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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Robin Williams: Heartbreak redefined

From the moment he burst upon our consciousness as the manic, mischievous and innocent Mork, it was clear Robin Williams was not merely a unique mash-up of genius and energy; he was a marvelous freak of nature, the perfect storm of perpetual creativity. Williams’ just-try-to-keep-up performances could exhaust us, but himself? Impossible.

It is beyond conception, then, that his spark had failed, that his spring, forever effervescent, ran dry. And yet, there it is. The inconceivable headline.

“Robin Williams dead of apparent suicide.”

A force beyond the reach of any seismic shift or upper-level wind shear, only the man himself could put a halt to the self-renewing fusion reaction that was Robin Williams, and with astonishingly simple tools — to the end, the man could improvise — he did just that. They found him in a spare bedroom, in a sitting position, as though perched on an invisible chair, a belt looped around his neck, the other end wedged into a closet door jamb.

Imagine the force of will required to carry that out. Imagine, too, the demons that flogged him to decide slow asphyxiation beat standing up to reconsider his choices. Instead, Williams’ miraculous mind seems to have turned on itself, leading him to conclude this willful termination — a commitment that, at least for a couple of minutes, had to be renewed second by second — superior to every alternative.

Now we are overrun with post-mortem psychological observations from experts who, while not presuming to diagnose precisely what ailed Williams, are taking the opportunity to urge anyone who feels similarly adrift — and anyone who knows anyone similarly adrift — to reach out. People are willing to help, to hug, to sit vigil, to medicate you if necessary, to find some way to get you to tomorrow.

Surely Williams knew all this. He’d reached out before.

Just now, it appears he considered reaching out worse than oblivion. The whole thing redefines heartbreak, a grim reminder that what we see on the screen or the stage often fails to reflect the life of the star.

Except that those who knew him away from the spotlight describe someone unfailingly sweet, compassionate and endlessly genuine, absent so much as that first trace of calculation. Wasn’t that the same good Robin Williams we bought tickets to root for? He might have been funnier and quicker than anyone we knew, but he stoked roles, from the desperate Mrs. Doubtfire to the willful Patch Adams to serial rule-breaker Adrian Cronauer to the patient-beyond-his-programming android Andrew Martin with an accessible nobility that lifted us up, too.

In “Hook,” Steven Spielberg’s under-appreciated update of the Peter Pan tale, Williams surged new life to the eternal boy who grew up, in spite of himself, to a tedious, mundane, time-constrained and irritating existence as a London lawyer. Drawn back to Neverland when the nefarious pirate captain — Dustin Hoffman in all his scenery-chomping delight — kidnaps his children, Peter rediscovers his youthful spirit — what it means to be the indomitable “Pan” — is indelibly linked to his “happy thought.”

It doesn’t matter how many times I watch Peter Banning coming to his Neverland epiphany — his mislaid happy thought was tied up in the fulfillment of the boy who achieves manhood: being a father and rejoicing in his children; the revelation is magical — my eyes moisten. They’re clouding even now.

As a long-time bereaved father, I don’t need a cinematic reminder about what is sacrificed when parents lose connections to their offspring. But Williams’ Peter Pan establishes the promise of reclaiming, in a distant place that requires faith, hope and trust to reach, the precious something that has slipped away.

It’s not like Peter Banning was unique among the characters Williams whipped into to electrified life. Time and again, Williams embodied troubled souls who wrench themselves back from the brink, bringing others — audiences included — with him. If there is a message that runs through his work, it is that we all are redeemable in the here and now. If we reach out. If we love. If we are willing to fan the embers of faith. If we trust and believe.

How is it Peter Banning, restored to hearth and home, responds when Granny Wendy observes that his adventures are over?

“Oh, no. To live ... To live would be an awfully big adventure.”

Williams’ self-inflicted demise comes thick with irony, then. At last, this all-too-human sprite surrendered to the gloomy, unredeemed barrister, having exhausted, it seems, his supply of happy thoughts.