Every reputable university offers a film class where students learn about Charlie Chaplin. Robert Sklar wrote that Chaplin’s comic persona “succeeded far beyond any other figure in the history of twentieth-century media.” At least six weighty textbooks hail Chaplin’s exquisite blend of comedy and pathos, but contemporary students usually prefer Chaplin’s peer Buster Keaton. As Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman put it, Keaton’s “dry, sardonic, analytically abstract humor is much more in tune with modern sensibilities.”
Robin Williams was our Charlie Chaplin. With his tight lips and serene, unflappable posture, Bill Murray is probably the modern Buster Keaton, and the cool thing to do is follow in his wake – that’s why there are T-shirts of him everywhere. Still, most comedians who become movie stars aren’t quite Murray or Williams; instead they play a lot of blowhards who need comeuppances. Think of almost anyone from 40 years of Saturday Night Live; wise guys, class clowns, overgrown adolescents. The nature of feature filmmaking dictates that Hollywood must ask lead comedians to pivot in the third act to admit their faults – think of Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock. Sometimes the pivot works, more often it doesn’t.
When Robin Williams was asked to pivot, it worked. More often, as with Chaplin, the other characters had to pivot to him. He could be desperately, almost anarchically funny for most of a film’s running time, and then he would bring on the sentiment, with those world-weary eyes and shoulders. For a comedian, Williams was rarely very wrong in narratives. Because his moral rectitude wasn’t as closely tied to Chaplin’s onscreen sympathy for the underprivileged, critics began to see Williams as cloying or “treacly” (per A.O. Scott). Audiences regarded him a little better than critics: between 1987 and 1998, ten films starring Williams each made more than $90 million (in non-adjusted dollars) at the domestic box office, more than anyone else at the time, including Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise. But Williams was never cool, like Murray or Murphy or Rock. There weren’t T-shirts.
Jerry Seinfeld said, “The comedian studies himself; the actor studies other people. The comedian wants to be himself; the actor wants to be anyone else.” When most SNL-level comedians become actors, they play a sort of toned-down version of themselves, because that’s what they assume we’ve come for. But Williams and Chaplin were unusual in being natural comedians and actors, intuitively funny and empathic. They loved people on a deep, unfakeable level as much as they loved themselves. When we laughed with them, it felt earned; when their lips quavered to cry, it felt real. Their famous liberal and anti-poverty campaigning (Williams through groups like Comic Relief) grew organically out of their genuine concern as manifested onscreen.
Remembering Williams, President Obama said, “He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most — from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.” Similar statements were heard after the death of Charlie Chaplin – and very few other people. If Chaplin had only done the acting, or the directing, or the activism, we would still remember him; if Williams had only done the improv comedy, or the screen career, or the activism, we would still remember him.
Chaplin and Williams both became famous because of a self-inspired bits of physical comedy; Chaplin invented the Little Tramp mannerisms while improvising a short called Kid’s Auto Race in 1914; 63 years later, ABC asked an auditioning Williams to sit on the couch like an alien, so he sat on his head. Neither man had a problem getting in drag if the situation called for it. In some ways, you could argue that Williams surpassed Chaplin; certainly the thousands of little character gesticulations and verbal jokes (personally, I always loved “If you can remember the sixties, you must not have been there”) were probably as difficult to produce as the best mime.
No TV star ever had a better transition to movies than Robin Williams. No comedian besides Chaplin ever was trusted with more heart. Robin Williams became the model for the George Clooneys as well as the Jim Carreys. He was often imitated but never equaled; no one could quite be him. Amid all the eulogies to what a universally nice person he was, I haven’t seen anyone else recall that Williams ran to Christopher Reeve’s bedside to bring him laughter at the worst possible time. Years later, shortly after 9/11, he did something similar when he revived his stand-up for New York City – not something a lot of Oscar winners would have bothered with. As a liberal and a performer, Williams gave and gave and gave and gave. And then, something gave.
Like Chaplin, Williams battled demons throughout his adult life that were mostly of his own making. Chaplin was a cautionary tale for his times: he was too interested in socialist politics, teenage girls, and obsolete technology. Williams, if the morning-after encomiums are any guide, is a cautionary tale for his: depression is real and we must help our depressed friends to get help and stay helped. One of my friends wrote that she always sensed his inability to eschew his “raw exposure to the thoughts and emotions of those around him.” How lucky we were, then, that he morphed that painful empathy into such beauty for so long.
We know Charlie Chaplin’s contributions to film history; as David Robinson put it in The Oxford History of World Cinema, he “contributed much to Hollywood’s prosperity and rise to worldwide pre-eminence in the period of the First World War. The sophisticated intelligence and skills he brought to slapstick comedy forced intellectuals to recognize that art could reside in a wholly popular entertainment.” What does Robin Williams’ passage in textbooks look like? Well…it doesn’t. The powerful play of life has gone on and Williams has been allowed to write a verse…but the books haven’t included it. So let’s look at a first draft of that puppy, shall we?
As the alien-on-Earth Mork on Mork and Mindy, Williams was part of the heyday of the ABC sitcom, a time that included Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Three’s Company. More generally, he was a keystone to the peak of the multi-camera sitcom era of the 70s and 80s, a group that included All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Jeffersons, M*A*S*H, Cheers, and The Cosby Show. As with the best episodes of those shows, Williams’ work as Mork adroitly alternated between laughs and pathos. Yet every week he brought something a bit unlike the rest of TV, twenty minutes of motor-mouth voracious-intellectual incredibly-funny restlessness followed by two minutes of soulfulness and vulnerability that really couldn’t be, and wasn’t, faked. If we count Mork and Mindy as science-fiction, then thanks to Williams the show was probably both the funniest and warmest science-fiction show of all time.
