Most of us first met Robin Williams as Mork from Ork, who came to Earth and charmed the planet, particularly a fetching earthling named Mindy.
In the years after Mork & Mindy's run on ABC from 1978 to 1982, we got to know Robin Williams as one of the most human comic talents in show business, as well as one of the funniest.
Robin Williams died Monday at age 63 of an apparent suicide, leaving behind loving family, friends and fans as well as a treasury of masterful performances.
While many comics get their laughs from cynicism and a view from above it all, Williams always seemed to be hyper-engaged with being part of this human race. Look at the characters he played: Adrian Cronauer, the military DJ in Good Morning Vietnam; John Keating, the inspirational teacher of Dead Poets Society; the title role in Mrs. Doubtfire; his Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting and even the Genie in Aladdin and Teddy Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum series. Robin Williams filled his résumé with characters that challenged authority and tried to make this world a better place.
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It was that philosophy of looking past puffery to the real needs of people, and creating something beautiful, that defined so many of Williams' best roles. He has been criticized for some of his choices such as Patch Adams (1998). But I have always been inclined to forgive him, feeling he probably saw a message there he wanted to convey and looked past the weak material. If you are going to err on the side of being a good person, good for you. Don't apologize.
Williams could be self indulgent and sentimental. But at his best, he shined in roles that showed sharp wit, comic genius and a humanity that made him a much better dramatic actor than many would have suspected.
I often caution people about making judgments about celebrities based on their public personas. But Williams was a man I was always inclined to believe in based on work he did founding Comic Relief, promoting St. Jude Children's Hospital and supporting the armed forces through the USO. Celebrity is a currency, and Robin Williams spent it well.
All this makes his apparent suicide all the more sad. Of any comedian, he seemed to take the most joy in making people laugh, and the world was a better place with him.