Robin Williams remembered: 'A remarkable performer, a brutal shock'
The news of the death of this mercurial performer has come as a shock – but his brilliance was always tinged with sadness
Tuesday 12 August 2014 11.53 BST
Robin Williams was a superb, mercurial standup comic with a staggering talent for improv and verbal riffing, though his movie career finally evolved into an intriguing split – sugary sentimentality or an ambiguous, menacing darkness. Something similar happened with Steve Martin and Jerry Lewis. The “Mr Hyde” in Robin Williams’s movie persona was well known.
So the news of his death, and the indication he has taken his own life, is deeply shocking. He clearly suffered from depression – these were symptoms hiding in plain sight – and his brilliance assumes a deeply sad aspect.
Williams could suspend his merciless, crazy irony almost entirely for glutinous family movies like Patch Adams, in which he played a doctor who treated sick kids using his irrepressible sense of humour, or the solemn fantasies like Bicentennial Man, or even his second world war drama Jakob the Liar. Or he could be chilling and sinister, as he was in One Hour Photo, a disturbing drama from 2002 in which he played the drugstore photo lab employee (in the days before digital cameras) who becomes obsessed with the pictures he develops showing a suburban family. Then there was his performance in the ice-cold, ultra-black comedy World’s Greatest Dad, in 2009, in which he plays another creepy yet tragic character, a high-school teacher whose son dies in a grisly accident, and who then concocts a bogus suicide note and rides a wave of celebrity and sympathy.
Williams had a big-hearted side, a love of broad comedy and a muscular, intensely physical talent for it, which he showed off in his smash-hit drag act Mrs Doubtfire from 1993. He played a divorced guy who disguises himself as a housekeeper with a bizarre Scottish accent, employed by his unsuspecting ex-wife, so that he can keep an eye on the children. It was a role that showed off Williams’s talents – the zaniness, the dressing up, the bizarrely transparent absurdity, combined with his big-hearted, faintly lachrymose vulnerability and sentimental concern for children.
For me, his best movie was Good Morning Vietnam from 1987. It was hardly the first time I had seen him – that of course was in his legendary 70s TV comedy Mork and Mindy, which introduced Britain and the world to his madcap clowning. But Barry Levinson’s film was perhaps the nearest a feature film came to representing his standup style and his subversion. He was Adrian Cronauer, the anarchic, motormouth DJ on Armed Forces Radio who lets rip at the microphone, disses the pompous world of the military, and rips everything to hilarious shreds. The soldiers love him; the top brass are deeply irritated and it’s clear that an awful collision is approaching, especially as Cronauer himself is beginning to let the horror of war get him down. Williams improvised a lot of his speeches himself; only he could have given that full-throttle intensity.
What a remarkable performer. This is a brutal shock.