THE DAY THE LAUGHTER DIED (A tribute to Robin Williams)
by Kevin White on 08/12/14
“A long, long time
ago, I can still remember how the music used to make me smile”
Don McLean, American Pie
I was still a kid in the year 1971, when Don
McLean released his blockbuster song American
Pie. It was a song that quickly rose to #1 on the American charts and
stayed there for weeks. More than forty years later, it continues to play on
the radio as a reminder of simpler times. McLean wrote the song in remembrance
of three musicians who had died in a plane crash on February 3rd,
1959, the same year I was born. The
musicians were Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Jiles
Perry Richardson, Jr., whose show name was The Big Bopper. Thanks to the
refrain of McLean’s song, the day of their death would forever become known as ‘The
Day the Music Died’.
It was my wife who brought
in the paper this morning, now 55 years later, while I quickly made a lunch to
bring to work. The first words I heard from her mouth were: “Oh my! He died.”
As I turned to her, I only could wonder who was so important that the word ‘he’
should be enough. But then I saw the huge picture on the paper’s front page and
I understood. ‘He’ was Robin Williams, who in my mind ranks right up there with
Red Skelton as the greatest comedic geniuses of all time. I place these two above
everyone else because both could do what no one else ever could – they could
somehow have an entire audience both laughing and crying at the same time.
I once had the extreme
pleasure of watching Red Skelton live at a show in Reno, when I was just 12-years
old, oddly enough in 1971, the same year American Pie was released. Watching
the master pantomime bring his characters like Clem Kadiddlehopper to life was
magical, mostly because dear old Clem, the hapless hobo, somehow had everyone
laughing and crying together. No one
else ever managed to make me do that until I saw Robin Williams as Mrs.
Doubtfire, and then as Patch Adams, and then as Jakob the Liar, and again and
again in so many other roles that should have won him far more than the single
Academy Award he was given. In my mind, for that talent, of making tears and
laughter flow together, should have won him Best Actor every time.
Imagine my shock then at
hearing not only that he now was dead, but that he had likely taken his own
life; that he, arguably the funniest human of all time, whose wild hoots of
laughter were, in themselves, enough to bring audiences to hysterics, had been
battling severe, treatment-resistant depression. But then I remembered that,
among Williams’ unparalleled talents was his ability to imitate others.
“I do voices,” he told the
stern caseworker assigned to him in Mrs. Doubtfire, when she asked him to list
his special skills. He then paraded before her an endless stream of vocal caricatures,
from Porky Pig to Humphrey Bogart. In
short, he was great at pretending to be someone he wasn’t. And at the end of
his life, perhaps his best imitation was pretending to be happy for so many who
saw him, even fooling those closest to him over the depth of his despair.
I have long felt a special
connection with Robin Williams. For one thing, he and I went to the same small
college in Southern California — Claremont Men’s College — though he dropped
out and ultimately enrolled at the Julliard School of the Performing Arts in
New York. Had he stayed at Claremont, he would have been a senior the year I started
there; I have often kidded that I was the reason he left.
Another thing that made me
feel connected to him was his playing the main role in the movie Patch Adams, a
true story about a physician who believed that doctors needed to be more human
than professional with their patients. As a practicing doctor, I always said
the same; pointing out that the word ‘humane’ itself means having or
demonstrating compassion. Patch also believed in using humor with patients —
that laughter is, indeed, the best medicine. In the movie, Patch the medical
student repeatedly wanders into the children’s ward wearing a clown nose. When I was a medical student, I didn’t have a
clown nose. But I did have a black and white pet puppet pig I called Pomona,
who I wore on my hand all through my pediatrics rotation. Even the nurses used
to laugh watching me trying to hold onto charts with a puppet on one hand. I watched
Patch Adams with tears in my eyes the entire time, even while laughing.
Now I find out that Williams
and I have had two other things in common. One was his long-time battles with
addiction. The other was his long-time struggles with depression. From my
perspective, the two often go hand in hand. It was at the height of my own
addiction, back in 2003, that I found myself standing on the rooftop of a
5-storey parking building at 3 o’clock one morning. My car was parked several
blocks away. The only thing that kept me from jumping, ironically enough, was
my fear of heights.
And so it is that I find
myself sitting here in stunned disbelief at the passing of Robin Williams. My
wife has repeatedly told me that my sense of humor is one of the reasons she
married me. She didn’t realize, back then, the demons I had hiding behind it.
Apparently, one of the greatest comedians the world has ever known has had
these demons too.
And now he is gone.
To me, he will be
To me, this is the day the
But the man and the laughter
he brought us should never be forgotten. What the rest of us MUST do is to take
comfort in the legacy he has left us, whether we are watching one of his movies
or reveling in one of the few stand-up shows we can find on YouTube...
And both laugh, and cry, as
Kevin P White