Tears & laughter: A look back at life & Robin Williams

Posted Tuesday, August 12, 2014 at 11:37 AM Central
Last updated Tuesday, August 12, 2014 at 11:52 AM Central

by John Couture

Because we are food for worms, lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die.

Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You've walked past them many times. I don't think you've really looked at them. They're not that different from you, are they?

Same haircuts, full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable?

Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Carpe. Hear it? Carpe. Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.

- John Keating, Dead Poets Society

I never met Robin Williams, but in many ways he was the father figure that I and so many of my peers craved during our formative years. He was the cool dad, the funny dad, the dad that was always there when we turned on our TV sets or went to the movies. Interestingly, Robin Williams hardly ever played a dad in his many roles and yet it was his failure as a father that is perhaps the role he will be remembered by most.

As Mrs. Doubtfire, he had to take on the attributes of a woman to finally connect with his kids and learn the true meaning of being a father. In the crazy times that we grew up in, it was this level of absurdity that hit home the hardest. As a new father myself, I take far more lessons from Mrs. Doubtfire's book of compassion and loving than I ever do from the father figures of my youth.

So, it is with a heavy heart that we must say goodbye to an American icon. Robin Williams was far from perfect and yet he was perfectly a reflection of our times and our own personal struggles. For my generation, he was one of the Gods of the silver screen. Cary Grant, James Stewart, Marlon Brando and John Wayne he was not - although he did a mighty impressive impersonations of them.

No, Robin Williams laid the groundwork for a new leading man, one that wasn't afraid to bask in the glow of his shortcomings. He paved the way for Tom Hanks who came to define this new image of a leading man, despite only being five years older than him. Somehow, Williams and Hanks never appeared in a film together, how is that even possible?

When I was young, it was Mork & Mindy and then he made his big screen debut as every kid's hero Popeye. A decade later, he was Peter Pan and in between, he tried on many different flavors both comedic and serious, and heck even a Russian musician seeking asylum at the height of the Cold War. He was quickly establishing himself as the go-to guy for "fish-out-of-water" manic comic roles, but it was a different sort of role that really caught my attention at this time.

It was 1987. I was on the cusp of my teen years and I had no recollection or understanding of what Vietnam was, but Robin Williams was able to sum it all up in just over two hours.

Good Morning, Vietnam is not a film that a 12-year-old should probably watch, but I was instantly enthralled with Robin's manic side. I was also introduced to the serious side and the ramifications of war and by extension censorship. Looking back, this film probably played as big of a role in defining who I would become as anything else. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the true power of film.

Good Morning, Vietnam is also the first film in which Robin Williams was able to catch the Academy's eye and he was rewarded with a well-deserved Oscar nomination. I remember that this was also the first (and far from the last) time that I felt disappointment in the results of the Academy Awards.

At 15, it was as though Dead Poets Society was written just for me. I remember calling one of my English teachers "Oh Captain, my Captain" out of respect both for the film and his ability to make honors English just a tad bit less boring than it needed to be.

I didn't understand The Fisher King at 17, but I came to appreciate it greatly later on. My still child-like sense of awe took Toys at face value and wasn't able to understand how many elements from the film rang true in Robin's own upbringing. I mean, I knew that he was a fellow Detroit boy and perhaps that's what initially drew my parents to him.

Following Toys, Robin Williams transformed his career into a family-friendly hit machine that included such films as Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Jack, Flubber and Patch Adams. In these films, he was able to showcase his trademark comedy and make audiences both young and old laugh out loud before we even know what LOL meant.

Everything changed in 1997. A couple of Boston kids and that that dude from Clerks presented Robin Williams with the role of a lifetime.

And with Good Will Hunting came the Oscar glory that had eluded Robin until then. After this role, Robin Williams finished his career with his most eclectic choices in roles that he ever had. He went from the ethereal in What Dreams May Come to the more grounded role in Happy Feet. He played presidents (Night at the Museum, Lee Daniels' The Butler) and a man who skewered politicians.

He was good more often than bad, but his performances as the baddie in One Hour Photo and Insomnia are a couple of my favorite 61{Robin Williams roles.

Ultimately, he was always drawn back to his comedic nature and these films will come to define his legacy. I never knew the man personally, but he never missed an opportunity to make us laugh. His departure from this world will always elicit tears, but all we have to do is throw in one of his films and we'll be laughing in no time.

Good bye, Robin. You didn't know me, but you touched my life and many millions like me every day. Your loss is real and will linger with us for a long time. I only hope that you have finally found the peace and laughter that you bestowed upon us with your full life.