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So many of Robin Williams’s best parts were about battling darkness

Robin Williams at the January Television Critics Association press tour session for The Crazy Ones.
Robin Williams at the January Television Critics Association press tour session for The Crazy Ones.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

So many of Robin Williams's greatest roles are about laughter covering up a deeper darkness. So many of his worst roles were, too. So many of his roles period.

At the height of his fame in the mid-90s, when Williams could essentially get any film made that he wanted to, he was choosing projects like Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji, movies ostensibly aimed at a family audience that nevertheless dealt with a deeper fear of abandonment, of being left alone in a place where no one would love you — or in some cases even could love you.

Jumanji, for instance, is about a boy who gets lost in a board game, then emerges a man with a deep darkness and fear of abandonment. But it's also present in Doubtfire, his biggest live-action hit, best known as a sweet family comedy about a man who cross dresses as an older English maid to be near his children. But look at it slightly more closely, and it becomes a movie about a man so desperate to know he is loved that he will do nearly anything to be near his children. Without them, he might be an island. And that would be the worst fate of all.

Williams understood laughter could be tinged with sadness

One of the last roles Williams played before his death in 2014 was that of Simon Roberts, the main character of the one-season CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones, an over-the-top advertising genius who found himself trying to make up for so many sins of the past by forming an ad hoc family at work, the better to reconnect with a daughter with whom his relationship had grown brittle.

Williams appeared at the 2014 January Television Critics' Association winter press tour, a few months before his death, for a session with his fellow cast members to talk about how the show had evolved from a Robin Williams vehicle into a true ensemble comedy. In the midst of the discussion, Williams was asked if his relationship with Sarah Michelle Gellar, the actress playing his daughter, was at all similar to the one between Simon and his daughter, if he spent much of his time on set trying to get her to laugh, just like Simon tried to win his way back into his daughter's heart through humor.

Williams's response was delivered with his usual breathless comic pacing. The transcript from the event is peppered with frequent references to audience laughter, but stripped of his delivery, there's something inside of it that speaks to an element central to many of his most famous roles: compensation, the need for laughter to keep something untamable at bay.

Williams said:

I work for laughter. So it's like that kind of thing. You get a laugh, you go, yeah, I'm okay now.

(Audience laughter.)

It's that whole thing of, like, just get that moment. And sometimes it works and other times, no.

(Audience laughter.)

It becomes very sad for a moment. The desperate comic boy comes out.

The "desperate comic boy" Williams talked about self-deprecatingly was at the center of everything he did. To make people laugh was, for just a second, to be loved, to be okay. But no one laughs all of the time. And when Williams wasn't playing that desperate figure, out for a laugh at all costs, he was playing a healer, someone hoping to mend things that had been broken and could not be put back together. Think, for instance, of Patch Adams or Awakenings or The Fisher King, all films where he, a man on the verge of despair, is briefly able to see past himself to someone else in need of help.

Or think of the role that won him an Oscar, the therapist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. The most famous scene in the film, in which Sean seemingly cures the protagonist of his issues simply by repeating the phrase "It's not your fault," over and over again is largely bullshit as psychotherapy. Not even treatable mental conditions can be cured in one session, after all. But Williams sells the moment, makes it play. There's a sweet, aching need at the core of the scene, a wish that it might work this way always.

Why it's wrong to think of mental illness as a weakness

We categorize, often, illnesses in terms of things we can cure or not, things that we can beat back. We don't have a cure for cancer or the cold. We do for polio or rubella. When someone has an inoperable cancer, we nod solemnly and pay our respects and share every last moment we can with them, because we know what inevitably awaits.

What we're not geared for is to understand that diseases don't always come in the form of obvious symptoms, that sometimes things can slip in the brain and we're not always prepared to deal with them or even understand what that might be like. We're so hard-wired into our own perspectives that it can be hard to step outside of ourselves and look across the room or up on the movie screen and see someone who is saying, so clearly, that they hurt in ways unimaginable.

Robin Williams's struggles with depression, struggles that may have ended in his suicide, then, can give us a moment, to realize that these illnesses are real and sometimes intractable. He can help us better understand the people in our lives who might need us to reach out to let them know how loved they are, and that there are resources out there — people who want to help and know how to help.

We are so often tempted to think of mental illness as a weakness, because words like "depression" can sound like "being really sad." We've all been depressed, in moments of defeat or sorrow or heartache. But not all of us have struggled just to get out of bed, believing that would be all the victory there is for that day. Williams took that struggle and pumped it into a genius for making others feel better and less alone.

To laugh is to connect, to have one mind come up with something funny and another recognize and express joy at it, a sudden bridge between two people formed in a millisecond. Williams may have covered his own darkness with that laughter, but the bridges he built were real, whether in the wild weirdness of Mork and Mindy or the sustained cacophony of Good Morning Vietnam, in the black humor of World's Greatest Dad or the eerie chill of One Hour Photo. They may be his most persistent legacy. The comic boy who made the world feel a little less sad, a little more okay.

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