Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mr. Happy

I first saw Robin Williams at Gator Growl in 1982, a Florida pep rally so to speak.  I had never laughed so hard in my life.  The guy had most of those in the stadium bent over laughing for the one hour plus he took the stage.  He focused a little too much on his "Mr. Happy" that night for alumni who had brought their children, but that was signature Robin, poking fun at every part of himself.

Williams and Reeves at Julliard
For all his great performances, it was his unscripted moments that stood out.  Christopher Reeve recalled the time Williams burst into his hospital room before the first surgery on his spine, and in a heavy Russian accent said he was his proctologist and was there to give him a rectal exam.  Reeves said that was the first time he laughed since the accident.  Hopefully, he was heavily sedated so that it didn't hurt.  Reeves and Williams had been roommates at Julliard.

His appearances on Saturday Night Live, the Tonight Show, Letterman, etc. were always memorable, but one that stood out for me was when he burst in on an interview with Jonathon Winters, his "Comedy Buddha," at the 7:30 mark and the two took over the Late Show with David Letterman.  I can't help but think that Winters' death last year left a deep hole in Williams, who had long acknowledged Winters as his primary inspiration.

Williams and Winters in 2008
There have been many great comics over the decades.  The idea of the stand-up comic may have come from the UK but it is in America that it took hold.  Jack Benny is perhaps the king of the American stage with his signature dry humor.  In the 60s it became a form of political and social commentary, notably Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory.  By the 70s, sex became a dominant theme with some acts getting very raunchy, particularly those of Redd Foxx, who was one of the first stand-up comedians to parlay his routine into a situation comedy, Sanford and Son, toning down his ribald jokes considerably for television.

Saturday Night Live took the format, added sketches, brought in guest stars to light up the evening, having a great run between 1975 and 1980 that inspired NBC to bring back Laugh-In for one year.  This is where Robin Williams first appeared on television, before taking a guest role on Happy Days as an alien from the Planet Ork that would launch his own television show.  Jonathon Winters would make numerous appearances on Mork and Mindy.  The rest as they say is history.

Even when a movie misfired, Williams could always be counted on to give a memorable performance.  He was great as Teddy Roosevelt in Night in the Museum.  He seemed to have a penchant for presidents, taking on Dwight D. Eisenhower in The Butler and wonderfully mocking Ronald Reagan in a segment of Saturday Night Live, which he visited several times.

He won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting in 1998, but probably his best loved role was that of Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam.  He won the Golden Globe that year.  Like Cronauer himself, he would entertain troops when the occasion arose.  He became the Bob Hope of his generation.

In this wonderful segment of Inside the Actors Studio from 2001, Williams shares insights into his many faces and many roles, for the most part demonstrating them to a captive audience and host James Lipton.  He talks about his work on Awakenings, one of his more memorable films, and the time he spent with Oliver Sacks.  He expressed his great admiration for the neurologist and author, and said if he could be anything other than actor it probably would be a neurologist.  Sacks likewise was very much taken by Williams, as he tells about his time with him at the 2 minute mark of this video clip on the making of the movie.

Sacks and Williams on the set of Awakenings
As in movies as in life, Williams was an incredibly giving man.  He actively took part in the Make a Wish program, bringing cheer to many people just like he had Christopher Reeve all those years before.  We often forget that these funny men need cheering up from time to time as well.  It is very sad to see Robin Williams go.

His death has touched seemingly everyone, but no persons more than his family.  His three surviving children offer their touching tributes.

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