On Sunday night, I was startled to hear Robin Williams’s voice, warm and beseeching, playing like a theme song over an ad on my TV. “We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race,” he said. “And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for.” I hadn’t heard this speech since 1989, but I’d know it anywhere. It’s a soliloquy of sorts from “Dead Poets Society,” the carpe-diem boarding-school movie, which, to a tenth-grader in the late eighties, felt like pure emotion, pure beauty—full of idealistic, beautiful teen-age boys running around in the woods, playing Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” despite their stern fathers’ wishes, spurred on by a maverick teacher, the warmhearted, riffing Williams, in one of his heartfelt-inspirer roles. My mom found it mawkish, but she was kind to my tearful friend and me as we bravely made our way to the car afterward. On Sunday night, when the ad was over, I rewound it and listened to the speech again.
As I grew up, I was amazed at the role Williams had in pop culture. He seemed to occupy the same smart countercultural territory as “Doonesbury” or rock and roll—your cool young parents could like him and you could like him, too—and he was somehow able to be, all at once, Mork from Ork, a totally unhinged standup, the growly weirdo lead in “Popeye,” and a serious actor in movies like “The World According to Garp” and “Moscow on the Hudson.” When I saw him on a “Comic Relief” special in the eighties, I remember thinking that he seemed antic, a little too nuts in a way that was more exhausting than fun, and later I heard rumors that he was into cocaine. “Good Morning Vietnam” was a vehicle for this manic multi-character stuff—he took the idea of the beloved real-life d.j. Adrian Cronauer and made him a lot like Robin Williams, doing his campy gay-character voice, his Elvis (“Viva Da Nang! Oh, Viva Da Nang!”), his Cronkite, his all-purpose Robin Williams motormouth. If you bought the cassette of the soundtrack, you got Williams along with your Martha and the Vandellas, and bits of these routines lodged in your head forever. “Good Morning Vietnam” struck me then as smart, funny, a little edgy, subversive in its attitude about Vietnam in the way my parents’ whole generation was. But I also knew, at fourteen, as I watched the marsh grasses sway with the helicopter-blade wind at the end of the movie, set to the ironic strains of “What a Wonderful World,” that it was a little too much—a little too pleased with itself, and that somehow Williams, a natural for these roles in these films, was complicit in this kind of sentimentality.
Yet sentiment, or real emotion, was also his strength. He often did roles in which he played someone very special—Garp, Cronauer—or in which he alone saw what was special in other people, as in “Dead Poets Society,” where he stirs the souls of his English students; or “Awakenings,” in which he plays the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, and brings catatonic patients back to consciousness and life; or “Good Will Hunting,” where he plays psychiatrist who saves a brilliant kid from a future of Southie squalor.
His habit of doing broader movies (“Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Death to Smoochy”), his adrenalin-fuelled shtick (on comedy specials and talk shows, he often seemed high or manic, and he made you feel nervous), and his corniness (“Patch Adams,” “What Dreams May Come”) made him eternally unpredictable, and a figure some people felt that they’d outgrown or had tired of. A friend and I, a few years ago, joked that we wanted to have a film festival called “Robin Williams: Non-Man,” in which we’d feature all his drag (“Mrs. Doubtfire”), genie (“Aladdin”), or robot (“Bicentennial Man”) roles. But he was always capable of truly connecting, of being real. When my friends and I saw him in “Good Will Hunting,” in 1997, we loved him all over again, despite his jarring South Boston accent and despite our mature selves. I have more than one friend who has said, as a joke at various points in the past decade, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault,” in reference to what Williams’s character says to Matt Damon’s character in a scene that made us weep. Post-college, in 1997, we might have thought that Robin Williams couldn’t still get to us, but he could. Whatever else he did, however many brilliant, antic impressions he did or costumes he wore, he was also that bearded, loving, real person who saw what was special in people and who was special himself. And we loved him for it.