I remember the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater. It was 1992 at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, CA. The movie was Aladdin. And like many, many children then and all the way up to today, I was absolutely mesmerized by Genie, the phenomenally cosmic wish-granter voiced by the phenomenally comic and kind Robin Williams. After hearing about his unexpected passing, I, again like many others, was completely shocked and devastated. The man who was essentially the face of comedy over the course of my pre-teen years was tragically gone too soon. Like many who have eulogized his death in the last day or so, I began to recall the countless roles he brought to life that kept me laughing and in a state of constant wonder at his brilliance. Bits and pieces of his improvised lines from Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Jumanji began cycling through my head. They brought me back to a simpler time in my life where the zaniness and exuberance of Robin Williams was always welcome. I remember trying to emulate his performances and make people laugh, not because I wanted to be funny or even believed I was, but I just wanted everyone around me to share the sense of absolute astonishment that I had every time Robin Williams would appear onscreen. Eventually, I saw Patch Adams and while the unabashed goodness of his comedy and personality were still very much apparent, it also became clear to me that this man was not just the wild, funny guy with the endless supply of voices and energy. No, he was also very much an actor. And a good one, too.
In the 11th grade in English class, our teacher Mr. Carmen had us watch Dead Poets Society, and lo and behold, here again was the serious actor Robin Williams (although his unique brand of humor was masterfully interwoven into the movie, just with a more subdued touch giving his character- and the film in general- a bit more humanity). Mr. Carmen had us analyze the symbolism of the film as though it were a piece of literature and as a budding transcendentalist, I ate the assignment up. I poured over the movie, inspected every Whitman and Thoreau reference, dissected the cinematography, and generally obsessed over it. This was one of my first experiences when I felt like art made sense to me. But much to the point of the movie that I am thankful for today is that the message of the film was not lost on me. The idea that Mr. Keating bestows on his students to feel art and to live it rather than to judge it based on its “importance” and “perfection” is something that I still think about nearly every day. And this was in large part due to Robin Williams. Every time I watch Dead Poets Society, I feel like I am one of those boarding school students absolutely mesmerized by the man who wanted nothing more than to inspire us all to use our minds, follow our hearts, and set our spirits free. Robin Williams acted as much more than a character on a screen in that movie to me. He articulated and embodied a lifelong aspiration to a seventeen year old kid who needed something to be passionate about. I cannot even imagine the ways my life would be different had this movie and Robin Williams’ performance in it had not so profoundly affected my life. I am almost certain I would not be here writing this today, nor would I be playing music or have any real interest in pursuits of the soul like music and art.
So when I sit here replaying the bold monologue Robin Williams gives as John Keating in Dead Poets Society, a mix of bittersweet poignancy washes over me. But I am comforted to know that though, as Whitman states, “the powerful play goes on” Robin Williams’ verse, his contribution, to my life and to so many others like me who just needed a bit of unrestrained inspiration, was such a powerful one that his memory will never fade.