Robin Williams stood in the eye of his own humor hurricane, a human perpetual motion machine of comedy who unleashed manic streams of pop-cultural consciousness with the improv intensity of a be-bop great and the deceivingly tight timing of a master drummer who always marched to his own off-beat.
At his best, riff-machine Williams launched mad races with his audiences to see who would run out of breath first – him from spraying jokes like a Gatling gun or us from side-splitting laughter.
News of Williams' tragic death at age 63 took away the breath of fans across the globe in a starkly different way Monday, with the reported circumstances of his demise belying the joy spread by one of our greatest comic geniuses.
We can take some comfort in recalling an often brilliant and always versatile performer who, over the last four decades, created and shared indelible characters from TV to the movies to the stage.
He gave twisted life to hilarious human cartoons ("Mork & Mindy" and "Popeye") and to cartoon characters ("Aladdin" and "Happy Feet"). In more serious turns, Williams played doctors, real and otherwise, who healed with humanity ("Awakenings" and "Good Will Hunting," which earned him an Oscar). He excelled as rebels with a cause ("Good Morning, Vietnam" and “Dead Poets Society”). He lent bittersweet dignity – and unabashed craziness – to characters on society’s fringes ("The Survivors" and Terry Gilliam's brilliant, “The Fisher King”).
It's hard to imagine anyone but Williams in those parts, and in many others.
Only Robin Williams could do justice to the greatest work of our off-kilter modern Dickens (John Irvings' "The World According to Garp"). Only Robin Williams could turn the underlying grim story of a sad dad into a screwball, cross-dressing comedy ("Mrs. Doubtfire"). Only Robin Williams could turn a voracious, man-eating beast into a sympathetic character – and a walking, talking, wisecracking metaphor (Broadway's “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”).
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Only Robin Williams could turn the stage of the Metropolitan Opera into an improv playpen, delivering a stand-up performance of operatic proportions in 1986.
Although Williams’ strongest roles widely varied, they brimmed with humor and humanity. Those qualities were borne out in real life through his devotion to the "Comic Relief" benefits for the homeless.
When his own demons played out in public, he responded with unflinching honesty – and jokes. Cocaine, he once noted, is "God's way of telling you you make too much money."
He delivered that line during his classic gig at The Met. Those of us lucky enough to have been there experienced how Williams could jolt a theater to full-blaze life, as he shape-shifted from Minnie Pearl to Pavarotti to a football coach to a flamboyant choreographer in a priceless display of free-association. He fed on our laughter, and responded by giving us more and more to laugh at.
Which makes news of his death all the more heartbreaking. All fans can do is wish his family some peace and remember the laughter, which is all we have left from a performer who gave us everything he had.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.