Death, as Hamlet tells us, is endless silence. But it is also noise: the sounds of mourning, of a casket lowered into the ground, or—if the dead happened to be famous—of constant keyboard clatter. An actor dies and within hours eulogies fly in from all corners of the country, from Twitter effusions to highly wrought magazine elegies. Depending on your sensibilities, this media spectacle is either heartening or grimly predictable. “The words of a dead man,” Auden wrote upon the death of Yeats, “are modified in the guts of the living.” Death’s disarming vacancies are filled by the doings of the survivors. But, in the recent case of Robin Williams, the frenzied reaction seems oddly appropriate. After all, was there ever a comedian who tried harder to outstrip and outshout despair by sheer volubility?
Williams will be remembered for his hyperactive mind and even faster delivery. For the brilliance of his stand-up improvisations and impressions. For the abundant laughter and pleasure he gave, and for his do-anything, say-anything verve. The blusterer’s banter was never simply about stifling vulnerability. It was a transmutation of it: his mad, manic act drew its energy from an inner turmoil and anxiety. This is what imbued his performances with their particular poignancy.
Williams will also be remembered for the surprising delicacy—especially for those who knew him through his comedy, or as Aladdin’s impetuous Genie—of his acting. He was a courageous performer, relishing the opportunity to play against type. He won an Oscar for his role in Good Will Hunting, and gave a characteristically cri du cœur acceptance speech. Many people still cherish this movie, despite its sometimes grating air of precociousness. Matt Damon’s boy genius may not hold up to time or scrutiny, but Williams’s grizzled, beleaguered shrink and widower somehow remains the real thing. The wearied eyes, the crumpled posture, the arresting voice. The old Julliard hand was brought to life.
Like many in my generation, I first became fully aware of Williams’s mesmeric talent in Mrs. Doubtfire, in which he played a recently divorced dad who, desperate to see his children, decides to impersonate their British nanny. The film was a huge hit: there was the brilliance of its crazed conceit, and the strained though earnest treatment of the topic of divorce (still touchy in early-Nineties America). There was also, of course, Williams’s makeup and dress and accent. But behind it all was the desperate anger of his divorcé, the palpable anguish of the disinherited father. You can see it in the film’s closing scene, where Williams and his ex-wife (played by Sally Field) reunite as a still-aggrieved couple, willing only to begin to forgive. No comedy of remarriage, this.
That movie and scene seem tragically telling in the wake of Williams’s suicide. Underneath the clowning was the depression, lying in wait. His death, like that of the equally beloved Philip Seymour Hoffman (his costar in Patch Adams), suggests a contagion of despair, a vulnerable strain that informs great talent but can also make it precarious.
Williams remained memorable until the end. There was, for example, his cameo turn in a recent season of Louie. The two comedians play men who meet at the funeral of a club promoter both knew but neither liked. They trade stories of the dead man’s infamy at a diner and then repair to a strip joint—a favorite of the deceased. Williams is ashen-faced, nearly mute, yet undeniably present throughout. The strippers approach the two men repeatedly, but they politely decline. They are here for the dead. “Who died?” one girl asks. Williams echoes his name. The dancing suddenly stops. The club gathers, Aeschylean in its collective grief.