lived outside Italy for the better part of the 1970s and 1980s, and even into the decade that followed. Pre-Internet days allowed no sharing of pop culture. I knew what I knew about American television and humor through friends and newspaper articles. I do remember one friend telling me repeatedly — for most of the Reagan era — that I had to see Robin Williams before I died, or he did.
My friend, a comedian addict, had followed Williams in his early cocaine-addled, stand-up days where his comic spew was as concentrated as the powder he snorted. Those days apparently never ended, and the game has now come full circle.
I do remember my friend’s remark, which seemed innocuous at the time: “This guy is far too intelligent for his own good.”
When I was finally able to see Williams for myself, in series and films, and finally on stage, for four nonstop hours in New York City, the simple insight of the comment hit home.
Williams was less a man than a manufacturer of personalities concentrated in a mime, a vessel, a troopship of beings. He was 500 people fighting for space in one body, with accents, languages, twitches and gags all leaping out for coddling from the great collective huddled inside him. It was profoundly controlled — Williams willed his humor — but entirely mad. He was an alien life force, and not only in the relatively tame comedy series that brought him early success. Alien-ness, in the Williams version, was a kind of multiple personality disorder, gender not included, used for comic purpose. People aren’t accustomed to seeing such personality shifts in those they know. When it happens, it’s unsettling. Williams was unsettling. His only hope was to play comedian. Whether it was ever just play is a question only genius can answer.
In Williams’ case, the genius wasn’t the constant and dexterous shape shifting, from comedy to drama including all in between, but the impossibility of doing without it, or living too long with it, in the end an apparently depressing task. Imagine incarnating men and women and voices from all manner of culture if not planets. Imagine acres of time in which the you that you know is subject to constant lurches toward another you that’s come to you with equal demands on your time, all these many versions of the second person invented from whole cloth or embellished from a lifetime of eavesdropping. Genius is not absorption but filtration and recalibration so that what comes in is reinvigorated and made to come out as something original, lively, startling. Comedians generally have this gift, or curse, but few are as literally afflicted with as Williams, who consistently sought dramatic parts to anchor his flights of fancy. He succeeded, of course, but the success, part repression, came at a cost. He won awards for performances of theatrical merit, for roles in which his cool prevailed. But even in those roles, his animated innards seemed at the ready, choked back to avoid surrender to his wild side, or sides.
In his last prestige stage performance, at Carnegie Hall 12 years ago, he strutted as Einstein might think, associating characters and material at frenetic speed, almost at the speed of the comic ideas themselves, all the while manically opening small bottles of water to control his fidgeting jitters and keep him from tripping over his outsized imagination. Like or dislike Williams, it was a breathless trapeze act by a man freed briefly from the more sober character-actor side he’d locked himself into for a decade. His act was not comedy alone but a magic act. At the end, he said three words, “I did it.”
When you don’t know who you really are, or can’t, or lose track, it’s very likely you’ll often believe that you can’t do something because you never quite know which personality will make the effort to follow through, and which might fail you. Again, it’s the gift of genius, generous but terrifying to those who possess it.
Robin Williams will be eulogized in all manner of ways. He was, after all, a Hollywood star and a man who made many people laugh. He is also the second major star to die this year after Philip Seymour Hoffman, who did everything but kill himself. One was outsized and given to torment; the other outsized and given, at least internally, to comedy. Neither had much choice but to surrender to their success-making madness. Both, like other acting aliens before them, chose to flick the “off” switch, because, in people of mad talent, the will to die can be just as compelling as the will to live. When you’re too intelligent for your own good you come to know things about yourself, real or imagined, often both, and the rest plays by no one’s rules.