Every once in a while a performer comes along who really strikes at the core of people. These performers stand the test of time, have their careers span decades, and find themselves into the collective hearts and minds of the general public. Sometimes, these performers have their own personal demons, sometimes fought publicly but mostly privately and tragedy can rise from such a battle. It is a shocking and gripping kind of loss when a performer of such magnitude passes on, and for people who enjoyed their work, a hole is left, even if you didn't know that artist personally.
From what can be ascertained from the outpouring of support, grief, thoughts and prayers of millions on social media and other sources tonight, it is safe to say Robin Williams is among those elite performers, as news comes that he was found dead this morning in his home, he was 63 years old.
Williams' career began after a stint at Julliard where he was an honors student alongside classmate/lifelong friend Christopher Reeve. Williams' dabbled in acting and stand up when his big break came in 1978, when he was cast as alien Mork from Ork on the Happy Days spinoff Mork and Mindy. The show would run for four seasons, ending in 1982. The eighties would become a time for growth for Williams, as he would perform popular stand up routines for HBO as well as secure multiple leading roles in high profile films such as Robert Altman's Popeye, George Roy Hill's The World According to Garp, Barry Levinson's Good Morning Vietnam and especially Peter Weir's Dead Poet's Society, his role of John Keating becoming one of his most beloved.
The Nineties were a continuation of that success, as Williams' became a box office draw in movies like Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Hook, and Flubber. Williams' would also try his hand at serious roles such as in Awakenings, What Dreams May Come, Deconstructing Harry, and Good Will Hunting, a performance that would win him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He would also expand into voice work, with roles in Ferngully: The Last Rainforest as well as another prominent role, as the boisterous, friendly, Genie in Disney's Aladdin.
As time moved on, Williams pursued some mainstream comedies that were received with mixed to poor reactions, but also showed of f his dramatic abilities again playing against type such as in the role of a killer in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia or a jaded radio host lured by a mysterious story in The Night Listener. He even tried his hand at the growing TV market, having a prominent guest starring role in Law and Order: SVU (The show's 200th episode) as well as a starring role with Sarah Michelle Gellar last year with David E. Kelley's The Crazy Ones.
His life had it's negative points as well, including struggles with addiction to drugs and alcohol, as well as physical health problems. His publicist also stated he had been battling depression recently.
With all this happening so fast, the conversation begins to look at Williams' work as a whole, and pin his place in film history and what he meant to us in a cultural sense. Racking my brain to find an answer, I finally came across it tonight. A scene a friend on Facebook posted from Terry Gilliam's 1992 drama The Fisher King gave the answer I sought. It depicts Williams' character and Jeff Bridges character lying on the grass of Central Park, Williams' character is fascinated with Arthurian legend, and hopes to find the Holy Grail. He relays to Bridges' character the story of the "Fisher King" and I'll let Williams' words express the rest:
"It begins with the King as a boy--having to spend a night alone in the forest to prove his courage so that he could become king. While he was standing there alone, he's visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the Holy Grail, the symbol of God's divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, "You shall be the keeper of the Grail, so that it may heal the hearts of men." But the boy was blinded by greater visions, of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement, he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible...like God. So he reached into the fire to take the Grail. And the Grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire, to be terribly wounded.
Now, as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper, until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn't love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die.
One day, a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. Being a fool, he was simpleminded, he didn't see a king, he saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, "What ails you, friend?" The king replied, "I'm thirsty. I need a some water to cool my throat." So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water, handed it to the king. As the king began to drink he realized that his wound was healed. He looked at his hands, and there was the Holy Grail that which he sought all of his life! And he turned to the fool and said in amazement, "How could you find that which what my brightest and bravest could not?" And the fool replied, "I don't know. I only knew that you were thirsty." Very beautiful, isn't it?"
This monologue succinctly sums up Williams' legacy in our culture, in my mind. Robin Williams' was a terrific entertainer who made millions be filled of joy and laughter. He found what we wanted when we truly needed it, just like the Fisher King. It is a shame and a great sadness that he did not find the same joy in his private life, and goes to show we never truly know what goes on behind closed doors.
However, Williams left a body of work that should be admired and enjoyed for generations to come. If the outpouring of grief today from celebrities and average folk alike show, he was loved by so many, respected by so many more. He was like the friend who always knew how to make us laugh when we were down, even if many never met him, we never had a friend like him, and quite possibly never will again.
Rest in Peace Mr. Williams, we hope you find peace, and thank you from the bottom of collective hearts and minds, for the laughs and memories.