It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Robin Williams was supposed to make us laugh. He had done so publicly for more than 36 years, ever since he made his first appearance as the alien Mork from Ork in an episode of Happy Days early in 1978.
That telecast led to his hit sitcom the following fall. There were standup comedy specials and movie roles, including a dramatic turn in Good Will Hunting that won him a best supporting actor Oscar.
Even then, though, it was the funny Robin Williams that audiences knew best. Not the man who made people cry on Monday when news broke his death, apparently a suicide. He was supposed to be, as the charity specials he co-hosted declared, Comic Relief.
Of course, many of the most loved comedians have had their demons, and Williams was not an exception. His publicist said he had been battling severe depression lately. Before, Williams had publicly discussed problems with alcohol and drugs – and there were times when it seemed he feared digging too deeply into his own emotions.
In 1986, I saw Williams at a press conference for Seize the Day, a TV dramatization of the Saul Bellow novel. What should have been a serious occasion was, for a large part, Williams offering what he thought the audience expected: a rapid fire series of jokes, seemingly off the cuff, manic in their delivery.
When one reporter asked a mildly inquiring personal question, Williams feigned shock: “What are you, my mom?” The message was clear: Don’t go deep. Take what I am offering. Isn’t this enough?
Except Seize the Day was meant to show he had more to offer. So did Good Will Hunting, and other forays into screen drama such as Dead Poets Society, where Williams played the inspirational teacher of a group of prep-school students. It was a splendid performance because it had touches of comedy and larger doses of drama, and Williams managed both.
But, again, what did he think audiences wanted from him? In recent years he could not carry a hit movie on his own, instead serving a supporting role in two Night at the Museum comedies, or joining the voice cast in the animated Happy Feet films. He was good in those roles, but it was no longer fresh or revelatory the way he had been as Mork or as the genie in Disney’s animated Aladdin, a performance so impressive that it generated Oscar talk – and irritation that an animated voice was not eligible in Oscar’s acting categories.
Of course, Aladdin was more than 20 years ago. Last fall, he returned to series television in The Crazy Ones, a new sitcom for CBS in which Williams played a character sufficiently off the charts that the show had plenty of room for Williams to improvise. Indeed, outtakes from the show demonstrated how much he let go, and how easily he could crack up co-stars.
But Williams was in his sixties, and audiences had been seeing his shtick for a long time, and younger audiences were seeking laughs elsewhere. CBS dropped the show after a single season.
We could all hope that Williams would be back. Couldn’t you look today at Aladdin or early Mork and laugh? Couldn’t he make that happen again?
Not now. No more. Instead, people will study his history and his work in the context of his last, pained act, searching for clues/ But sometime, people will manage again to see the work just as work -- and then we can laugh.