Robin Williams passed away August 11, 2014. We initially ran this remembrance August 12, 2014. -ed.
When I heard about Robin Williams’ death yesterday, my initial reaction was disbelief. Within the span of about five minutes, though, the disbelief turned to a stomach-turning feeling, the kind you get when you realize you’ve made an irreversible error, or in this case, have learned of an irreversible tragedy.
I don’t usually hop on the #RIP social media bandwagon when celebrities pass away; it has always seemed strange to me to publicly mourn a person you’ve never met, let alone a person with whom you’ve never built any sort of personal relationship. However, in a lot of ways Robin Williams (despite his imperfections) was sort of like my Mister Rogers, a frequent (and comforting) on-screen guest in my childhood home, and a person who (in retrospect) shaped my adult self. That might seem a little far-fetched, I know, but his roles in films like Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire (which are favorites of mine to this day) left lasting impressions that would ultimately help me cope with my own family’s shortcomings.
I was fortunate enough to have loving, involved parents who would rarely miss out on any of my soccer games or school plays, but regrettably this parental dedication didn’t translate into a lasting marriage, which ended up dissolving when I was in the fourth grade.
Oddly enough, my father closely resembled the character of Daniel (Williams) in Mrs. Doubtfire; he worked, but as a horse dentist (a real profession, I swear), so his hours (and responsibilities) were not the most conventional. (This left lots of time for him to be at home with my sister and me.) Meanwhile, my mother (the responsible one, and ultimately the breadwinner) was often made to look like the bad guy a la Miranda (Sally Field). I wouldn’t understand until later that she was the glue that held our family together, and for a long time my loyalties were similar to those of Lydia, Chris and Natalie.
HOWEVER, while I harbored a lot of anger and sadness about the split, I don’t think I had any (lasting) unrealistic expectations about my parents getting back together, or about what life would be like following my father’s move-out. (Yes, there were the scheduled visits and the crappy new apartment and the Chinese takeout for dinner.) And I honestly think a lot of that mental preparedness had to do with having seen Mrs. Doubtfire a few years earlier, as corny as that sounds; although it was obviously a fictional plot, it was valuable proof that other kids (be they Mara Wilson or otherwise) were in my same shitty boat, and that even though we might be stranded at sea for a while, we probably weren’t going to sink.
You see, divorce was not something that (in my small town, anyway) was widely discussed (at least among my kiddie peers), so in a way, Williams normalized this hush-hush situation (even in drag) by taking the shame out of it. (As a nine-year-old with very little else to go on, this was huge.) Now, it’s not that there were no other movies that dealt with the subject of divorce, but this is the only one that stands out in my memory as having had any lasting effect, and I think that can be attributed largely to Williams; his performance didn’t make the concept of divorce any less devastating, but there was humor and (eventually) realistic hopefulness from a familiar face that made you feel like you could get through it. And my family and I did eventually get through it, even managing to stay close as a unit, celebrating every holiday together seamlessly and (for the most part) pleasantly.
Even if you take divorce out of the equation, though, the comical eccentricities of Williams’ past performances normalized (or at least familiarized) a variety of “taboo” subjects (homosexuality being a big one, obviously) and made it seem okay to be different and/or flawed; having absorbed those messages during my formative years, I’d like to think they made a mark on the person I am today. In fact, my entire generation is much more tolerant of individuality than past ones, and while we certainly have many people to thank for that shift, I would personally like to credit Mr. Robin Williams for having played a part in fueling the process from the screen. And so while it is with a heavy heart that I say farewell, it is with much sincerity that I say THANK YOU for sixty-three years of laughter, joy, and acceptance.