I was a weird kid - pale and pudgy, wearing sweatsuits of various colors (thanks mom), always making strange noises and talking to myself in the mirror, both by myself and in the company of my action figures.
During these - lets call them “formative years” - I was sitting in Keyboarding class (that was a thing), typing something about the sly brown fox and in leaned a fellow seventh grader who took a deep sniff of my purple sweatshirt and goes, way too audibly, “You smell like pepper!” Every kid within earshot laughed, of course. Looking back, I laugh at what a weird combination of things I was: a peppery, pimpled pudge in purple. At the time, I shrugged off this virtually innocent comment, pretending not to be embarrassed as my round face went from white to red. At the time, I marched to the beat of my own drum and I was made fun of for it; bullied by guys like Rory Cash and Dan Ford and some kid named Ernie who didn’t seem to appreciate my weird jokes, funny voices, odd sounds and impromptu character work. At the time, I just let it go. I didn’t know how to respond to such a moment, defensively or otherwise.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I discovered my role model, Robin Williams, but I have a hunch it was the one-two punch of Hook, then Mrs. Doubtfire a couple years after that. I had never seen an adult act like a kid - not since Tom Hanks in Big, anyway (and I adored Tom Hanks for a whole bunch of other reasons, but THIS was different). Robin was joy embodied; a mischievous, but sensitive superhuman with a dab of anti-authority. Between those two films I stopped, re-watched and sort of went well, THAT is what I want to do! Once adolescence hit, shit really shifted gears.
In junior high, not long after the “pepper” comment, I bonded with my mom over a last minute trip to see The Birdcage at the Hudson Valley Mall. I really liked the Mike Nichols flick (though I distinctly remember asking my mom to explain “palimony” and, really all of the park bench scene). Most of all, I remember being impressed that the man who played Peter in Hook, who was also the man who jumped around, jumped up jumped up and got down, Daniel Hillard, could also turn on the stillness (this word didn’t exist in my vocabulary but I knew what it meant) and tune the piano to play an entirely different acting note. The combination of the aforementioned with consistent, obsessive viewings of Live at the Roxy and listenings of Live at the Met are what solidified it: Robin Williams is my role model!
This was 1996, and I began to appreciate Robin for being more than a funny actor. He could do drama, comedy, cartoons, even LIVE one-man shows. My interest in this multi-talented man transitioned from intrigue to super fandom. I ordered a copy of Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come after losing my MIND seeing that trailer (on a side note, I’ll never forget shouting the title upstairs to my mom only for her to respond, “Wet Dreams and Cum?!” and I go “NO! WHAT. DREAMS. MAY. COME! Jesus!” She responds, “Ohhh..”). Opening day, I was first in line at the Orpheum Theatre in Saugerties, NY to see my comedic role model try his hand at a dramatic, romantic fantasy and regardless of what the critics thought, I loved every second of it.
In 9th grade, I read Andy Dougan’s biography of Robin front to back in less than 2 days. I saw myself in this man and this man in myself. I identified with Robin as a self conscious teenager, armed not with looks but with funny voices and a sense of humor. I saw this stout, hairy guy as confident, as handsome, as charming, scary, deeply emotional. This funny guy has many sides to him - sounds kind of like me! - and I took immense pride in what I thought (read) we had in common. I even dressed like Patch Adams for the better part of freshman year, down to the cargo pants and Hawaiian shirts. I wore rings like he did. I made the ::elephant sound:: and went Down Simba! all. the. time. Like him, I was a mediocre student but kind and deeply sensitive. Our moms even shared a religion. I didn’t know much about Christian Science beyond the fact that mom liked to read the lessons every month, she did take mediation and there existed in my town a Christian Science reading room, whatever that is. But I did know that he jokingly referred to his mother as a “Christian Dior Scientist.” I sent him fan mail and received a signed photograph from Dead Poets Society. I even gave my girlfriend the Pablo Neruda poem he recites in Patch Adams. “I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz, or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off. I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul…”
Of course, every time Comedy Central would air his live specials, I would watch, only to go to school the next day and recite lines in my best Robin impression, which became my favorite to do (later, my other hero Phil Hoffman would join the repertoire until his own tragic demise.. what the fuck?). Anyway, at school, since I didn’t make friends by tossing the football around or get girls by leaning against the locker and doing Jason Priestly eyebrows, I’d say things like “The moon, like a testicle, hangs low in the sky!” and (also in reference to my dick!) “It’s kind of like an anaconda pressed up against a plate glass window, going ::help::” I made kids laugh and made friends and heard a rumor so-and-so liked me. I was self conscious about the early appearance of body hair on my arms, back and pits til kids started to compare me to Robin Williams which, I of course, took as a compliment. As a kid who struggled with weight, to hear this successful, multi-talented superhuman make jokes like, in reference to him being born: God was like, ‘what the heck, give him tits.’ I dropped my shoulders and thought to myself, Okay, it’s fine! He’s killing it, I can kill it it too! With tits!
For my 15th birthday, I got VHS copies of Good Will Hunting and The World According To Garp, which I watched probably 50 times because I was angsty and in love and I so identified with the romantic, manic mama’s boy, Garp. This was around when I started to get a jawline and grow a pair. I remember not long after, a bully approached my lunch table while sitting with the “not popular kids” and started ripping into me about my shitty haircut. Several fantasies of witty retaliation came to mind. I thought of John Leguizamo impersonating the less savory people in his life, about how cathartic that must me. I thought of the scene in Roxanne when Steve Martin gave it to the asshole in the bar for making fun of his nose. But what stuck was the image of Robin. I thought of Live at the Roxy. I thought Live at the Met. I thought Carpe Diem and I gave it right back to the kid, confidently making fun, not maliciously (Robin doesn’t go for the throat, he goes for the balls!). I jabbed the bully with a joke about his hair and a reference to Dennis Rodman (luckily Double Team just came out and everyone got the reference). Preparing myself to get punched in my oily face, the kid turned and walked the other way, speechless, as my friends laughed. Robin was the first to arm me with humor, and for that I am forever and ever grateful.
In 2002, less than a year into an acting program I was attending in NYC, I spent $120 I didn’t have on a front row seat to Robin’s one man show at BAM. I don’t remember laughing as much as I do just watching my hero on stage, in the flesh, moving and joking at the speed of light. I was just fucking enthralled. He had the whole room in the palm of his hand, from the Orthodox Jews to the young girls to the elderly New Yawkers. Everyone was dying. In the last moments of the show - this was just under a year after 9/11, Robin bows, exits the stage, and returns wearing an FDNY sweatshirt. He shook everyone’s hand in the front row, including mine. I went on to describe to everyone and their mother that shaking his hand felt like this (*cue me, grabbing your hand and tugging at my arm hair* His hand had this much hair on it!). When the lights came up, Bob Marley’s “One Love” came on as if we fans couldn’t leave the theatre happy enough. I put that song on my iPod that night and listened to it again and again.
I’m sitting here, sad out of my mind not just because the world lost a great actor, but because from thousands of miles and movies away, Robin taught me confidence and that it’s okay to be myself. He taught me to be generous and not to take shit too seriously. I looked up to Robin, as did my parents, as did my Italian Nana, as did my baby cousin, Dan - as did all of us - and now he’s gone. I’m heartbroken not just because he was my role model - he was my Hero.
Robin, thank you for helping me find confidence, for reassuring all of us to do no less than put it all out on the table - to be unafraid.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride.