On Monday, August 11, 2014, shortly before noon, comedian and actor, Robin Williams, was found by EMT’s – unconscious and not breathing – at his home in Tiburon, California. Several minutes later, the sixty-three year old, who had imparted so much joy to the world over the years, was pronounced dead. According to the Marin County Sheriff’s Department, he had tragically ended his own life by suicide from asphyxia. A short time later, William’s publicist, Mara Buxbaum, stated that the performer had been battling severe depression.
Robin McLaurin Williams was born on July 21, 1951 in Chicago Illinois, and raised in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, before moving with his family to San Francisco when he was sixteen. There are many different career paths Williams could’ve chosen. For instance, he could have decided to enter politics like his great grandfather, Anselm J. McLaurin, who was both a former Governor of, as well as United States Senator from, the State of Mississippi. Williams did briefly entertain the thought of making politics his life’s work. He studied political science at Claremont Men’s College, but in the end, thankfully, entertaining the masses had a more magnetic pull on him, so he enrolled in the College of Marin to study theater. A short while later, he won a scholarship to attend Julliard in New York City.
While at Julliard, Williams studied under, Academy Award and Golden Globe winning actor, John Houseman (Three Days of the Condor). The veteran actor informed Williams that he was wasting his time, and should immediately set out to make a name for himself in stand-up comedy. Before graduating, Williams left Julliard and moved back home to San Francisco, where he worked a series of dead end jobs, while waiting for his big break.
After performing in various nightclubs, such as “The Improv” and “The Comedy Store,” he eventually got to audition for producer, Garry Marshall (Laverne & Shirley). Marshall hired him for a guest appearance on the television show “Happy Days,” as the character of ‘Mork from Ork, in the 1978 episode “My Favorite Orkan.” The popularity of the character, an eccentric alien, who travels to earth to study both the planet and human beings, led Williams to co-star with Pam Dawber (My Sister Sam), in the show “Mork & Mindy,” which ran on ABC television from 1978-1982. (As an aside, in addition to “Happy Days,” and “Mork & Mindy,” Williams played the character of Mork in the pilot episode of the short lived television show “Out of the Blue.”)
According to IMDB, Williams compiled one hundred and four acting credits during the course of his career, garnering four Academy Award nominations, and one Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for “Good Will Hunting.” In addition, he won the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 2005 Golden Globes. Prior to that, he had won an impressive five Golden Globes: for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion -Picture Comedy / Musical for “Mrs. Doubtfire;” a special Award for the vocal work he did as the Genie in the animated Disney film “Aladdin;” Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy / Musical for “The Fisher King;” Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy / Musical for “Good Morning, Vietnam,” and Best TV Actor – Musical / Comedy for Mork & Mindy (1980). Williams was also the recipient of two Primetime Emmys in 1987 for “Carol, Carl, Whoopi and Robin,” and in 1988 for “ABC Presents: A Royal Gala.”
“Dead Poets Society,” one of my favorite films starring Robin Williams, was directed by BAFTA winner, Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). The film was written by Tom Schulman, who would win the Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Originally premiering in Canada on June 2, 1989, the film was a box office success; budgeted for well under twenty million dollars, it would go on to earn close to one-hundred million. The movie which is 128 minutes in length, won two BAFTA’S for Best Film and Best Original Score.
The year 1959. The setting, Vermont. It is the start of a new school year at the exclusive, Welton Academy, a male preparatory school. A small group of students enter an assembly hall, carrying banners that extol the four pillars of the school – tradition, honor, discipline and excellence – words which the entire student body will stand in unison and recite a moment later. Amongst the faculty, most of whom come off as very stern and serious, there is one teacher that seems out of place.
Intelligent, quick witted, English teacher, John Keating (Williams) has passion when it comes to poetry, but he has an even greater love for life. He believes in seizing the day, something which he often entertainingly imparts to his students, most of whom are enthralled with his teaching methods. In fact, he starts his very first class, by having the students leave the room and follow him out into the hallway. “O Captain! My Captain!” Keating says aloud, and then asks the students if any of them knows where that line comes from? None of them answer, so Keating informs them that it is a poem by Walt Whitman about President Abraham Lincoln. He lets his students know, that in his class, they can call him Mr. Keating, or if they are more daring, O Captain! My captain!
