Robin Williams

August 12, 2014

Robin Williams

The genius of Robin Williams first sunk in for me when we saw him in the motion picture Awakenings in which he played a character based on the neurologist Oliver Sacks.

We didn’t see that film principally because Robin Williams starred in it but because we were interested in the topic. Sacks pioneered the use of the drug L-Dopa by treating a group of patients who had been in a catatonic state for decades as a result of an epidemic of encephalitis that lasted from 1917 to 1928. But we were impressed by Williams’ portrayal which was very understated. And it was only later, when we saw an earlier documentary with the same title, that we realized how well the often manic Williams had captured the shyness of Dr. Sacks.

The breadth of his range was one of the wonderful things about Robin Williams. Recently, we happened to watch again the hilarious but poignant movie Bird Cage in which he co-starred with Nathan Lane. In spite of the over-the-top humor laced through that movie, Williams’ character was restrained, and the contrast with Lane’s flamboyant character is an important reason why the film works so well.

Pat and I had a chance to chat with Robin Williams in 1998 at a party following the New York premiere of the movie Patch Adams, in which Williams played the unorthodox doctor who wanted to use humor in the treatment of patients. At the invitation of our friend Marvin Minoff, who co-produced that film, we attended the premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater and then the party at Four Seasons. We noticed Williams standing alone, so we approached him, intending only to compliment him on his performance, but he seemed willing to talk, so we willingly obliged. The conversation was so casual that I can’t recall details, except that he spoke of his mother, describing her as his first audience. He was subdued, but Pat and I agreed afterward that he was remarkably accessible for a person of his stature and that he seemed to be pleasant to the core, which, in its way, is as precious a quality as any other.

In one of those coincidences that one wouldn’t dare hope for, we finished our conversation with Robin Williams and spied Dr. Oliver Sacks, apparently trying to hide among the leaves of a rubber tree plant. I had read all of the books he had published up to that point, so we moved on to what turned out to be another conversation for another post.

One of Robin Williams’ foils in Patch Adams was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who also struggled with internal demons and died tragically. You can view both actors in a scene from that film by clicking HERE.

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5 Responses to “Robin Williams”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    I was listening to a radio show last night when a caller recounted a similar experience with Williams, on the set of a film. I wasn’t listening carefully enough to remember specific details, but the caller’s point was the same as yours: Williams was accessible, pleasant, and apparently interested in the people around him. Rather than leaving the set during a break, he hung around and chatted, riffing on others’ conversations with his great humor.

    I have my own favorite Robin Williams films, but there are several I haven’t seen, like “Awakenings.” Watching those films seems somehow appropriate.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I highly recommend “Awakenings.” Robert De Niro gives a strong performance as one of the patients and Julie Kavner, whom we don’t see nearly often enough, has a supporting role. When we saw the documentary and then read the book — both with the same title — we realized that this film portrays the events pretty much as they happened. (I’m sorry I’ve been a little uncommunicative lately. I’ve been overbooked, as usual. We’re going to Bermuda next week for our 50th wedding anniversary. Time for decompression.

      • shoreacres Says:

        Congratulations on your anniversary! And hooray for a such a trip. I’ve carried Bermuda in my mind ever since becoming familiar with Winslow Homer’s watercolors of the place. I’m glad you’ll be seeing his world – enjoy!

  2. CMP Says:

    Williams’ character in The Birdcage is where my head went when I heard the news. I was similarly impressed with his ability to tone himself down and be the “straight man” (as it were) to Nathan Lane’s Albert.

    I was just reading that he had been complaining to friends about financial problems and having to take roles he didn’t want (including a sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire) in order to keep up with alimony payments to his two ex-wives. A sad coincidence given the predicament of his character in that movie was remarkably similar, if on a humbler scale.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I heard an interview with him in which he made that point about the difficulty in getting good roles. An odd thing to happen to a man of such a wide range of talent.

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