“Oh that’s not fair! I was young! I needed the money,” jokingly replied Robin Williams in a farcical debate at a Democratic Party function with a delegate who teased him about his starring role in Popeye.
While that movie/musical might have been an embarrassing bust for Williams, it was the first time I had seen the legendary funny man in a featured length film and he did a great job tackling the role of the cartoon sailor, from the voice down to the physical comedy demanded of the character.
While most people associated Williams with Mork, he will always be Popeye to me.
Williams was a one of a kind comedian because he was a grownup who shamelessly radiated a hyperactive silliness one expected from a child.
Hence it was only natural that he would one day be cast as Peter Pan or would create the personality of a madcap animated genie (for to say he just did voice over work in Aladdin would not do Williams justice).
He was a funny man, who didn’t so much want to be taken seriously as to make people laugh and feel good, something he did with enthusiasm. As one of Hollywood’s least pretentious figures, he didn’t let fame go to his head.
Williams succeeded in becoming a grandmotherly Scottish nanny in a relevant movie that dwelled on the all too common separation difficulties that children and their part-time parent endure in our modern “divorce society.”
He even did a decent job playing a president on three occasions, including an Al Franken-inspired main character in Man of the Year; Teddy Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum movies and, surprisingly, capturing the spirit of Dwight Eisenhower in The Butler.
Williams was a clown first and an actor second. And in this case, the word “clown” isn’t being used as a pejorative.
However that’s not to say he lacked acting talent.
While comedy was his forte, Williams skillfully played more serious roles, from the unorthodox and inspiring teacher in Dead Poets Society to a grieving soul trying to rescue his wife from eternal damnation in What Dreams May Come.
Williams achieved his craft’s highest honor winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as psychologist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting.
While the “your verse” from Poets went viral shortly after word of his demise was made public, perhaps the character that best reflected himself was that of Parry in The Fisher King.
Parry was a well-intending vagrant who wrestled with self-esteem issues and was relentlessly pursued by the Red Knight, an imagined tormentor.
In the movie, Williams’s character eventually overcame that demon after enduring a near death experience. Sadly Williams himself did not meet a happy ending as the father of three committed suicide in his home.
The comic had a history with drug and alcohol abuse though maintained he was clean in recent years and even visited the Hazelden rehab center (the same place fellow funny man Chris Farley had been a frequent visitor) back in July not because he had relapsed but to ensure he did not fall back into the web of substance abuse.
Beyond his bouts with addiction, it had been reported that Williams had cash problems, which supposedly led to him going back to the small screen for a television show that was cancelled after one season.
In a line that Williams would have appreciated, he probably should have had his marriage license taken from him after going through two expensive divorces.
Thirty years and a successful movie career later, Williams found himself in the same position that led him to having to play Popeye in 1980; this time he was old and yet he still needed the money.
Whether Williams was mentally broken by addiction, professional stagnation, financial hardship, or his own “Red Knight” it’s a tragic irony that a man who brought so much laughter to so many would meet such a sad and terrible end.
That Williams took his own life doesn’t diminish his contributions as an actor or his body of work.
However Williams’s suicide is a reminder that happiness and spiritual fulfillment cannot be measured in fame and fortune.