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O Captain! Our Captain! Remembering Robin Williams

By The Pajiba Staff | Guides | August 12, 2014 |

By The Pajiba Staff | Guides | August 12, 2014 |

Everyone has a favorite Robin Williams memory. Everyone. Maybe that’s why the news of his death came like a punch in the gut to so many of us — he was the kind of performer we carried with us. He was omnipresent in popular culture; generations grew up with him. When you think of Robin Williams, you think of a certain movie, or special, or TV appearance, and where you were when you first saw it. This isn’t making his death about ourselves; this is celebrating his life, because his life and his work touched ours. He’ll always be Mork to some; to others, The Genie. Pick a point from the past nearly 40 years, and there’s a Robin Williams role there, marking it, often claiming it. He was a giant, and he’ll never be matched. He’ll always be our captain.

Here, we celebrate:

The first and only time I ever went to Boulder, Colo., the only thing I was interested in was seeing was the Mork & Mindy house. To the consternation of those I was with, I refused to let it go until I had. I don’t really understand my obsession with M&M. I wasn’t really old enough to get it when it first aired (I was 4-8 years old), but I did understand that I was allowed to stay up an extra half hour to watch it every night. Along with the Fonz’s Heeeey!, “Shazbot” and “Nanu Nanu” were the first adult pop-cultural references of my life, and and the Ork handshake was my Vulcan salute. Even if Robin Williams had not become a gigantic star, I’d have continued to follow his career out of loyalty to my those formative memories. And as many terrific movies that he’s made in his career, I’ve never really stopped thinking of him as Mork — a guy from another planet who for a time made ours so much better. Robin Williams isn’t dead. He’s just gone back to Ork. — Dustin Rowles

My first memory of Robin Williams comes from when I was 6. I saw Aladdin in the theater and the part that stuck with me the most (besides my seething jealousy at Jasmine having a pet tiger) was the fast-talking, pop-culture fanatic The Genie. Even if I could only get about one reference out of every 10, I just thought it was so cool to know all those things and people and be able to imitate them at will. But beyond his vast cultural knowledge, there was a warmth to The Genie. Sure, he was all-powerful and beyond time, but he loved Aladdin, and in the end he was willing to sacrifice his own desires so that his friend could be with the woman he loved. I can only hope that now, he feels free.   — Genevieve Burgess

Robin Williams was a chaotic force of nature. I remember staying up late at night, long after my folks had gone to sleep, watching his 1982 HBO special, An Evening with Robin Williams. I was too young to appreciate most of the jokes, or to appreciate that this comedy whirlwind was being fueled by a rampant cocaine addiction, but I knew what I was watching was very, very, incredibly funny. Say goodbye to an hour and a half of your day’s productivity and enjoy what is simply a great comedic show. — Seth Freilich

Jumanji was one of those movies I watched over and over and over again with my brother and sister. It was the first I ever associated with Robin Williams, and it perfectly epitomized what he meant to me back then: An adult with childlike wonder. Plus, there’s all of that emotional baloney, like when Williams as the grown Alan Parrish realized his parents weren’t alive anymore, or when he attempted to channel his hardass father while trying to calm Peter the monkey boy down, but switched to a softer tone. It stuck with me. —Nadia Chaudhury

In the grand tradition of my parents allowing me to watch things that were far above my age range/appropriate content levels, we have some of my fondest memories of Robin Williams: Comic Relief on HBO. I reveled in the quick-fire snap and manic shifts Williams brought to comedy. He was like the Energizer Bunny, if the Energizer Bunny had also done an eight-ball while slamming Surge and Pixi Stix. The joy in Williams’ eyes and the huge grin plastered on his face whenever he did a routine, alone or with partners-in-crime Whoopi and Billy Crystal, made me feel like being a comedian must be the most rewarding job in the world. —Jodi Clager