While out in the hallway, where photos of previous graduating classes are located, Keating asks his students to look at the pictures. He wants them to see how the men in the photos are not that much different than themselves. He wants his students to realize that just like them, those young men thought they were invincible. They were boys, who at the time had their whole lives ahead of them to make a difference in the world, but that sadly, each and every one of them, is now six feet under. Keating asks his class: Did those former students achieve what they wanted to in life? Will they, his current students, live by the Latin adage ‘Carpe Diem,’ and seize the day, or as one of Keating’s favorite poets, Henry David Thoreau writes in regard to most men, “will they lead lives of quiet desperation.”
The film mainly focuses on four key students, who take Mr. Keating’s lessons to heart. Robert Sean Leonard (House M.D.) portrays Neil Perry. He is an overachiever, who secretly yearns to be an actor, but whose father, played by Kurtwood Smith (That ’70s Show), wants to hear none of it. Mr. Perry has a single minded purpose for Neil, which includes his son graduating from Welton, going to Harvard, and becoming a doctor. After Neil earns his medical degree, he can do whatever he wishes with his time, but as he lets Neil know, he has made far too many sacrifices for his son to fall short of achieving the goal; besides, he reminds Neil how much the young man’s becoming a doctor means to the boy’s mother. In the role of Todd Anderson is three time Oscar nominee, Ethan Hawke (Training Day). He is a new student to Welton, and his character is that of an introvert, at least at the start. There is the romantic, Knox Overstreet, played by Emmy nominated actor, Josh Charles (The Good Wife), who falls in love at first sight with Alexandra Power’s character of Chris, who is the girlfriend of the school jock. Lastly, Gale Hansen’s (The Finest Hour) Charlie Dalton is the troublemaker of the class.
After the first class, Keating has most definitely peaked his students’ curiosity. Knowing that he is an alumnus of the school, they find his class yearbook. After having a chuckle at his picture, their curiosity is further piqued by something that is written under his photo. It is about him being a member of a club known as ‘The Dead Poets Society.’ When the students confront Keating about the club, he lets them know that the ‘Dead Poets’ were dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life. The group would meet at an old Indian cave, located on the school grounds, and take turns reading poets such as Thoreau, Shelly and Whitman. The members of the club considered themselves romantics, and they didn’t just read poetry, they breathed a passion into the words they recited. Part of what Williams’ character tries to teach his students, is that they have to break free from conformity and what is expected of them, in order to embrace their inner passion. In essence, they must find their inner voice, so it will let each one of them know what will make their individual lives worth living. He stresses that maintaining one’s own beliefs is not easy, but they must each trust in themselves that they are making the right choices. It doesn’t matter if what they want to do is unpopular, or viewed as odd, just because it defies everything that the rigidness of conformity represents.
A book is left on Neil’s desk called “Five Centuries of Verse.” When Neil opens the book, he sees Mr. Keating’s name in the top right hand corner; underneath is a hand written message that reads: To Be Read At The Opening of DPS Meetings. The traditional message that opens all club meetings is a message from Thoreau. That night, under the cover of darkness, a select group of students sneak off through the woods to the cave. While there, they take turns reading and telling stories. Unfortunately, one of the members of the newly formed ‘Dead Poets’ puts an article about their activities in the school newspaper. The article, coupled with the tragic suicide of one of Welton’s most promising students, has the administration in an uproar. In order to get to the bottom of things, the powers that be, are not above, not only using threats, but the vile method of corporal punishment that was both permitted and quite acceptable during the time period in which the film takes place.
What will happen to the members of the ‘Dead Poets Society,’ now that one of their own is dead? Will Mr. Keating ultimately be held responsible for the young man’s death? Do his teaching methods conflict too much with the way things have always been done at Welton? Does he get fired because of it? I know the movie is far from new, and a great many of you out there who are reading this already know the answers to those questions. For the benefit of those, who have yet to discover this gem of Robin Williams’ career, I will refrain from providing the answers to those questions.
The personal information I provided on Robin Williams was meant just to provide some basic background on the extraordinarily talented individual that he was. Had I discussed, at length, any number of the other worthy films he performed in, his work on behalf of the homeless, comedic stage performances, or mentioned numerous other facts, such as that he spoke French fluently, this blog would have had to have become a series, instead of a single entry. Williams, who was married three times, is survived by a daughter, Zelda and two sons, Zachary and Cody. Additionally, he is survived by his half-brother, Todd Williams. May he rest in peace. In closing, I am including the full Walt Whitman poem “O Captain! My Captain!” as a tribute to this very talented genius, at this very sad time.
O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up–for you the flag is flung–for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths–for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.