I don’t get choked up over celebrity deaths. The loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman hurt quite a bit, but I still wasn’t prepared for how I’d feel today at the news of Robin Williams’ passing. Earlier today, the longtime comedian was found dead in his California home and it hurt. Bad.
I’m a member of Generation Y… or maybe I’m a millennial. They run together. Either way, Robin Williams has occupied a huge chunk of my life and the lives of others my age. At 63 years old, Williams was the same age as my father and had long been one of his favorite actors. That meant I grew up to a lot of “Nanu Nanu”s and probably watched movies like Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society far earlier than I should have. I imagine this was the case for a lot of people my age.
Williams’ role in our lives didn’t stop short at our fathers’ appreciation, though. That doughy, goofy face was everywhere when we were growing up. While we may not have fully understood it, his role on Mrs. Doubtfire probably exposed us to our first glimpse at a cross-dresser. That film probably even helped usher in the acceptance and love our generation has towards the homosexual community. It’s disheartening that there’s a group of children out there right now who have no connection to the line, “Run by fruiting.”
Following Mrs. Doubtfire came some of our first glimpses into adventure, thanks, again, to Williams. Disney clearly had made a more concerted effort to showcase the voice actors behind Aladdin than they’d done in prior movies. Knowing Williams voiced the loony, fast-talking Genie seems like something I was just always aware of, not something I learned later as an adult. Because of him, we watched a scrawny street urchin become a prince. The year before that, we let Williams play a game with our imaginations in Jumanji. Stretched out in front of my grandmother’s box set television and clinging tightly to that couch pillow, I can easily say I watched that VHS and screamed along with Mr. Parrish dozens of times. And Hook. It’s still the only Peter Pan movie that matters and, once again, I found Williams as a father figure each time I watched and reenacted the film. Williams was more than just an entertaining character on the television, he was practically a babysitter and, without a doubt, a tour guide to insanity.
Over time, Williams’ role shifted for me and my generation. Patch Adams introduced us to Williams’ more serious acting chops. Good Morning, Vietnam went from obscure Sunday morning silliness on the couch with Dad to a veritable history lesson, narrated by my second-favorite guy. My dad, bad hearing and flat feet, did not go to Vietnam. I think Williams’ version made him particularly sad to have missed out on that experience, no matter how terrible it truly was… or how much of a hippie he was at the time. Dead Poets Society went deeper, darker and somehow more uplifting. I remember watching Williams and his class march around the quad. I wanted a teacher that inspiring. I looked everywhere for a Captain, my Captain. (And did, eventually, find one of sorts in a certain history teacher named Mr. Sciacca, despite never needing to stand on my desk and defend his honor.) That was, of course, my first glimpse at suicide, as well.
I grew up and my dad grew old and, I guess, Williams slipped back into old habits. But he still held a place in my life. Cuddled up beside a giggling grade schooler, I have watched him bring down the house as Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum movies. Together we have laughed our butts off at those dancing penguins in Happy Feet. And I’m sure she learned some sort of lesson from Robots. If she has one grown-up actor whom she will always remember, I’m aware that it probably won’t be Williams. Especially now. He was mine and my dad’s and that’s OK.
For the record, my dad’s reaction to Williams’ passing was, “Wow. That is wild. I think he had a lot of demons.” There weren’t any tears. Not like there were for me. Then, again, for my dad, I think Williams felt like a buddy and, for me, he felt like an extension of my father. Despite my dad’s lack of emotion, I know there will be an unfillable empty spot within our family now. Williams’ quotes and movies have taken up so much of our lives and brought about so much bonding that I’m positive he’s irreplaceable. And I’m positive I’m not alone in this feeling.