As a stand-up comedian and occasional event host, Williams was a little bit of everything: topical, physical, situational, metaphorical, kitschy, folksy, strident, sexual. Most comedians need a moment to work toward a given character; Williams reeled off accents, voices, squeaky noises and imitations without taking breaths in between. As the New York Times put it, he was an improvisational genius who was forever in the moment, an “explosively, exhaustingly, prodigiously verbal comedian,” a fast mouth with a faster mind, and an irrepressible character who also made himself a terrific character actor.
In a two-year period from 1986 to 1988, many filmmakers explored the Vietnam War, including Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, and Brian DePalma, but America’s and the world’s favorite depiction was Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam (1987), starring Williams as an uproarious, anti-army army DJ. (Because the film’s sympathetic co-stars are black and Asian, the film prefigured the polyglot racial casts that would become de rigeur by the 00’s.) Though Williams had already headlined well-received dramas, GMV was a star-making film for him, his first to earn more than $100m at the U.S. box office, and the first to earn him an Oscar nomination. Had GMV not come out, that nomination might well have gone to Williams’ friend and then-co-star of a stage version of Waiting for Godot, Steve Martin, for his sublime work in Roxanne; as it happened, Martin never came close to another nomination, while Williams’ laurel earned him better scripts and A-list status. Williams’ trademark manic energy was now just one card he could deploy; audiences showed they also liked him when he was serious.
As the pluperfect teacher-inspirer John Keating in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989), as the brilliant, sad neurologist-psychologist Oliver Sacks in Penny Marshall’s Awakenings (1990), as the grown-up, seen-it-all Peter (Pan) Banning in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), and as the deluded homeless Grail-seeker Parry in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), Williams, along with Kevin Costner, helped to spearhead a new kind of sensitive male star-actor for the 1990s. This new sort of baby boomer avatar tended not to use guns; as a liberal after Reagan, he instead bared his soul to solve problems. Tom Hanks – a man who is more often mentioned in film history textbooks – tended to follow in Williams’ wake, first by jumping from a medium-rated sitcom to movies, then by peppering comedy roles with drama, then by taking on juicier parts, then by voicing Disney features.
Though jazz musicians starred in The Jungle Book (1967), most voice talent in feature cartoons was anonymous prior to Aladdin (1992), which conspicuously featured Robin Williams as a madcap genie. Many actors who had built careers out of anonymous animation work came to resent Williams’ brilliant work, or more accurately Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg for thinking to hire Williams in the first place. The implied metaphor of a genie being irreversibly out of a bottle was almost too apt. More happily for the rest of us, there was no returning Williams’ career to a lamp. The genie character, like his eponymous role in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), seemed tailor-made to his persona, because as an actor, he generally played sincerity and weakness. However, unlike many, he could also be suddenly insincere or strong without ever being less than convincing.
As one of the 1990s’ top stars, Williams did a little of everything. He played leads and supporting roles; he did big-budget and low-budget; he made good films and bad ones; he helped keep San Francisco alive as a film location; he helped the cause of mainstream gay representation by starring in The Birdcage (1996), which probably wouldn’t have become a massive hit without him; he lent his persona to technological-breakthrough films like Jumanji (1995), Flubber (1997) and What Dreams May Come (1998); he enabled younger talent to become stars, like Ethan Hawke, Mara Wilson, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck; and he won an Oscar on his fourth nomination, as the embittered widower Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting (1997). In the 2000s, he was no longer at the top of the A-list, but he could still show up and make things a lot more interesting, as in Insomnia (2002), One Hour Photo (2002), Robots (2005), and the Happy Feet and Night at the Museum franchises. Despite numerous opportunities, he never directed a film or did much with his own production company; it seemed that he preferred to be everyone’s favorite gun for hire, the one who could arrive on the set and make everyone feel better. By all accounts, he did.
On a personal level, I loved him like he was a favorite uncle. The name “Mork from Ork,” the suspenders, and the polyvalent shirts made it easy for kids to buy in, but we stayed because of raw talent and generosity of spirit. The fact that he was a fellow Bay Arean didn’t hurt; I felt I could aspire to be him. My single, working mother and I bonded over watching his shows and his comedy specials together. We ran out to see both Popeye and The World According to Garp. This will sound preposterous to modern kids, but those came out when I was 9 and 11, and they were two of the first ten films I ever saw. I remember that I loved Garp more; maybe it was all the sex-change discussion. When I learned that Williams had died, I popped in my DVD of the 2002 HBO special again, and I was laughing too hard to cry…until the very end, when he waved as the audience leapt to its feet in a standing ovation. Can you blame us for wanting more?
Charlie Chaplin died on Christmas Day in 1977; is it mere coincidence that Mork and Mindy emerged from its eggshell nine months later? Well, of course it is. Nonetheless, the ultimate measure of Chaplin’s and Williams’ lives is the same: amount of lives improved, new smiles brought, situations understood and sympathized with. These cannot be counted, but we know that they are in the hundreds of millions. At best, most comedians’ eyes are the window to their own souls; Chaplin’s and Williams’ eyes were windows onto more people than that. The eminent film historian David Cook wrote that Chaplin’s Little Tramp character “became a kind of universal cinematic symbol for our common humanity.” So did Robin Williams.