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.



At a party we attended in Manhattan about a dozen years ago, I spied a man who had backed himself into a large potted plant — something like a rubber tree — as though he didn’t want to be seen. After staring at him for a minute or so because he seemed familiar, I said to Pat, “My God, that’s Oliver Sacks.” Ignoring what seemed to be a clear signal that he was going for invisibility, we approached him, and had a pleasant little conversation.

It struck me at the time that he seemed as shy as Robin Williams had made him appear in the movie “Awakenings.” We noticed that the first time we saw the movie, because the character was, in that respect, so different from the outlandish figures Williams most often plays. I didn’t know at the time that the movie had been preceded by a documentary — also  “Awakenings” — that Dr. Sacks himself narrated.


Some time after we saw the Robin Williams movie, I stumbled on the documentary on television, and I was struck by how much Williams had approximated Sacks’ personality, including the apparent shyness.

Now, in Dr. Sacks’ most recent book, “The Mind’s Eye,” I read at least one explanation for his reticence. Sacks writes in that book that he suffers — if that’s the right word — from prosopagnosia, which means he cannot distinguish one human face from another. In fact, he can’t recognize his own face in a mirror. One of his brothers has the same condition, which can be genetic, but can also be acquired through a trauma such as  stroke. In an expansive discussion of the condition, Dr. Sacks writes, for example, that he visited his psychiatrist, left the office, and bumped into the psychiatrist again in the lobby, minutes later, and didn’t recognize him. Sacks wrote that this condition can contribute to shyness. Voila.


Like many of Dr. Sacks’ previous books, this one contains a series of case studies with a lot of historical context. And although the subject matter is human disabilities, the book is in many instances uplifting, because Dr. Sacks also writes about how men and women, because of their own persistence and because of the brain’s ability to compensate for traumatic events, have managed to live fruitful lives despite the loss of some basic function — such as the ability to read or to identify common objects or to navigate even familiar spaces.

One of the cases concerns Susan Barry, who was born with crossed eyes that were surgically corrected when she was a young girl. The surgery straightened the eyes from a cosmetic point of view, but Barry was still left with monocular vision, because the brain uses crossed eyes individually, switching back and forth between them.


Barry, who teaches neurobiology, was in college before she realized she didn’t see things in stereo, as it were. And she was in her forties before other vision problems put her in contact with an optometrist who helped her, through therapy and continuing eye exercises, to do what had previously been thought impossible, achieving stereoscopic vision without further surgical intervention, after living nearly fifty years without it. She has described her experience in her own book, “Fixing My Gaze.” Dr. Sacks himself, who has been fascinated with stereoscopy since he was a child, reports  in “The Mind’s Eye” that he himself is coping with monocular vision after recently losing the sight of his right eye due to cancer.

There are several equally remarkable stories in Dr. Sacks’ book, including a pianist who lost her ability to read music or text, a novelist (Howard Engel) who lost his ability to read, and an artists’ agent who lost her ability to speak. In each case, the “patient” – with the help of a flexible brain – learned to live with or in spite of these conditions.

The study of the brain is, in a way, only beginning, thanks to imaging technology that for the first time allows researchers to unobtrusively observe brain activity in living human beings. Sacks’ book hints at where that study may take us, and the prospects are exciting.

An NPR report on Susan Barry’s experience is at THIS LINK.


We watched “Jakob the Liar,” a 1999 film starring its executive producer, Robin Williams.

In this story based on Jurek Becker’s novel, Williams plays the title role, a man confined to a Jewish ghetto in Poland during World War II. Jakob is summoned to the commandancy of the ghetto for being in the street after curfew, and while he is in an SS officer’s quarters, he hears a radio news report to the effect that the Red Army is advancing in the vicinity of the ghetto.

Alan Arkin and Liev Schreiber

When Jakob gives this information to his fellow inmate, Mischa (Liev Schreiber), Mischa draws the conclusion that Jakob himself has a radio — an offense punishable by death in the ghetto. Mischa shares his suspicion with others and soon the story is all over the ghetto, and nothing Jakob can say will put it to rest. The inmates beg him for more promising news, and he finally decides to lift their spirits by making up more “news” about the impending end of the war.


Jakob’s position becomes increasingly precarious, and it isn’t helped any by the fact that he is sheltering a young girl (Hannah Taylor-Gordon) who avoided boarding the transport that carried her parents to a death camp.

Given the fact that this movie features Williams in a dramatic role, includes fine actors such as Bob Balaban and Alan Arkin, and deals with this particular historical epoch, we expected to like it. We found, however, that the sum of the parts leaves the whole lacking.

The film is tedious and in some particulars implausible — for example, a scene in which Jakob defies and even intimidates an SS officer who, under real circumstances, would have shot him on the spot. And while Roberto Benigni proved that humor could be mixed into a serious Holocaust story, this film doesn’t strike the delicate balance between the two that the Italian movie achieved.