Even though Williams will be gone from us four years this weekend, his moxie lives on via a closer look below.
- Rubber-faced, manic, comedic genius.
- Zany, wildly-creative improvisor.
- Inspiring, thoughtful lead character.
- Menacing anti-hero.
Not many performers can pull off the range Robin Williams exhibited during his meteroic rise to super-stardom, and he had the accolades to prove it. Over the course of his decades-spanning career, Williams won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, two Emmy Awards, seven Golden Globe Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and four Grammy Awards.
Robin Williams made us laugh, and he made us cry, and he made us feel everything in between. Then, when he took his own life on August 11, 2014, he made us feel one more thing: grief.
“He arrived in our lives as an alien,” said then-President Barack Obama of Williams’ passing, “but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit.”
Williams’ moxie was evident on the screen and stage, but so much more was going on behind the scenes. Here’s a glimpse of what I’ve gathered:
People with moxie make the best friends.
Among Williams’ roster of friends was actor and comedian Billy Crystal. Over the years, they frequently called each other in character, leaving behind a streak of hilarious voice mail messages. As Williams’ health began to decline in the last several months of his life, their conversations were often punctuated by “I love you.” In fact, several friends report the same. Williams freely and warmly expressed his love for those around him.
When long time friend Christopher Reeve was injured in an equestrian accident that left him paralyzed, Williams helped pay his medical bills.
When Williams’ friend Steve Spielberg was making the movie Schindler’s List, Williams called him in character to make him laugh and help ease the stress and heaviness of telling such a profound, powerful story.
Williams extended his care and advocacy to his young coworkers, too. When he saw how passionate Dead Poets Society costar Ethan Hawke was about being a serious actor, he recommended him to his agent. That same agent has guided Hawke throughout a successful career. When child actor Lisa Jakob was expelled from her high school after taking a few months off to work on Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams wrote a letter advocating that she be let back in. While his effort was not successful in getter her back into school, the fact that he spoke up for her left a lasting impression upon the young woman.
The list of friends, coworkers and acquaintances who were on the receiving end of Williams’ generosity is long, certainly much longer than that of his critics or those who had a bad experience with him.
My impression is that Williams was a man who needed deeply to be loved, but gave that love back in even greater measure. If you were his friend, you were blessed, indeed.
Even people with moxie struggle.
At the heart of Williams’ genius as an entertainer was a strong drive to please people.
“His pathos was seeking to entertain and please,” says his son Zak in a new documentary about Williams called Come Inside My Head. “He felt when he wasn’t doing that, he was not succeeding. And he was the most successful man I know.”
Williams was more comfortable on stage than off. On stage, his gifts drew reactions from audiences that gave him feedback that let him know he was succeeding, he was pleasing them, he was loved. Off stage was harder to navigate. Williams craved connection, and perhaps found it more difficult to achieve off stage, out of character.
“I basically started performing for my mother, going, ‘Love me!’ What drives you to perform is the need for that primal connection. When I was little, my mother was funny with me, and I started to be charming and funny for her, and I learned that by being entertaining, you make a connection with another person,” he explained.
Like so many others, Williams turned to alcohol and drugs to help cope with the challenges of life. He recognized those addictions, and worked to battle back against them. Even so, he lost two marriages, a fact that caused him deep pain. He was filled with remorse for not being able to make things work out for the sake of his three children – Zak by his first marriage, Zelda and Cody by his second – who he loved deeply.
It’s stunning to me that a man who was so clearly and wildly talented, a man who was known by so many as a genuine, warm, loving soul would struggle so hard to simply feel at peace with himself. If even someone as great as Williams struggled, what does that mean for the rest of us? I think perhaps it means we should be kinder to one another, more understanding, more appreciative, more present. That’s not going to heal up everyone’s broken places, but it sure can’t hurt, can it?
People with moxie need to be taken care of, too.
In the last two years of his life, Williams began to experience a number of physical and mental symptoms that led to a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The perceived failure of his body and mind was devastating for Williams.
Even so, he continued to perform, taking on any and every role he could find, it seemed, just as he had throughout his career. It was as if he was trying to work his way out of the anxiety and depression that was stalking him, as if he was trying to work his way out of the unwelcome changes happening to his body.
Even though he was surrounded by friends and family who loved him and tried to reach out to him in a number of ways, it seemed like Williams was unable to connect with the right help.
Part of that might have been symptoms of the disease Williams was battling. While he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s before his death, and autopsy afterwards revealed that he actually had Lewy Body Dementia, a different disorder that carries with it a higher risk for depression and suicide.
I feel so deeply for his friends and family. They did the best they could, and even their love was not enough to save Williams.
As aformentioned, Williams left us four years ago this weekend, yet, his moxie does endure!
Perhaps my favorite scene from Williams impressive body of work is that pivotal scene in Dead Poets Society. Williams, playing prep school teacher Mr. Keating, urges his young charges to live in the moment, and live fully.
“Because we’re food for worms, lads! Because we’re only going to experience a limited number of springs, summers, and falls. One day, hard as it is to believe, each and every one of us is going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die!”
He instructs the boys to consider the pictures of students from years past lining the walls around them. The young faces pictured are at odds with the reality that many of these same boys are now long in the grave.
“But, if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you,” says Keating. “Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
I’ve lived every day since I first saw that scene doing just that. May you do the same, too.
How are you living life fully in this very moment?