Actor and comedian Robin Williams, who died at the age of 63 yesterday, lived first and foremost for happiness. No doubt he derived a great deal of joy from bringing it out in other people.
It is all too easy in the fallout of his apparent suicide to lapse into cliched sad clown eulogies – or in Fox News’ case, to label his exit as “selfish” and “cowardly”, but both are distastefully simplistic views of a complex situation. One seems to assume it is natural for a person to be wholly happy or sad, with no flux in-between – meaning some people’s suicides are just a fact of life, rather than something that could be prevented in future by learning how society might fail them as a whole – while the other is frankly an appalling transference of conservative bile. “Well I do everything out of greed – so he must have killed himself because he’s selfish too!”
It is, for me at least, impossible to conclude that someone with such a fine ability to invoke the such touching and lifting emotional responses from an audience would not care about that work – or derive any pleasure from it himself. Indeed, that must have made his actions infinitely more difficult. An end such as this is no indicator of whether a person cared about those around them – it is one, albeit final, moment, amongst thousands of others – and whilst like any life Robin Williams was a mixed bag, there were infinite moments of laughter and awe that everyone, his family, friends, and fans, were truly blessed to have enjoyed.
“To be my own master. Such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in all the world.”
Growing up in the 90s, it was impossible for me to avoid being in some way affected by the work of Robin Williams. Aladdin, Jumanji, Hook, Jack, Flubber, and of course Mrs Doubtfire to name but a few of the entertaining and emotionally engaging films which captured the imaginations of children and parents alike. They weren’t just films with laughs, but films with heart – a great portion of both emanating from Williams himself. He was a masterful comic actor, capable of taking us from laughs to tears and back again – and was amongst the best in the business because of it.
His roles, including those beyond the realm of family movies, including the oft quoted Dead Poets Society (1989), were often mavericks and outsiders, who took solace in empowering other underdogs, even if empowering them was simply limited to lifting their mood. This often lent him a Chaplin-esque pathos that is all too rare in modern cinema, often reaching beyond the fourth wall to give audiences the same feeling he gave the on-screen outcasts he aided. That they weren’t alone in a cold uncaring world and that we can find happiness without being ‘normal’ (especially when achieving ‘normality’ is often derived from conforming to a rather acidic and unfulfilling status-quo).
And despite his career’s relative success, like the late James Gandolfini, he was willing to back others efforts to spread Hollywood’s wealth beyond a few elite stars – backing the screen writers strike of 2007, arriving to picket in solidarity as a member of the Screen Actors Guild. He lived as he acted in that sense, and his films will continue beyond his death to encourage people to believe in themselves, and take comfort and courage from each other. Because when the brown stuff hits the fan, laughing together is sometimes all we have to keep ourselves and ideas going. And if we can keep them going long enough, who knows what we can achieve. We should be thankful for Robin Williams, because even a life that ends in such sad circumstances was well spent teaching us that.