Like everyone else, I was stunned yesterday to hear of the passing of comedian and actor Robin Williams, apparently by his own hand. A sad clown who brought gut-busting laughter to countless millions for over 35 years while simultaneously wrestling with dark personal demons, Williams was also an Oscar-caliber dramatic actor of such classics as Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. The world has lost a talent that arguably bore the gift of genius.
About that genius: among the outpouring of reactions on social media yesterday, I was struck by a keen observation on Facebook from political commentator Steve Hayward that Williams’ “zigzag streak of lightning in the brain” (a phrase once used to describe Winston Churchill’s greatness) was “palpable”: “He wasn’t a person of comic imagination who merely thought up jokes. He was way beyond that. You could see his wit (not even an adequate word) explode in his head right in front of you.” Very true, and I can confirm this from my own brief personal experience with Williams.
Back in the late ‘80s I worked in an independent bookstore in an upscale neighborhood of San Francisco. Williams, an avid reader, used to come in now and then to browse. I would just nod hello and leave him alone; he seemed to appreciate having some quiet time to himself and not being hassled because of his celebrity. But on at least a couple of occasions when I was present, when there was a small crowd of customers (perhaps 8-12 people) in the small checkout space at the front of the store, he couldn’t resist launching into an hilarious impromptu show for long minutes, riffing on anyone and anything in sight.
On these occasions, however, as we all laughed I kept thinking, “This isn’t normal somehow. It isn’t just improv. It’s like he’s channeling the comedy from somewhere, and he’s not in control of it – it’s in control of him.” This was more evident to me from being in his immediate presence than when I viewed him on television or onstage. I saw something literally pass over his face as he transformed from customer to performer, as if he were suddenly possessed.
The word “genius” originally referred to an external being, a sort of guardian or guiding spirit who accompanies a person from birth to death. Through the centuries that spirit was internalized and the word came to refer to a person who possesses extraordinary intelligence or talent. But I wonder though, after watching Robin Williams up close and personal, if it is not the extraordinary talent that possesses the person. Perhaps that’s why genius can be a curse as much as a gift.
In any case, Williams will go down in pop culture history for that genius. But he should also be celebrated for the reputation he earned as a kind, genuinely empathetic man who went above and beyond the call of duty for others. In the wake of his passing, people began posting online their personal experiences of the ways in which the big-hearted Williams privately offered help to others: a cancer sufferer, a teen Mrs. Doubtfire fan dying of a brain tumor, a former high school wrestling coach struggling with depression, to name a few – not to mention the troops he repeatedly traveled overseas to entertain (like his character in Good Morning, Vietnam), for which he was called the Bob Hope of our time.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/12/14)