2014 was a year of mourning great talents.
Lauren Bacall. Pete Seeger. Dr. Maya Angelou. James Garner. Ruby Dee. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sid Caesar. Shirley Temple. Mike Nichols. Mickey Rooney. Richard Attenborough. Eli Wallach, Tom Magliozzi, Harold Ramis, Ann B. Davis, Menshach Taylor, Elaine Stritch, and more have all died during the last 363 days.
But on August 11, 2014 the world lost Robin Williams, a man who was a legend in his own time, a tormented creative talent, and a great humanitarian. His death was deeply personal to me. At the time I had no words to express my grief, my memories, my love for this special man.
I, like so many other people in the world, found Robin Williams to be a genius at humor and heartfelt pathos. His movies made me laugh, and cry. The first time I saw him perform, his TV character Mork literally had me falling off the couch in hysterical laughter. In that moment I began a lifetime of looking forward to his next project, whatever it might be.
I remember the first Comic Relief show in 1986, when Robin (by then I loved him so thoroughly I’d promoted our relationship to a first name basis), Billy Crystal, and Whoopie Goldberg hosted 47 comics telling jokes and being funny to raise money for the homeless. I was working then, and donated what I could, that year and for years after. The laughter was good medicine for what ailed me, and touched the heart in a way completely new to charity. Laughter was the great equalizer – no matter how much or how little you have, when a joke is funny you laugh.
I began to notice little things about Robin’s behavior when he was being interviewed and supposedly ‘off’. I recognized a pattern of behavior that came too close to some of my own, uncomfortably close. A particular interview soon following his father’s death still stands out to me. In him I found a mirror of some of my own torments, a kindred spirit, an understanding soul.
I followed his career closely, enjoying as many performances as I could. I loved some more than others. Popeye, first, where I was not surprised one bit at his sense of comedic timing and delivery, and then The World According to Garp, which stunned me with his ability to play a straight role. The Fisher King, Aladdin, What Dreams May Come, Hook, Jumanji, Happy Feet, and The Birdcage, I’ve watched each of them a dozen times. He made me laugh, he made me cry, he creeped me out (remember One Hour Photo and Insomnia?), and he always made me relate to his character. His career made me happy. I hope it made him happy, too.
When the internet was new and celebrities as inexperienced on it as anyone else, I found a relatively private address for Robin in San Francisco. Thereafter, I sent him a Christmas card every once in a while. I loved picturing him reading my card, so I’d fill it with bits and pieces of things going on in my life, things I couldn’t/wouldn’t tell other people. Looking at it written down, I can see how that might seem a little odd to people, but it was a dearly held (tenuous though it might be) contact with someone I thought of as a friend.
I didn’t hear back from him but that didn’t stop me from shooting my arrows into the darkness, hoping they would strike their target and ultimately be read by him. Since none of my cards were ever returned, I was fairly sure they were being delivered somewhere. That was enough to keep me going.
When I’d been writing for a couple of years, I produced my first YA novel, The Boxer Rebellion. A coming-of-age story about bullying gay kids, it is brutally honest which makes it a challenging read. I sent Robin a copy and asked if he thought it was too harsh, too painful for readers to enjoy. For the first time, I got a response, an acknowledgement that I’d been making contact all along, just one direction.
He sent me a photo of himself dressed as Mrs. Doubtfire and signed it: To Genta, Write On.
Robin Williams told me to keep writing. That private message between us was enough to keep me pushing that book until it finally found a home and began gathering reviews. I imagine him holding my book in his hands while he read. I like to think of him laughing at the funny parts, fuming at the injustice, and ultimately joining The Boxer Rebellion to fight bullying in schools and on the internet. The photo is framed and hangs over my computer to remind me that Robin Williams believed in me enough to encourage me when I was down.
As we start a new year, in his memory I say to you, “Write on, my friend.” Please remember that the emotional struggles of the truly talented can often be masked behind achievement and praise, written away as fiction. Be gentle with yourself, today and every day of the rest of your life.