I have a ridiculously spotty memory for childhood. The childhood itself was a great one; I’m just terrible at recalling much of any of it. As my mother will be the first to tell you, I managed to sort of pleasantly drift through most things, all the way up to middle and high school, and trying to recapture specific moments from the time before is like grabbing at water. But I do have a handful of specific, vivid memories, and it occurred to me last night that a really surprising number of them have to do with Robin Williams.
- I remember sitting upstairs at my grandparents’ house, watching Nick at Nite, and always being most excited for Mork & Mindy. I remember the egg, the nanus, and the smell of the off-white carpet in the room.
- I remember going to see Hook in the theatre with my parents, and I remember sitting at Wendy’s with them afterwards as I tried to explain to them why it was great. (They’d been disappointed, mostly in Julia Roberts’ performance.)
- I remember sitting in a friend of the family’s den and watching Fern Gully; it’s my only firm memory of that room and I can’t even really recall whose house it was, but the paneling and the TV and the carpet are there.
- I remember walking out of seeing Aladdin with my parents, and my father explaining voice acting and improvisation to me. I remember feeling…proud, I guess? Of how good Williams was; I already felt like I knew him.
- I remember watching the trailer for Toys with my parents (yes, that trailer). I remember being so excited. I remember watching it, on video, with my parents and grandparents. Man, I loved that movie.
- I remember watching Mrs. Doubtfire with my mom and sister, and all three of us laughing and laughing in the little run-down local movie theatre.
- I remember watching Jack with my grandfather in the theater, and absolutely bawling my eyes out. That scene with the red gummy bears, and even the ending speech, that encapsulates so much of the over-sentimentality and obviousness that people dinged Williams about as an actor. They all made me cry, because his performance felt like what it is to be a kid and not quite get what other people understand and are cynical about. (You guys, Francis Ford Coppola directed that movie. Nothing about that movie makes sense.)
- I remember watching Mel Gibson’s Hamlet*, at my grandmother’s house again. But this was one that she only lived in temporarily, after my grandfather’s death. This is one of only about three memories I have in that place. Mostly I remember Robin Williams and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (?!). (EDIT: it was actually Branagh’s version that we watched. No wonder I didn’t remember much of Mel’s performance.)
- I remember watching What Dreams May Come with my father and having a conversation about suicide, depression and the afterlife afterwards. Also, the scene where his wife destroys the painting he’s inside of.
- I remember seeing Patch Adams with a friend in the theatre and goddammit I cried at that one, too.
- I remember seeing Death to Smoochy and Insomnia with my friends in high school, and shortly afterwards beginning to list Robin Williams as one of my three favorite actors (another one was Philip Seymour Hoffman). I would say Williams’ name last, to play for maximum surprise factor, so that I could explain how versatile he was and seem smarter. Nobody was ever as surprised as I wanted them to be when I brought him up, and nobody really thought I was any cooler.
- I remember lying to people and saying I’d seen Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King, and One Hour Photo, because I felt like I should have because my favorite actor was in them. I still haven’t seen any of them.
According to IMDB, Insomnia was the last new movie of Williams’ that I ever watched. I saw him on TV a few times, and I watched some old films of his on TV, but he and I diverged pretty suddenly and without my really being aware of it until reading the news that he’d died last night. I can recall most things in my life after high school without too much trouble, and Robin Williams isn’t a part of them. But through the entire, foggy haze of my childhood memories, he is a sign-post and a marker of specific memories involving specific people and specific places and specific conversations that stand out in their vividness. He is, probably, one of the largest constants among the things I can recall about being a kid. Which means that in a small, abstract way, Robin Williams helped me experience, move on from, and hang on to my childhood. I don’t imagine that I’m the first or only person to feel that. But I’m grateful.