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Remembering Robin Williams

Posted: August 15, 2014 12:31 p.m.
Updated: August 18, 2014 6:00 a.m.

I am man enough to admit that I have cried more than once since the news broke that Robin Williams had died by what local officials said was suicide.

My emotional reactions came not just from his death, but from the outpouring of love and grief by members of his family, especially his children; other actors he worked with; and journalists who were lucky enough to interview him.

My first memory of Williams is likely very similar to others’ in my age group: when he leaped on to my TV screen in 1978 on an episode of “Happy Days” playing Mork from Ork.

Even at the age of 13, I knew I was seeing someone special. His completely over-the-top, manic, yet human performance of this alien being so enchanted audiences, that it launched a spin-off series, “Mork & Mindy,” co-starring Pam Dawber.

About the only living person at the time Williams could be compared to was Jonathan Winters. In the last season or so of “Mork & Mindy,” Williams got to work with his idol -- and please forgive the science-fiction hocus pocus of this -- with Winters playing his reverse-aging son.

After “Mork & Mindy” went off the air in 1982, Williams weaved his way between the TV and movie screens along with comedy audio recordings and, of course, “Comic Relief” with fellow comedians Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg.

Movies were his mainstay for most of the rest of his career and they read like a treasure trove of classics: “The World According to Garp,” “Moscow on the Hudson,” “Good Morning, Vietnam” (which, of course, must always be shouted the way he did), “Dead Poets Society,” “Awakenings,” “The Fisher King,” “Hook” (Pan!) “Aladdin” (Oh, our genie!), “Mrs. Doubtfire” (how can we ever get that face out of our heads?), “Jumanji,” “Jack,” “The Birdcage” (was anyone more fabulous?), “Good Will Hunting” (“It’s not your fault.”), “Patch Adams,” “What Dreams May Come” (extreme existentialism -- but what heart!), “Bicentennial Man,” “Get Bruce,” “One Hour Photo” (when did he get so scary?) and the list goes on and on.

I have to go back to “Good Will Hunting.” I never saw it in theaters or on TV. I grabbed a DVD copy from somewhere a few years ago -- and never managed to watch it. I did the evening of the day Williams died and I’m so glad I did. He is brilliant! He absolutely deserved his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In many ways, he gave young Matt Damon and Ben Affleck the gift of himself to that movie, their first real major effort in Hollywood. (Did you know Damon was an extra in “Field of Dreams” a few years earlier, or that Affleck was an uncredited basketball player in the original “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” movie?)

There are scenes in “Good Will Hunting” I will never be able to forget now. I already quoted “It’s not your fault,” from near the movie’s end, but one of his earliest scenes, with Damon on a Boston bench, is so iconic that fans left flowers on and chalk drawings and messages around the bench.

There are so many scenes and lines from that movie that -- and a credit to Affleck and Damon’s writing -- will stay with us forever.

Then there’s the “Night at the Museum” movies. Who else could possibly play a President Theodore Roosevelt mannequin come to life in a comedy than Robin Williams? You almost feel honored seeing him bring Roosevelt into the modern world. Once again, he used his magical talent to cross the bridge between manic comedy and being a mentor to Ben Stiller’s night watchman. The first two movies came out in 2006 and 2009, respectively. We will, thankfully, be able to see Williams as Roosevelt once more this Christmas when “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” comes to theaters.

Most of Williams’ TV work turned to guest-star turns, and -- as he transformed himself in film -- his best work was when he brought a touch of manic to the dramatic. Way back in 1994, he guest-starred on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” one of my favorite shows. He plays the husband of a murdered woman, trying to make sense of her death. Unfortunately, I do not remember the episode, nor a turn he did in 2008 on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” as a genius sound engineer who perpetrates various sex-related and other crimes. Even without seeing them, though, the simple fact that he was nominated in both cases Emmy Awards as outstanding guest actor tells the work was great.

Last but not least, “The Crazy Ones,” his one-season only comedy with Sarah Michelle Gellar (“Buffy” of the TV series). I only ever watched the pilot. It’s not that I didn’t like either him or Gellar; I just haven’t been into comedies since the early 1990s.

But, boy, did those tears start to well again when I read Gellar’s statement on Williams’ death. “...to me he was not just an inspiration, but he was the father I had always dreamed of having.” It turns out her own father hadn’t been in her life much. She really meant what she said; literally, Williams was the father she wanted.

Rather than leave us in a morbid state, I’ll end with a few ‘did you knows.’

• He favorite books were Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy and wanted to play Hari Seldon. He would have been perfect. Look it up -- or better, read the books -- to know what I mean.

• He owned more than 50 bicycles. Turns out he was a fan of professional road cycling.

• He loved jazz ... and Prince.

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