a little tired, shabby and slightly unenthusiastic–not the public Robin Williams we’ve come to know and love. But what demands we place on celebrities to be who we want them to be, to be the person we see on the silver screen. Ultimately, the demand we place on them to be brilliantly entertaining all the time.

The picture made the rounds on the local TV news–Williams had essentially hit up two Minnesota establishments. Watching the 10 o’clock news later that night in June, Nick turned to me and said, “If I ever meet a celebrity, I don’t want their picture. I want to talk to them, see how they tick, how they think. What makes them who they are on the inside.”

In our “no picture or it didn’t happen” society I thought that was an interesting approach. Last night, as we discussed William’s untimely passing, we both wondered what would have happened if more people had demanded less from him and had gotten to know and understand the inner Robin Williams instead of just taking a photo.

If you or someone you know is struggling, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at  1-800-273-8255.

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