Robin Williams suicide a couple of months ago evoked an unprecedented level of sadness and just among movie fans. Everyone who had worked with him was distraught, and I read that many of them could not speak of his passing without breaking down in tears. It seems to have been not just about the manner of his passing or the loss of a formidable talent. More than anything else, it was about his lovable, childlike personality. The actress-director Penny Marshall called him “… the sweetest, gentlest man..”.
I don’t think I have ever seen anyone with his genius for improvisation. Wayne Brady and his cohorts on Whose Line is it Anyway? are very good but it is no criticism to say that they are not in the same class as Robin Williams. The only one who even came close was Jonathan Winters. Both Williams and he had a quicksilver wit, lightning fast and unpredictable in the directions it took. They were always on; their minds were never still. Perhaps because they were never able to relax, both men suffered from mental disorders. Winters had nervous breakdowns and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder; Williams suffered from depression which led to battles with cocaine and alcohol. As far as their personae were concerned, Williams was like a big kid, his rubber face and zany look making him instantly likable; Winters, on the other hand. sometimes came across as scary.
One story about Robin Williams that illustrates his wit, and which I will always remember, is this: Penny Marshall ( Laverne) had directed a 1990 movie ” Awakening”, in which Robin Williams played a doctor who tries dopamine on encephalitis victims who are unable to move. On the publicity tour for the movie, Williams came along. In Penny Marshall’s words, “I slurred and said the film was set in a menstrual hospital instead of mental hospital- and Robin immediately said ” It’s a period piece!”‘.
Only he could have instantly come up instantly with a line like that. R.I.P Robin Williams.