Robin Williams first became famous for playing the sweet-natured, naive alien Mork on the Happy Days spin-off Mork & Mindy. Look up literally any episode of that show—they’re all over YouTube—and within minutes you will see an impossibly young Robin Williams in his colored suspenders doing something impossibly Robin Williams-y.
In almost every scene, there he is, uncorking one of his antic flights of energy and creativity, a torrential outpouring of physical comedy, sound effects, and words. (I love the possibly apocryphal rumor floating around Twitter right now that Mork & Mindy’s writers would leave pages blank but for “Mork does his thing.”) It’s no wonder producer Garry Marshall said of Williams’ audition—in which he stood on his head in a chair—that Williams was the only alien who tried out for the role. Where else could all of that energy come from but outer space?
In the decades since, unfortunately, we got our answers: not just natural genius, but also cocaine, drugs, emotional pain. Performers’ deaths, especially the unnatural ones, often color, at least for a little while, their work. Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” is not a song you could listen to the same way after she drank herself to death. But even before the sad news that Williams hung himself at age there was already a darkness surrounding his performances and his persona, as exciting and entertaining as those performances and that persona often were. It was a darkness that was the flip side of his singular, spectacular comedic mania.
Williams could and did, in various movies, tamp down his quintessential high energy. (His performance in Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar, is a lovely example.) But even more memorable are all the times he wouldn’t, or couldn’t suppress it. Sometimes, as with Good Morning Vietnam or his bravura turn as the Genie in Aladdin, this was to delightful effect. But sometimes—and more often in recent years, I think—it could be to a wearing one. As a late night guest or awards show presenter, as well as in movies like Patch Adams or his recent TV show The Crazy Ones, he would swerve through dozens of impressions and jokes and asides in minutes, a feat of energy sometimes invigorating but also exhausting to behold. If we describe people as being “on,” what word, then, can we use to describe Robin Williams, whose “on” was at least an order of magnitude larger, more palpable than anyone else’s?
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On The Crazy Ones, Williams’ short-lived sitcom co-starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Williams played Simon Williams, a hyperactive, genius ad man whose unreliable, outlandish behavior occasionally endangered his firm. The show relied heavily, perhaps overly so, on Williams’ charisma, which could always take up as much space as a wan group of co-stars would give it.
And yet still, there was a scene in the pilot that almost made the whole series worth it. Williams and his co-star James Wolk try to convince Kelly Clarkson to appear in a fast-food commercial for them. Despite being one of the most egregious examples of product placement yet to appear on television, the scene is undeniably great: Williams and Wolk joyfully riffing on each other, Wolk and Clarkson clearly delighted to be goofing around with Williams at all.
At his best, and also at his worst, there was something uncontrollable about Williams. Even perfectly in control of his body, of his impersonations, of his timing, he seemed powerless—or scared—to stop being a fount of funny, to turn it off. His non-stop energy often had a childlike quality to it—Peter Pan in Hook; an overgrown boy in Jack; even Mork, who like all Orkans aged backward—but also something more substantial, more dangerous, and more unhinged. He was never an alien, he was always a man, coping with his demons by being one of the best dervishes there ever was.
Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.