It would take far more than an hour to capture the totality of Robin Williams and his influence on the world, but the PBS tribute Robin Williams Remembered – A Pioneers of Television Special made a sincere and heartfelt effort at encompassing his life in 60 minutes.
Though some might consider it a bit saccharine, the special brought out the star power to honor the late comedian and actor. We heard remembrances from names like Whoopi Goldberg, Henry Winkler, Jimmie Walker (of Good Times fame), Louie Anderson, and Yakov Smirnoff, just to name a few. There were also clips of an interview with Robin himself.
And, of course we, heard from Williams’ “Mork & Mindy” partner Pam Dawber, who gave us a glimpse of her memories about her beloved former co-star.
Viewers were taken all the way back to Williams’ youth, and were told that he often played alone in the attic of his childhood home with only his gigantic imagination for company. Then the special jumped to his discovery of a talent for performing on high school and college stages. Though he had plans to pursue political science, Robin decided that acting was his destiny. Whether it was luck or fate, he won a scholarship to Julliard, where he was classmates with Christopher Reeve.
When he returned to California to chase the acting dream, it wasn’t long before his comedic gifts rose to the surface. Robin decided to try his hand at improv, and it was the moment that set him on the path to becoming one of the world’s most famous funny-men. It wasn’t long before Williams unleashed his trademark frenetic style on unsuspecting audiences.
“I remember him taking a purse and literally doing 15 or 20 minutes on what was in the purse,” said Pauly Shore.
“He was ball lighting, and he was an author, director, and actor at the speed of light,” said another fellow comedian, Rick Overton.
Robin also mused on the fickleness of stand-up comedy.
“When it works, there’s nothing better, and when it doesn’t work, there’s nothing worse. Hence the metaphors ‘you either kill or die.'”
Williams was eventually discovered by producer George Schlatter, and was cast in a doomed attempt to revive the sketch comedy show Laugh-In As reported by Variety, there’s an especially poignant moment in the special when we see a Laugh-In scene between Robin and Joan Rivers, another comedy legend that we lost in the last few months.
Then there came an audition for the part of a certain alien on Happy Days
Henry Winkler said, “We just started rehearsing like normal. And then Robin Williams opened his mind and his mouth. And I’m telling you, you forgot where you were.”
The episode did so well that it gave birth to Mork & Mindy.
About her time with Williams on the show, Pam Dawber said, “I start watching Robin, and all of a sudden I realized that I am the luckiest girl in the world… it was just a certain magic time, and we were in it together.”
Before the first episode even aired, the media predicted Mork & Mindy would flop. But the rest was history after audiences heard that first “nanu nanu.”
When Mork & Mindy was cancelled after four years, Williams turned to comedy again in near desperation, hoping that his short career hadn’t already burned out. That’s when he landed his first big HBO special.
“Well, why wouldn’t Robin come back to stand up. He had to come back to stand-up. When you’re the world’s greatest stand-up, you come back to stand-up,” said Louis Anderson.
But Williams didn’t consider stand-up to be his true destiny. He wanted to act. And he got his chance with a role that really showed his emotional range in The World According to Garp. After that came memorable turns in films like Good Morning, Vietnam and Awakenings and his eventual Academy Award nominations for The Fisher King and Dead Poet’s Society. He finally won that award in 1998 with Good Will Hunting.
It was only after more serious roles that he felt safe enough to accept comedic roles in movies like Mrs. Doubtfire. It was his renewed openness to experimentation that saw Williams become one of the first major stars to voice an animated character, as the Genie in Aladdin.
The special concluded with an exploration of how dedicated Robin Williams was to giving back. He teamed with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal in 1986 to create the Comic Relief charity specials. In more recent years, he was eternally making the rounds to entertain soldiers via the USO, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Louis Anderson had this to say about the late Robin Williams.
“As much as he had and as much as he was willing to give, and as much as he made people happy, he had to deal with an equal amount that was difficult. And I think what he did so gallantly, and unfortunately unsuccessfully in the end, is he was able to keep that darkness at bay as long as he could…I think he’ll be remembered as a gentle soul that travelled at the speed of light.”
Pam Dawber lamented, “If only he understood what happened to the world when he decided to leave. The whole world was in mourning.”
Indeed, it is perhaps the greatest tragedy surrounding Robin William’s death that a man who could give so much happiness to others often struggled to find it for himself. That’s probably what drew him to pursue so many inspirational roles during his career.
Did you watch Robin Williams Remembered on PBS? If so, do you think it was a fitting tribute?