The Arty Semite

Growing Up Orthodox With Robin Williams

By Tova Ross

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School was out on that wintry day around Thanksgiving of 1993, and my mother was charged with taking care of me, my siblings, and my best friend of that particular week. It was too cold to play outdoors, so my mother, car-less for the day, schlepped all of us on the B44 city bus to the Sheepshead Bay movie theatre to see some animated film. Only when we got to the theatre, it was sold out. The only other appropriate movie for the range of children my mother had assembled was something called “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

“PG-13?” my mother said doubtfully, and then sighed. “Oh well, we’re here already.”

You can guess what happened next. For those two hours I sat riveted with my eyes glued to the screen as a crazy, hysterical and frenetic man-child — Robin Williams — took nary a pause in a string of Victor-Victoria antics that left the entire audience in breathless laughter. Even when I wasn’t in on the joke — and I frequently wasn’t, at only 7.5 years old — I knew this actor was hilarious as sure as I knew the sky was blue. He also sounded vaguely familiar. “He sounds like the Genie from ‘Aladdin,’” my brother whispered suspiciously to me.

Whoever he was, I fell instantly in love with him. A budding young cinephile who had to use subterfuge to get my fix in a household where television and movies were strictly regulated, I had never seen someone onscreen come so vibrantly, wonderfully alive, or display such hyper-kinetic and fast-paced energy. That the film also offered me my first taste of more salacious jokes and themes that were absent in my diet of Disney and black-and-white classic films was an added bonus.

When we returned home that evening, my father was none too pleased with what we had seen, but it was too late: I had discovered an American icon, and I hungered for more. A devoted Robin Williams fan was born that day.

I’ve often scoffed at people who outwardly mourn celebrity deaths. “You didn’t know them!” I’d grumble, rolling my eyes at their overwrought tweets and Facebook statuses. “You liked a character they played onscreen!” But Robin Williams, for all his roles and stand-up routines and talk show appearances, appeared to be the real thing: a genuinely funny person with a matchless wit, unparalleled comedic timing and a seemingly sincere sense of gratitude who never wavered from that persona. Even his acceptance speech at the1998 Academy Awards — a ceremony which I taped and watched dozens of times since my father indulged my cinematic enthusiasm enough to at least let me watch the big awards shows — looked to be off-the-cuff, and yet stood out as the most genuinely moving and funny speech of the night.

And maybe his death has touched so many of us so deeply because Robin Williams was a constant for us throughout a whole lot of years. Few others actors, if any, starred in so many culturally significant movies that dotted both our childhoods and our adulthoods. He excelled at entertaining us in our youth — “Aladdin,” “Hook,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Jumanji” — and then inspiring us to think, long after the closing credits rolled, as we got older and could appreciate his more mature roles — “The World According to Garp,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “The Fisher King,” “Dead Poet’s Society,” “Good Will Hunting” and “What Dreams May Come.” He also shocked and scared us with effective turns in “Death to Smoochy” and “One Hour Photo.”

What other actor had such tremendous range and could so brilliantly transcend all genres and age-appropriate ratings? Not every one of his movies was a critical or commercial success — in fact, in his later years, most of them weren’t — but no one could deny that he was a genuine genius at his craft, a deeply gifted actor and comedian in a sea of two-bit hacks and sullen adolescents playacting at being vampires.

And now that those of us who fell in love with him early on are grownups, we realize this truth even more: mental illness can touch anyone. Despite living a life where he never looked anything but joyful to those of us watching, and despite possessing a gift where he transmitted that glee and joie de vivre to so many, Williams’s sadness stemmed from clinical conditions of depression and addiction, chemical circumstances which cannot be easily surmounted whether you’re a mere mortal or movie star. You can’t really act your way out of that — even if you’re one of the most consummately gifted actors who ever graced the screen and who gave so many people the gift of genuine laughter.


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