I’ve known Robin Williams for so long that I can’t remember a time that I didn’t. Throughout my life, each decade included a piece of him.
I remember watching Popeye on a rented VCR. The TV was one my mom may have picked up at a pawn shop or garage sale. Remember antennas? And chronic static? And how one never really solved the other? The only true fix was opting for film instead of TV. My brother would jump on the couch when my mom was at work and sing, “I am what I am!” And now, my brother having carved a life that’s very much his own, it all seems rather ironic. When we did get the TV to work, we’d watch Happy Days and that’s how I met Robin as Mork. I’d forgotten until, on the day he died, my father reminisced to, all the way back then, to a little show about an alien and his roommate. This week I discovered back-to-back episodes of Mork & Mindy playing on cable, and my 18-month-old son and I delighted in this brilliant comedic master. But it was more than that. Robin always seemed so kind, so good, so sweet. A friend.
In my father’s very first house, I watched Good Morning Vietnam on cable, when we still got premium channels (but only on a weekend–weekdays were for homework). I never wanted to stop, I never wanted the movie to end. It was that feeling of holding on to the last page of a novel, just to be with the characters a little bit longer. Robin was a character, and when I saw The Adventures of Baron Munchausen not long after, that fact was ever transparent to me. “I think, therefore you is!” I was a little kid watching adults who hadn’t forgotten the joy of being a child.
Next came Dead Poets Society. I’m not sure if I knew I’d be a writer then, but what he created on screen filled me, made me cry, made me laugh that I was crying, and made me think. This man wasn’t just funny. He was beautiful. I saw this English teacher we all would have loved in my father’s next house, when I was eleven, the house he still lives in today, and again in my first apartment with my first serious boyfriend, then alone in my next apartment, then again last week. It’s a movie that never gets old.
Cadillac Man I saw with my mom, and The Fisher King, too. Both my parents loved movies and they each exposed me to bright spots in the independent film canon. Mom knew guys like Joey, and she’d tell us story after story of her life before kids. I’d imagine what my adult life might be like, to meet people as I made my way from one career path to another. I couldn’t wait for it to begin. The story of The Fisher King made you want to hug every person living on the street as you made your way through downtown to a festival. That this could be true, the idea behind what happens to the best of us, was an important lesson to learn. Then, as Robin does in nearly every performance, he bounced back to comedy. Hook I saw with both parents, then alone, then with my brother, and just a few weeks ago with Oliver. I made my husband stop what he was doing to watch the scene where Peter remembers. That childlike enthusiasm that comes back through him. There he was, our Robin.
Aladdin. Oh, Aladdin. I had every song memorized as a pre-teen, and my twin sister and I would sing them over and over again. We’d tape ourselves singing so we could go back and listen. I tried to memorize Robin’s first round of impersonations. How could he do it? I, the introvert, wanted so much to know how this was even possible. My father bought every Disney movie for us for years, and we would play Aladdin again and again. My brother couldn’t help but get sucked in to that genie’s world. I cried when he was freed, and sat on the edge of my seat until he was. I plan on playing that for Oliver tonight.
Mrs. Doubtfire I saw in the theater with my mom, and we got pissed at the judge for taking the kids away from him. My parents divorced when I was two, and we knew all about courtrooms and joint custody and good parenting. Mrs. Doubtfire was a great parent. Toys we marveled at over a Tupperware-container full of popcorn. My mom used to throw those parties, back when Tupperware was a specific brand name. It was one of those deliciously weird films that would stay with you for no particular reason. I’d always eaten my foods one at a time, and so I began quoting L.L. Cool J, a military man who ate a military meal. Nine Months I saw in my room when I was in high school, once I finally got a TV. I hoped as soon as Robin came on the screen that he would eventually deliver the baby, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Birdcage was on every top ten list of mine forever after. I laughed and I laughed and I wanted to watch it over and over again. He was the perfect father, makeup and all. That special bottle of wine, that chat alone. Whatever his son asked, he would do, even if it was wrong.
Robin was brilliant as the out-of-focus man on a movie set within a Woody Allen movie, never once breaking character, never once laughing at the absurdity of it all. I sat draped across a date’s lap in my father’s house, just months before I’d leave to start my life as a young adult. My beau’s name was David, and he fell a little in love with me as I fell a little more in love with the way creative minds think. The movie was Deconstructing Harry and I am forever confusing Harry and Henry. Later, when I met the man I’d later marry then divorce, I introduced it to him. This scene with Robin was his favorite. I’ll always know I didn’t see it with my mom, because she had long started boycotting Woody, but I never could.
Good Will Hunting. One of the first movies I ever purchased. Robin as Sean must have been channeling my very own therapist, whom I began to see after I got lupus then took prednisone then forgot how to get home. All of us–my brother, my sister, my mother, my father–had dealt with our own challenges of mind and heart. I could relate. To things I’d never say in polite company, to things I would but maybe shouldn’t. Every word he spoke sounded like gospel and I felt absolutely pulled into the film, and this, one without that sense of humor on speed Robin excels at. I didn’t need him to be funny, because he was real.
I remember as a twenty-something wanting a boyfriend as devoted as Robin is in Patch Adams, and as saccharinely-sweet as that film is, I couldn’t help but take it from it the example set for all of us. To be good and loving and decent. I went to see it with an old high school friend and her boyfriend, who later became her husband, and then the father of her three daughters. I screamed at the screen inside my head to Carin not go inside that house. But to no avail. I had to live with the death of a made-up life, and confront how real fiction can feel. I was in my second apartment in the middle of the big city, forty miles away from the suburb where I grew up. I hadn’t seen this friend in years but we were trying to reconnect. When it ended, I wanted to sit there. I was sad and relieved and happy and at peace.
One Hour Photo I rented when I was on my own again, late twenties, burned from a seven-month marriage to a man I’d dated off and on for nearly a decade, and the foolish rebound that came after it and nearly killed me. It was time for Netflix, time to put my TV by the dumpster at my apartment building and make way for only movies and books. My 19″ laptop served as my only screen. I let the eeriness of the movie surround me in the silence I began to live cloaked in, then I took a walk in the rain. Snapshots filled my mind, my vision blurred, and I knew I’d be okay.
I watched World’s Greatest Dad the weekend after Robin died, and I felt kicked in the gut. This strange connection between fictional suicide and what was very real, the understanding of what it means and how hard it can be to cope, the wish that such mental illness didn’t exist at all. I looked at my sleeping baby leaving a pool of sweat on the sofa beside me and wished he would have known a life with Robin very much alive. I’ve never seen Robin live, as in on stage. I’ve never touched him or heard his voice in the air around my own. But he was so present, as Billy Crystal has said, and I can’t imagine it any other way.
Then a week went by and I logged on to Facebook and found a new writer who had her own bittersweet connection to the man that made us all laugh for so long. It took my breath away. It made me thankful. It made me wonder. It made me feel things I can’t describe. And now, I want to share that with you.