I’m not usually fazed by celebrity deaths. Usually at the most I think, “That’s a shame. He or she was very talented.” I call to mind their movies or songs. And then I usually move on with my day. After all, I didn’t know the celebrity personally. Of course, we always feel like we know them because of the familiarity on our TVs and radios.
I was walking somewhere when I saw the headline that Robin Williams had passed away. I stopped. I paused. I started walking again, mechanically, and a few minutes later I realized that something was different.
Robin Williams was a huge part of my childhood. I know I’m not alone in that. My social media feeds have exploded in ways I’ve never seen before. With him gone, childhood feels so much further away.
I think the reason his death feels so real and painful isn’t because, like all deaths, it’s a reminder of our mortality. The reason is because, in some ways, his passing represents the passing away of our collective childhood. The word “childhood” is the one I’ve seen associated most with this brilliant man in everyone’s tributes.
His filmography is so vast I won’t even try to mention every role. But I will mention the ones that come to mind, for me, most immediately.
Despite being a great comedic genius, a lot of his work felt heartfelt and genuine. Maybe it’s because most of my friends are my generation that I’ve seen so many postings on Facebook and Twitter about him.
Robin Williams, through his characters, was a surrogate parent for many of us. He was a father figure… and famously a mother figure as well.
In Aladdin, he was a ‘90s update of a fairy godmother, Al’s genie godfather. His impact wasn’t the fact that he granted Al’s three wishes—The impact was that he genuinely wanted Al to be happy. (Images of Genie and Aladdin hugging are all over social media right now, unsurprisingly.)
He was the therapist in Good Will Hunting and the teacher in Dead Poets Society. In Jumanji, he was the grown version of a young boy trapped in a board game. He came to the rescue of two children playing a game they didn’t understand. In this role, he was simultaneously a child and a leader—Sound familiar yet? In Hook, he was Peter Pan grown up, a man out of touch with his past and with his children. He rescued them of course. Perhaps most poignantly, he was a recently deceased man searching the afterlife for his wife and children in What Dreams May Come.
He also took on roles that in less capable hands would’ve been completely farcical or downright offensive. Not many actors could have brought both camp and sincerity to the gay father in The Birdcage. (I suppose all those years ago Robin Williams taught us that you could be a gay icon without actually being gay or a diva.)
And don’t pretend you could imagine anyone else in the role of Mrs. Doubtfire. A key part of a good disguise story is—If you met someone you knew and loved and they didn’t recognize you, would they grow to love you? Would your appearance matter, or would they connect with the person inside?
I’m rambling, but Robin Williams through his characters sent any kid who watched these movies an important lesson. His characters, those surrogate parents, would love their children unconditionally and despite any odds: I will encourage you to follow your dreams. I will trek through the jungle or fly across the island to save you. I will disguise myself as a British woman just to be near you. I will help you win the princess’s heart. I will pretend to be straight so you can marry the princess. I will go through hell, literally, to find you and reunite our family.
This is why people are so touched by his passing. I think the more movies you’ve seen him in, the more heartwrenching this is. A man who brought such great joy to so many might have passed away in such a tragic way. His death is confirmed but what is suspected – not yet confirmed – is that it was a suicide. Please, if you are facing depression, don’t go through it alone. Seek help from your loved ones or professionally if necessary.
I know I’m not the only one watching Robin Williams movies this week or searching clips on YouTube. He has left us. But he has left behind so many moments of joy and laughter, and in those, we can take comfort. Thank you for everything, Mr. Williams.