I just returned from an evening walk along the soon-to-be-completed Buffalo Bayou Park trail system, which is going to be a great addition to Houston’s urban landscape. It was during one of those spectacular Southeast Texas sunsets when the golden sun turns the not-quite-heavy clouds an amazing array of colors.
Along the way, I happened to cross paths with an acquaintance running with a friend in the opposite direction. I didn’t recognize her until she waved and smiled just as she passed. And out of nowhere, I thought of a lyric from Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
More specifically, I thought of the music video version of the song that accompanied the 1988 release of the film Good Morning, Vietnam, starring, of course, the great Robin Williams.
I hadn’t planned to write about Robin since news of his suicide broke two days ago, beyond a couple of Facebook posts. But at some critical points in my life, his work had been a great inspiration to me.
I just about literally grew up with Robin. His TV show Mork & Mindy premiered when I was in seventh grade, and I was immediately hooked. I’d never seen anything like him, certainly not on 1970s network television. I even had a pair of the character’s trademark rainbow-colored suspenders, which I learned wasn’t that popular in middle school — if he was Mork from Ork, I was just a dork.
One of William’s co-stars on the show was the actress Gina Hecht. As it happened, her brother worked for Alief ISD, in information technology or something, and he was teaching my gifted-and-talented class (don’t ask how I got in) the computer language BASIC. (If only I had gone in that direction instead of journalism.) During a visit from Los Angeles, Gina talked to our class in the school library. I remember one of my friends asking her about “Mr. Williams,” and her laughing reaction to the formality.
[UPDATE: Since I first posted this, that friend contacted me via Twitter — we had lost contact for nearly three decades. She reminded me that Gina told how during one taping of the show, Williams was behind a set door. When the door opened, the cast but not the studio audience could see that he was stark naked.]
I fell away from Mork & Mindy in high school. His films were kind of hit-and-miss (for every sublime The World According to Garp there was an overproduced Popeye) until Good Morning, Vietnam, released shortly before I left college to join the U.S. Navy — a decision that had no small bit of trepidation. In the movie, Williams plays a U.S. Air Force deejay working for Armed Forces Radio. I was going to be a Navy journalist.
After boot camp, I went to the Defense Information School, then based at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, Indiana. During one long weekend, a couple of friends and I made a quick trek to Chicago. I have a distinct memory of playing “What a Wonderful World” on a bar jukebox there.
During my first deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, the glorious, haunting Dead Poets Society was released. I didn’t see it until it came out later on video, but for a young sailor who spent much of his time at sea in the ship’s library, Williams’ heroic performance as a teacher devoted to literature and breaking with conformity spoke volumes.
As in Dead Poets Society, most of Robin’s best performances, while often wildly funny, tapped into a deeper sense of pain and loss — including that of the widowed history professor (again, a teacher) turned unbalanced leader of the homeless in The Fisher King — which came out shortly before I left the Navy.
There were many other fine performances in some very good movies (Awakenings, Aladdin, Good Will Hunting, The Birdcage). He had a couple of chilling turns as villains (Insomnia, One Hour Photo) that still showed the vulnerability beneath.
But I’ll admit that I skipped much of Robin’s later output, in which he made a few too many saccharine comedies. Since his death, I’ve read an interview from 2010 for the release of World’s Greatest Dad, which went completely under my radar and apparently was a return to form.
In that interview in The Guardian, Robin is remarkably candid about his flaws and his continuing struggle with addiction and the pain it caused him and his family. One can’t read that article and not see that while to most of us his suicide was a complete shock, it wasn’t really out of the blue.
I don’t know what caused Robin to kill himself. Probably no one ever will. But he had been an artistic hero to mine for much of my life. I’ve come across some very vile statements about what he did, from many of the usual suspects in the media and at least one person in my social media circles (well, until now). To the people who put out that kind of tripe: shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about.
Sometimes, no matter how hard it tries to convince you otherwise, it really can be a wonderful world. In his darkest night of the soul, I wish Robin could have remembered that.
Copyright © 2014 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.