Benson: Remembering a generation’s jester
Robin Williams was born in 1951, and I in 1953. Due to his rapid-fire wit, his zany antics, and his overabundance of comedic talents, success came quick for him, more so than it did for others of our generation, who struggled for years to make a living.
In 1978, when I was trying to teach English composition to seventh- and eighth-graders in Lodgepole, Neb., Robin Williams starred in his own TV show, “Mork and Mindy.” Instead of learning to appreciate a poem’s text, my students would chant “na-noo, na-noo,” Mork’s nonsensical catchphrase. Each week on Thursday nights, Mork cast a spell on America’s junior high students.
“Mork and Mindy” was a spin-off from “Happy Days,” and its premise was similar to the early ‘60’s black-and-white sitcom, “My Favorite Martian.” Orson, the dictator on the planet Ork, had banished Mork to Earth because Orson did not permit humor on Ork.
Then, at the end of each episode, for about three minutes, Mork, the alien, would report to Orson all he had learned that week. “Mork calling Orson. Mork calling Orson,” he would call out. “Come in Orson.” The audience would then hear Orson’s loud voice, “What is it, Mork?”
Amongst a series of cutting comments about Orson’s rotund size, Mork would explain in very human terms his interactions with men and women, and these scenes were often unscripted. The show’s writers would leave space and then write, “Robin talks here.”
The show’s plot was typical sitcom, but Robin’s conversation with Orson, more a monologue than a dialogue, was the clincher. It was then that Robin Williams displayed his versatile skill at stand-up comedy, at improvisation and mimic.
His friend, Christopher Reeve, said that when the two of them met at the Julliard School in New York City, when both were young and unknown, Robin Williams “talked a mile a minute. He caromed off the walls of the classrooms and hallways. To say that he was ‘on’ would be an understatement.”
John Houseman at the Julliard School suggested that Robin leave the school after two years and try to find work as a stand-up comedian, and so Robin moved back to California.
At the comedy clubs in San Francisco, Robin honed his jaw-dropping talent. Other comedians would stand in the wings, gape in amazement as he performed, and realize that they could never transform an audience into a state of helpless laughter as Robin did.
When the television producer, Garry Marshall, was interviewing actors to play Mork, he asked Robin to act like an alien, and so Robin walked over to a chair and sat on his head. Marshall gave him the job, saying that “Robin was the only alien he interviewed.”
After four years on Mork and Mindy, Robin starred in a series of movies, and I judge “Mrs. Doubtfire” his best. In it, Robin played the part of a divorced man who was so saddened by his loss of contact with his three kids that he disguised himself as a kind grandmother, in order to win the job as their babysitter. Neither his ex-wife, played by Sally Field, or their three kids suspected the truth.
In the animated film “Aladdin,” he was the genie’s voice, a role that the studio producer created for Robin. As the genie, he sang the show’s opening song, “A Friend Like Me.” “Life is your restaurant, and I’m your maitre d’! C’mon, whisper what it is you want. You ain’t never had a friend like me.”
Like so many celebrities in Hollywood, Robin fell into a familiar rut: partying until late, drug use, considerable alcohol consumption, and then severe depression that led to suicidal thoughts. John Belushi’s drug overdose in March of 1982 shocked Robin, who had partied at John’s apartment that same night. In 1983, Robin Williams quit both alcohol and drugs and remained sober for two decades.
In 2003, he was filming the movie “The Big White” in Alaska, felt lonely and afraid, and took his first drink in 20 years. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, he said, that “addiction is a sickness that knows no statute of limitation. It waits. It lays in wait for the time when you think, ‘It’s fine now. I’m OK.’ Then, the next thing you know, it’s not OK.” After a family intervention in 2006, he entered rehab.
He claimed he never returned to the drugs though. “I knew,” he said, “that would kill me. I knew I couldn’t be a father and live that sort of life. Useless conversations until midnight, waking up at dawn feeling like a vampire on a day pass.”
Although he may have won the war with drugs and battled alcohol to a draw, he could not conquer his own inner thoughts that “the world would be a better place without him.” How wrong he was, and how wrong is anyone who believes that. Mara Buxbaum, his spokesperson, said “He had been battling severe depression of late.” His gifted and volatile mind had turned on himself.
Mork loved Mindy, Mrs. Doubtfire loved her, or his, kids, and the genie claimed that “You ain’t never had a friend like me.” How true. I consider Robin Williams my generation’s best jester.
Benson is a historian from Sterling, Colo., who writes a bi-weekly column for The Dickinson Press.