1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam is one of the weirdly underrated (or rarely remembered) entries in Williams’s career, which is odd considering what a spectacular acting job it is.  Williams, playing Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, delivers a manic, high-energy performance that was both typical of him as an actor, but also perfect for the atmosphere of the film. Yet what makes the performance so impressive is the surprising nuance to be found — his depiction of Cronauer is simultaneously bitterly cynical of the rampant censorship the government was responsible for, while also strangely and endearingly naive in his failure to grasp both the impact of the War on those around him, as well as the critical impact of his own actions. It’s an amazing cast, including Forrest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby, and Robert Wuhl (as well as a terrific collection of Southeast Asian actors). All deliver, but Williams’s charm and enthusiasm and yes, gravitas, became the glue that held the film together. It’s hard to imagine it being made without him. Director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz (working off a pitch from Cronauer himself) created a surprisingly dramatic, unflinching portrayal of life in Vietnam for both the soldiers and the Vietnamese, but it was Williams and his gift for making comedy meaningful and heartfelt that took their efforts and made the film into something far greater than anyone expected. His clashes with the stiff-necked Bruno Kirby were some of the film’s high points, and while I couldn’t find the specific clip that I wanted, this collection of clips perfectly highlights his battles with censorship and the command structure, while also wonderfully showcasing his gifts as an actor and a comedian. — TK

When Robin Williams made a guest appearance on season three of Louie, it was by no means his greatest role, or his funniest, or even necessarily (for many) a deeply memorable one. But it was perfect. While he himself was always a shining beacon of brilliance, Williams’ entire career was a series of great, great hits, and severe misses. However, in the last few years, those hits have been smaller, and farther between, usually buried between a movie co-starring an animal and a Night at the Museum sequel. He’d admitted in interviews that he’d started taking work solely for the money, and it showed. But those eight minutes of Louie, in which he was the opposite of that ever-caricatured Tazmanian devil of maniacal energy, when he was simply the quiet, loving, compassionate man he is known to be, a man who would absolutely take the time to visit a terrible strip club to honor the passing of a man he loathed — those eight minutes were a breath of fresh air. That thoughtful, wistful man, full of love, is the image that lives in my mind. And yes, the soundtrack to that image will forever be Sister Christian. — Vivian Kane

Hook is the first movie I remember seeing in a movie theater. It was me, my aunt, one of my younger brothers, and a bag of food from Burger King, and I spent the first scene absolutely terrified that the presence of the smuggled-in food would get us all yanked out of the theater by behemoth ushers and thrown in jail. I was seven. A few minutes in and all my fears of rotting away in a cell for the rest of my natural life has dissipated, which was no small thing, because as you might have gathered I was a pretty fucking anxious kid. To this day, Hook remains one of my favorite movies. I will punch people to defend its honor. Seeing Peter cradling a dying Rufio still gets to me. The second movie I remember seeing in a theater, incidentally, was Aladdin. My dad bought me Starburst, and I forgot to eat them, because that’s how into the movie I was. (More of my early movie memories involve food than I thought, I guess.) Robin Williams was, forgive the pun, a genius. —Rebecca Pahle

If you were a small child in the early ’80s and had vaguely hippie parents, you watched Faerie Tale Theatre. And if you grew up in my house, you watched Faerie Tale Theatre. All. The. Time.  If you somehow never had the pleasure, I can only explain it by saying they were hourlong performances of fairy tales.  hey were hosted by Shelly Duvall, two episodes featured Michael Richards, and they all were narrated by Vincent Effing Price. The early ’80s were a weird, weird time. Robin Williams’ episode as the eponymous lead in “The Tale of the Frog Prince” was no exception. It’s totally bizarre.  Listen, I know he eventually won an Academy Award and helped organize immensely successful charity shows, but deep down I think Williams was just a weird, funny dude.  Here he’s dressed in a skin tight, green body suit and over-sized frog head while trying to seductively banter with Teri Garr.  But damn it if he doesn’t seem like he’s enjoying the hell out of it.  —Emily Chambers

