The ability of someone to make us laugh, to make us forget the stress we have to deal with every day, is, I believe, highly enviable and enriching. Especially when the individual prompting our amusement can convey that humor in an inventive way, to make us see that so much in the world we perceive on the surface can be mined for infinite “readings.”
Among the more contemporary male practitioners of this art of improvisation are Mel Brooks, John Cleese, John Lithgow (when he’s not doing “King Lear”), Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone, Ricky Gervais … and Robin Williams.
Yes, that extraordinary actor who, at the drop of a hat, it seemed, could take us on a voyage of imagination capable of propelling us through a comic wormhole forever evolving into an as yet unknown realm.
Recall his “object transformation” exercise – prompted by his lifting a shawl from an audience member on a segment of “Inside the Actors Studio” with James Lipton – where he created, on the spot, multiple, distinct characters, using the shawl as a takeoff point.
(Disclosure: As a sometimes actor-in-learning, I find it hard to accept that this son of a Detroit auto executive had laser-like to the world of imagination – or powers of human observation – that he used to enhance the craft he so preciously embraced.)
But then many question whether Shakespeare – given his apparently humble background – had the special gift to write the Elizabethan verse ascribed to him.
Let us simply appreciate Williams for what he chose to share with us – and not just his amply endowed comic persona – but also the dark shadings he dredged out of his soul: There is the mysterious crime novelist in “Insomnia” and the lonely photo technician in “One Hour Photo” to explore.
Or have a look at his quiet, serious, humanitarian side as the dedicated but fragile neurologist in “Awakenings” and the spirited, generous teacher in “Dead Poets Society.”
Williams was only 63 when, according to authorities, he decided to ring down the curtain forever by hanging himself with a belt.
None of us can know the inner pain he must have been feeling that drove him to this sad end. He had struggled with addiction issues, depression and was reportedly showing early signs of Parkinson’s disease.
As such a keen observer of the world around him and so tuned in to the nuances of the human condition which he could play back for us at any time, Williams may have felt like one of Oliver Sacks’ unfortunate patients, doomed to an irreversible mental slide.
I have striking memories of how a now-deceased favorite aunt, who was a talented pianist and singer and who loved to perform at family functions, quickly declined and I can think of nothing more heart-rending than to see someone who has spent much of their life bringing joy to others being robbed of that gift, because of some type of chemical imbalance.
Perhaps Robin Williams, anticipating such a fate, chose an early exit out of a sense of hopelessness.
This time, though, he used a belt for another type of “object transformation”.
And now there will be no encore.
– Ron Leir