Robin Williams, RIP

We mentioned it last night in the headlines, but it’s worth a full post to remember Robin Williams, one of the most original and energetic entertainers of our time. Mork & Mindy aired when I was a teenager, and “nanu nanu” was a catchphrase in our schoolyard, but it was Robin Williams’ comedy albums that got the most notice. Williams and Steve Martin broke through at about the same time and reinvented comedy all over again — Martin with his absurdist spin, and Williams with his manic wit, and they made comedy both hilarious and smart. Williams was so inventive, so extemporaneous, that the sitcom format of Mork & Mindy was at once a platform and a straitjacket, which became obvious after the first season.

Williams moved quickly to films, but stayed on stage for a very long time doing standup. He toured with the USO for many years, boosting the spirits of the men and women of the armed forces. Unfortunately, Williams also struggled very publicly with addiction and depression; just a few weeks ago, he had spent a brief spell in Minnesota’s Hazelden rehab center. We all found out last night that he was struggling with depression as well, and tragically ended his own life at the age of 63. As I remarked when I heard the news:

His breakthrough film role for his dramatic talent came in 1984 with Moscow on the Hudson with Maria Conchita Alonso, the story of a Russian circus musician who defects while on tour in New York City. Written and directed by Paul Mazursky, it appeared from the trailers to be a madcap, zany comedy, but the film was in fact a love letter from Mazursky and Williams to America and liberty, warts and all. There are many great scenes in this film, but this one captures the soul of the film and Williams at his best. After being mugged, Williams is despondent and bitter while having dinner with his lawyer (the late Alejandro Rey, who was also terrific in this film), and starts denigrating American liberty. That angers another Russian emigrant at the counter who almost gets into a fight with him, but the three wind up celebrating Independence Day instead — with the whole diner (language mildly not safe for work):

Keep Williams, his family, friends, and fans in your prayers.

Update: From the comments, The World According to Garp preceded Moscow on the Hudson, and also featured an excellent performance by Williams. John Lithgow and Glenn Close may have stolen the show a bit, but Williams did a great job. Garp is the rare film that’s better than the source novel, which I read afterward and found pretentious and contrived.

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