The first time I saw Robin Williams was on 90 Minutes Live with Peter Gzowski, a Canadian late night talk show that aired from 1976 to 1978.
Thirty-five years later, I can still remember the frantic burst of energy that emanated from my television that Friday night. Gzowski grinned as the comic careened through their chat, jumping from joke to joke, impression to impression, including Williams’s take on the world’s most intelligent child. “I find most adults very banal, but I’ll talk to you anyway.”
“Where did you get that character from?” Gzowski asked, “Was it based on anyone?”
“Me, basically. As a kid.”
“Were you brilliant as a child?”
“Yes, and as a young man, too,” replied the impish 27-year-old.
The stand up comedians I had seen on television wore suits and told one-liners. This was stream of consciousness, a wild look at a comedic mind that didn’t work the way I was accustomed to. For six minutes it felt like an alien had taken control of my TV, a life force like I had never seen before.
Appropriately enough, soon afterward he appeared as Mork, the extraterrestrial from Ork, on Happy Days and his career was officially launched.
For the next 35 years Williams was a constant on our screens, big and small. His first starring role in a movie, 1980’s Popeye, was met with critical scorn and a weak box office, but Roger Ebert had praise for the star, calling Williams’ “perpetual squint and lopsided smile” completely convincing.
Moving from strength to strength he embarked on a remarkable run of films, earning the first of three Best Actor Oscar nods for Good Morning, Vietnam and winning an Academy Award for his work as an empathetic therapist in Good Will Hunting. A handful of Golden Globes celebrated his work in Good Morning, Vietnam, The Fisher King and Mrs. Doubtfire.
He leaves a diverse legacy from the laughs of The Birdcage, to the drama of Awakenings,to the chills of One Hour Photo, the seize-the-day uplift of Dead Poets Society and the ad-libbed brilliance of Aladdin. Every decade since that appearance on 90 Minutes Live has given us a memorable Williams performance. He will live, on the screen at least, with three more films scheduled for release this year and next.
Everyone has a favourite Robin Williams character. For me its Parry, the treasure hunter in The Fisher King. It’s a funny, bittersweet performance in a movie that mixes fantasy and reality in equal doses.
“I’m a knight on a special quest,” Parry says, words that could apply to the comedian’s crusade to entertain in weird and wonderful ways.