Robin Wiliams as English teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society
Most everyone has had their say already about the death of Robin Williams. I don’t have anything to add about the man, except to say that he helped to shape, as much as Jack Benny or Groucho Marx, my notion of what comedy meant.
As I am fond of telling my co-critic, Mr. Marks, usually when he looks at me pityingly for making a Star Wars reference, you don’t get to choose your childhood loves. You encounter things in your impressionable youth, and they make indelible marks upon the soul. It’s folly, or at least foolish, to attempt to eradicate those impressions later in life just because you happen to realize how ridiculous Luke Skywalker sounds when he whines about going into town to pick up a couple of power converters. Was Raiders of the Lost Ark a cornball salute to the old cliffhanger serials? Not to a boy who had never seen a cliffhanger serial. It was just pure movie heroism.
Robin Williams falls squarely into that category. I saw him for the first time in 1986 on Saturday Night Live; edgy stuff for a 13-year-old in Upstate New York. Friends at school repeated the saltier bits from 1986’s Live at the Met (we didn’t have HBO). I was gobsmacked by his performance on the soundtrack for 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam (couldn’t see it; rated R). I had never encountered that kind of free-association comedy, the sort that made you feel like the man was struggling to keep up with his own brain. Groucho was quick, but always in control. Williams teetered, and it was thrilling to hear.
Then Dead Poets Society came out in 1989. I was 16, basically the same age as the kids in the film. I wrote poetry. I acted in Shakespeare plays. I was defenseless against the warm appeal of Williams’s off-center English teacher. I didn’t go around shouting “carpe diem,” afterward, but I did watch the movie again and again until I could get some distance from it, make some judgment about the characters and their choices. I’d never had to do that before because I’d never been so completely won over. It’s a remarkable thing for one human being to have such a profound effect on another through a movie screen, and I am grateful for it.