In the wake of actor Robin Williams’ death, an outpouring of appreciation for his life and his work has swamped media outlets. As I read more about his early days — playing Mork, improvising as an irreverent military radio DJ and performing occasionally blasphemous and frequently raunchy stand-up comedy — I realized that the Williams I knew growing up in the ‘90s, was a very different beast. As he once described himself, he was happy to become “a Robert de Niro for 9 year olds.”
The Williams I remember was always a kind of enchanted man. He managed to make the extraordinary things that he said and did on screen seem entirely plausible and exceptionally real, blurring the line between the performer and the man, the possible and the impossible. He was simultaneously the genie, the nanny, the ancient child, the mad scientist, an apparition from a board game. He was the man — the boy — that never grew up, but in each of his characters, grew more.
Through these roles, Williams knowingly or not, impressed upon a generation of young movie viewers a wealth of possibilities (like believing that all silly putty was really flubber in disguise), and life lessons wrought from adventure, friendship, laughter and tragedy. They are applicable to us now — at the moment of his passing — and forever.
“Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993): On interviewing for a job:
During a job interview, you should always play to your strengths. But don’t resort to telling your interviewer how talented and enthusiastic you are; show them in your every word and action. If that doesn’t seem to be working, impersonate a hot dog.
“I’m a hip old granny who can hip-hop, bebop, dance til ya drop and yoyo, make a wicked cup of cocoa.”
“Good Will Hunting” (1997): On being humble
In one of the most memorable scenes in recent cinema history, Williams speaks directly to the egos of college-aged students. He reminds us that we’re still young, and no matter how intelligent, talented, we might be, we must never forget that we have much to learn about others and the world, and it won’t do to undervalue the lives and experiences of other human beings.
“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that.”
“Patch Adams” (1998): On helping others
In the midst of pursuing your dreams and realizing your ambitions, it’s easy to forget that one of the most rewarding things we can do is help others to fulfill their dreams. Even if those dreams are as simple as wanting to swim in a pool filled with noodles from “wall-to-wall and top-to-bottom,” we have the ability and the privilege to make those dreams realities and make a positive difference in somebody’s life.
“You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.”
“Hook” (1991): On embracing your inner child
In “Hook” Williams’ character Peter rediscovers the vibrancy of life by allowing his forgotten young self to merge with his adult self. You may never call someone a “two-toned zebra-headed, slime-coated, pimple-farmin’ paramecium brain,” but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know how.
“Flubber” (1997): On believing in yourself
In “Flubber,” Williams’ character is only able realize the full potential of his imagination and abilities by having confidence in himself and his work. So even when others doubt you, even when you fall on your butt after jumping backwards out a window, you have to keep faith and press on, or you’ll never know what you might accomplish.
“Flubber! lt`s a metastable compound, Sara. In layman`s terms, if you apply a small amount of energy,it liberates an enormous quantity of energy. But the total effect is transient, Sarah. The moment you stop applying energy, it returns to a quasi-plasmoid state.”
“Sesame Street”: On accepting differences between people
When we’re faced with diversity, it’s easy to forget those similarities that remind us how we’re connected to one another. But when we try to see the similarities, recognize and love them, then we can appreciate the differences too. Then we can get together and do the head bob and peck.
“Hey, I’m a Robin and he’s a robin.”
“Jack” (1996): On simply living
Though it played out as a theme in many of his stories, perhaps Williams’ greatest lesson comes from his own life. In his every action, his every appearance and word, he traveled with purpose, confidence and guts. Through the choices he made, the words he spoke, and the lives he touched, he told us to live everyday boldly.
“And when a shooting star streaks through the blackness, turning night into day … make a wish and think of me. Make your life spectacular.”
Contact Anne Ferguson at [email protected].