My first glimpse of Robin Williams was in the 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan”. This was the debut of the character Mork from Ork, a part which fell to Williams because John Byner, who was then relatively in demand, turned it down. Williams’ portrayal made a huge impression on the public and it was a big topic of conversation for us 12 and 13 years olds at school the next day. If I recall correctly, the episode had an oddly serious tone; Fonzie literally did battle with a villain from outer space to save the world. But what stood out was Williams’ committed portrayal of what was essentially a cartoon character. He went all the way out to the necessary insanity.
His appearance on Happy Days was such a smash, Williams got his own spin-off series Mork and Mindy (1978-1982), a showcase for his energetic, mercurial style of comedy. The premise was essentially My Favorite Martian with improv. Williams would enhance the ordinary banal sit-com plots of the show with inspired bursts of improvisational lunacy. His specialty was shape-shifting, sort of mental image surfing, going from voice to voice, character to character as though one were changing channels on a tv set. In 1979, he released his comedy album Reality…What a Concept. It was one of the few stand-up comedy albums I owned as a kid, and though it paled (in my estimation) in comparison to the surreal masterpieces of Steve Martin, which were the gold standard, I memorized it in its entirety.
Then Williams began his career as a movie star, and thus began (as it has in so many cases) the long, slow stifling of his genius. I loved his performance as the title character in Robert Altman’s Popeye so much (1980) I went as him for Halloween (right down to carrying a picture of Poopdeck Pap). But Williams was also a Julliard educated actor. He began taking vehicles that were narrower than his abilities just because drama is supposed to be more prestigious I guess, and these films didn’t play to his strengths. Frankly, I didn’t dig him as a dramatic actor. He always dragged out this simpering fake earnest face, literally begging the audience for sympathy. He became part of the Hollywood crowd that made mediocre, disposable “feel good” pictures that no doubt turned profits but killed the essence of what made Williams unique. The acme (nadir) of course was Patch Adams (1998), a bathetic performance which he never did manage to live down.
But he was at his best when producers gave him vehicles that allowed him to do what he had done on television — those few bright spots were positively thrilling and showed such promise. He was like Bugs Bunny or the Marx Brothers. It was just a handful of times, but these are the Robin Williams performances I cherish. His rebellious army DJ in Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), a performance that allowed him to have his cake and eat it, too. The crazy King of the Moon (a floating, disembodied head) in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). And his voice-over performance in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) in which he proved himself a successor worthy of past masters like Mel Blanc and Jim Backus. But opportunities like these seldom came along, and I won’t besmirch his memory this morning by trotting out the rest of his legacy.
As we’ve known for a long time, his was a restless and troubled soul. A sad metaphor for what became of him is his recent Snickers commercial, where he sadly revisits his patented comedy style, and then someone gives him a Snickers bar to make him stop. We have an industry, and a society, which penalizes you for being different and rewards you for conformity. That’s it in a nutshell.