Though I’ve adored Robin Williams since the moment I met Mork from Ork, laughed like an idiot at his comedy routines, and marveled at the way he’d switch from goofy to deadly serious in the blink of an eye, it was his role in One Hour Photo that really knocked the breath from me and took everyone by surprise. In Seymour Parrish, we saw the dark underbelly Williams hadn’t previously revealed, perhaps an inkling of the darkness the actor couldn’t escape — himself. It’s hard to write anything at all about this man who laid out everything of himself for the world to see … except that one tiny place so quiet and black, it swallowed him whole. Goodbye, sweet man. Rather than dwelling on the darkness, I’ll leave you with this happy memory of Williams goofing around with his mentor, Jonathan Winters. (The silliest bit starts at the 3:58 mark.) — Cindy Davis


There are so many things I want to write about that aren’t on this group’s write-up. Insomnia, The Birdcage, The Fisher King, Awakenings, Moscow on the Hudson, The World According to Garp, Popeye. (Yes yes, I’m old.) But a friend of mine, when told about this post, suggested someone should “choose every late night TV interview he has ever done.” And I totally get where he’s coming from, but I’m going to change that up a little and go, instead, with his 1992 Golden Globes win. It’s funny and touching and frenetic and sweet, just like the man. — SF

This list wouldn’t be complete without talking about this Dead Poets Society. I actually wasn’t in tune with much of Robin’s comedy work but saw him as a fine dramatic actor when the occasion called for it. Of course, even Robin’s most serious moments were infused with a hint of humor. The subject matter of this film grew pretty dark, but there were moments of sheer jubilance — from the “Carpe Diem” to the “What will your verse be?” scenes. Robin’s high school teacher character, John Keating, taught his students that poetry wasn’t simply “cute” but a way to show that “the human race is full of passion.” The most recognizable scenes of this movie revolved around Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain.” The poem was about Abraham Lincoln’s death but also symbolized the ousting of Keating from his teaching position. Now it also symbolizes the loss of a great actor and human being. It is impossible to not get a little bit misty while watching this scene where Ethan Hawke leads the charge of students standing atop their desks in honor of Keating. This quote didn’t trend on Twitter yesterday for nothing. It remains one of Robin’s most iconic moments. - AB

The aching depth of sadness that exists within so many of us is a lead blanket, an impossibly heavy presence endlessly teasing to crush us to the bone. Some wear that sadness, unable to hide it; some cover it with laughter and noise. And that doesn’t make the laughter and noise unreal or untrue. But it’s only part of the story. Where there is noise, the rest of the truth is in the quiet. We always remember Williams as this frenetic force of nature, this ceaseless energy in human form. But in the quiet, he was so much more. A sweet sadness, a soft desperation to please. You can actually see it. You can feel it. He felt it too much. Now he’s gone. So remember the loud. But never forget the quiet. 

“You’ll have bad times. But they’ll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren’t paying attention to.” —Courtney Enlow

For children of divorce, Mrs. Doubtfire was more than a comedy. Part of it was wish-fulfillment, and another part was a peek into the grief that we hoped that our non-custodial parents were feeling on our behalf. When Robin Williams’ character loses custody of his children during the final courtroom scene, there’s a helplessness, and a pain that only a guy with as much joy to give as Robin Williams could project. And it’s that courtroom scene that also displayed the rawness of vulnerability we have seen in the best of Williams’ dramatic works, moments that often felt like peeks through the mania of Robin Williams and into the sad soul of a man who could make us ache with laughter or wistfulness. — DR

What character was more fitting for Robin Williams to portray than Peter Pan? Williams was the eternal Lost Boy, too on-fire for this world, too unwieldy to contain. Steven Spielberg captures in Hook what to me has always felt like a glimpse into Williams — a true capturing of his spirit. It’s easy to let the Peter Banning side of ourselves win; it often does. It’s the side of fear, of clinging to what is easy or giving up when hope seems out of reach. We don’t always get to escape. We don’t always get to become Pan again (and we all start out as Pan). But that side of us is there. It was there in Williams. We saw it, and it was beautiful.

There you are, Robin. — Sarah Carlson