We were all saddened by the news of Robin Williams' death yesterday. A man of extraordinary talents, he is first and foremost known as a comedian. However, he's starred in both comedic and dramatic movies, has appeared in a variety of TV shows and specials, and has even starred on Broadway.
He was also a gamer.
Robin Williams was a larger-than-life figure in my childhood. I grew up watching Mork & Mindy. I didn't get the grown-up humor as a five-year-old, but I loved the concept of the show and the sci-fi weirdness of it. I loved the character Popeye, so I found the fact that Williams played him in a live-action movie amazing — I was young enough not to buy into the complaint that Robert Altman had put together a tragic bomb of a film. Williams' explosive snark as a big blue Genie in Aladdin made for a Disney movie that truly stood apart from its predecessors, abandoning the stuffy propriety of the studio's classics and the weak-kneed aimlessness of its later work, arriving right as I began to study art and cartooning. Hell, I even liked Mrs. Doubtfire, despite being old enough to recognize that it was kind of awful.
But it wasn't until a little later that I realized why Williams resonated with me so profoundly: He was one of us. No, I don't mean he played video games. I mean he was a nerd. A big, unabashed nerd.
Go back and watch some of his improv comedy from the '70s sometime. He's a manic whirl of hilarity and energy, undoubtedly fueled by cocaine... but drugs alone can't make a man funny. Williams' improv stand-up was hilarious because it was smart. He dropped all kinds of obscure references to science, classical literature, Roman history — his head was full of knowledge, and he possessed a remarkable ability to twist that information into comedy. Even when his schtick became a little predictable, it was always a little smarter than the average stand-up comic. Always a little more obscure.
The man's love for video games, which so many people are making note of in the wake of his death, speaks to this aspect of his personality. I also suspect that if his death came as a result of depression-fueled suicide, that too came from the bookish, intellectual aspect of his personality. Some people deal with truly great success by wrapping themselves in entitlement, but others never quite believe they've earned their popularity and acclaim. I don't think there's any question Williams fell into the latter category; I've never once read about him having celebrity tantrums or treating those around him like trash. Anecdotes about Williams' behavior off-set paint him as a warm, humble, almost insecure person with a reluctance to impose on others. That uncertainty and timidity can be a powerful driving force for creativity — always pushing you to achieve, to prove yourself — but the other side of the knife edge can instill the belief there's no sense in making the effort.
When I lived in San Francisco, every once in a while I would drive past the house that my wife's cousin told me belonged to Robin Williams, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. By no means am I celebrity chaser; every time I have a brush with any sort of on-location shooting situation in SF or LA or New York, I always steer wide to avoid the hassle of it all. With Williams, though, I felt compelled to make an exception. He always struck me as a more down-to-earth celebrity, with the kind of brilliant wit I could never dream of possessing, but with a goofy humility that made him approachable nevertheless. As someone who saw in Williams' oeuvre something to aspire to — and as someone who struggles with feelings of melancholy and self-doubt — the news of his death truly, truly saddens me. He was one of us: A nerd before being a nerd was cool.
I'm in an odd spot upon hearing the death of Robin Williams. Yesterday, I had just returned from working Otakon 2014, in my position as guest liaison. My primary job for the weekend was handling actor Dante Basco, who previously worked with Williams in Hook. (Hook remains one of my favorite films.) In the various autograph signings and Q&A panels over the weekend, fans would ask about Dante's time on Hook and his time with Robin Williams. He only had wonderful things to say. Stories about a friend and mentor. Stories about a smart, intelligent man who had time for everyone. Stories about a comedian who became so much more.
I sent a message to Dante yesterday, offering my condolences for his loss. It seemed like it wasn't enough. I remember Williams in Mork & Mindy. I remember crying at Dead Poets Society. I remember Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, Jumanji, Good Morning Vietnam, and Good Will Hunting. Amazing films for an amazing actor. I remember his charity work with Comic Relief, using his reach to help the homeless. I remember the times he showed that he was a big part of our community, that his love for gaming was rather deep.
When I write "the death of Williams," it strikes me because that's my last name. It makes me think deeply about my own mortality and my own body of work. I've always been of the mindset that I'm not an amazing writer, I just put in the work. I probably don't draw on as many personal anecdotes or provide as much deep insight as the rest of USgamer. I've always wanted to do that, to put more of myself out there, but it's not something I'm very good at. That the world has lost someone who was able to do that so easily pains me.
With Robin Williams death, I don't want to think about how he died - though if you're struggling with depression, please know that you're never alone - I prefer to think about how he lived. I prefer to try my best to live up to that standard, because that standard touched the lives of so many. If I can do that, I think Mr. Williams will be happy. And by "Mr. Williams," I mean both of us. Rest in peace, sir.
Before we continue, I'd like to offer these obligatory clips of Robin Williams narrating this Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D commercial featuring his daughter Zelda.
These commercials now have a bittersweet tinge following Williams' passing, but the moment that he shares with his daughter is sweet and genuine. I never had that kind of rapport with my own father, but we did play our video games together, and those commercials can't help bring me back to those moments spents playing Street Fighter II. Also, did you see the look in Williams' eyes when he talked about The Legend of Zelda in the second commercial? The man loved that series.
It's apparent that Williams was a gamer's gamer. He loved not just Zelda, but everything from Warhammer 40K to Call of Duty. He wasn't shy about discussing his love for games (even if he freely admitted to regularly getting beaten in Call of Duty), and yes, he named his daughter after one of his favorite characters. With video games continuing to be stigmatized as a hobby for basement-dwelling teens, it was a pleasure to see a beloved actor like Williams standing up for our hobby.
I'll admit, I'm more emotional than I thought I would be hearing about his death. Like everyone else, I grew up watching his films (especially Aladdin and later Good Will Hunting), but I hadn't thought about him in quite a long time. Now I wonder what we all missed.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't use Robin Williams as a cheap, pop-culture punchline just recently. Before yesterday, that was an easy joke to make. But death tends to shine a greater light on life, and it's hard to blame WIlliams for the position he ended up in as a comedian. His loudest, broadest moments brought in the money, so that's the only button the entertainment industry wanted to press. As age cut in on his manic personality, Hollywood overcorrected and dropped him into the shmaltziest of shmaltz, but even in his worst movies, Williams' humility and neediness shone through, giving his most throwaway characters an unexpected amount of humanity. It was only after his amazing mainstream success throughout the '80s and '90s that he was given the chance to show some range, playing wounded, lonely people in movies like One Hour Photo and World's Greatest Dad. It's a shame he didn't have more opportunities to act outside of his two most well-known emotional extremes, but, at the same time, I can't imagine him being remembered as anything but one of the universe's most entertaining human beings.