“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
That was Robin Williams in 1989’s Dead Poets Society. 25 years later, the actor and comedy has tragically passed away – but if there was one thing he was never short of, it was words.
His unique motormouth comedy soon won him fans on the stand-up circuit and that manic energy translated perfectly onto the screen in a storm of hyperactive roles, from a rapid-fire radio DJ in Good Morning, Vietnam to the Genie in Aladdin. Williams improvised 16 hours’ worth of material for Disney’s classic – so much that the Academy reportedly refused to nominate it for Best Original Screenplay. “You never had a friend like me,” he sang. Everyone believed him.
That universality was equally mind-boggling. Even though his trademark was spouting barely comprehensible nonsense at an almost inaudible speed, people around the globe connected with Robin Williams. When his death was reported last night, Twitter exploded into endless tributes from accounts the world over. The trending topics were solely comprised of Robin Williams references, but what was telling was the variety of them. Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Hook. Even Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man. Robin Williams wasn’t just a versatile performer; he was a versatile performer whom people loved in everything he did. Just Google “Mrs Doubtfire hello” and marvel at how many have recorded their own version of his frosted fridge door greeting.
His dramatic roles were as moving as his silly ones were side-splitting. In the second half of his career, he stunned those who had grown up with his cross-dressing granny and magical blue guy with silent turns in Insomnia and One Hour Photo, that twinkling smile given an unnerving stillness. For all his exuberance, he had brilliance in his quiet moments; his bearded professor lecturing Matt Damon’s student on experience vs knowledge would reduce anyone to tears, while his
Carpe Diem lesson passed on to students at Welton Academy never fails to inspire. But he brought a humanity to each performance, whether finding a heartfelt note in a comedy or using humour to hold back the darker elements of life.
That range and sincerity makes it impossible to pick a favourite moment from his career; even his impression of a hot dog is laugh-out-loud funny. Patch Adams’ message that laughter can sometimes be the best medicine might have been hailed as too saccharine – and offered a tragic contrast to his own off-screen battle with depression – but when Williams was switched on, his infectious, impossible wit could make you forget about everything else and stand up on your desk. He was a whirlwind of giggles and ideas contained in a human. And that genius continues to be bottled in every film; a creative force waiting to be unleashed at the rub of a lamp.
“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world,” he said 25 years ago. If there was one thing Robin Williams was never short of, it was words. And as tributes continue to pour in from fans everywhere, you can see how much his actually have changed the world. Not in a big, political way, but in a smaller, arguably more important way. We never had a friend like him.