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TV critic Neal Justin: Memories of Robin Williams

Posted by: Neal Justin under Movies, Television Updated: August 12, 2014 - 11:03 AM

Robin Williams/ AP photo

I won't pretend for a nano-second that I really knew Robin Williams, although our paths crossed a few times.

The last occasion was this past January during a visit to the set of "The Crazy Ones," a sitcom unjustly cancelled by CBS after just one season.

I noted at the time that the comic genius seemed more at rest than he had previously when he could often suck up all the oxygen in the room with his manic energy. He said something telling that January afternoon that may go a long way in explaining the demons he was battling:

"It's not a contest, but it is a joy. You get a laugh, you go, 'Yeah, I'm OK now.' Sometimes it works and other times, no. Then it becomes very sad for a moment. The desperate comic boy comes out."

I also had the pleasure of seeing Williams in 2008 when he did three shows at the intimate Acme Comedy Co., in prepartion for a HBO special in Las Vegas. I was seated in the front row, which made me and my companions the all-too-willing targets of his improv humor.

In 2009, while he was promoting that HBO concert, he told me he had fond memories of his time in the Twin Cities:

"I was enjoying playing a place that was literate, where you could make references to Shakespeare's newest work, 'So That's the Way You Like It,' and have people go, 'I got it. Thanks.'"

In that same interview, Williams delivered one of his best lines as he talked about his recent heart operation:

"It was interesting that I had the surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. And I woke up, going , 'Where am I?' And they said, 'Cleveland.' And I kept going, 'Why?'"

Sadly, Williams time at Hazelden earlier this summer wasn't as successful at healing him.

He leaves us with a great legacy, work both celebrated and underappreciated. Here are 10 contributions that will stick with me:

"An Evening With Robin Williams" (1982): Williams' legacy begins and ends with stand-up. If you've never seen his entire, exhausting act, start with this HBO special taped in his beloved San Francisco.

"The World According to Garp" (1982): He would go on to make better movies, but this was the first that made us sit up straight and realize that Williams could do more than just vomit out one-liners. He's quite touching as John Irving's ultimate protagonist.

"Comic Relief" (1986): I'm deliberately leaving "Mork & Mindy" off the this list. While it served as a great showcase for Williams' fast-paced talent, it was actually a less-than-average sitcom that almost always spun out of control. Williams' greatest gift to television was "Comic Relief," the long-running telethon he hosted with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg that helped raise $80 million for America's homeless. The trio dug deep into their Rolodexes to bring together the best and brightest in the comedy. Williams gave constantly to various charities, including the LiveStrong Foundation and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. 

"Dead Poets Society" (1989): Seize the day, indeed.

"The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (1992): Everyone remembers that Carson's last night with guests included Bette Midler singing "One For My Baby" through tears. But let's not forget the evening's other guest was Williams. The fact that the King of Late Night selected him for that penultimate show speaks volumes.

"Aladdin" (1992): There was talk that Williams should have gotten an Oscar nomination for his voice contributions to this animated classic. Hard to remember that when he signed up, big-name actors didn't do cartoons. That soon changed.

"Homicide: Life on the Street" (1994): Much has been made of Williams' ability to throw out the jokebook and tackle dramatic work. Three years prior to winning an Oscar for "Good Will Hunting," he played a tourist on this critically acclaimed crime series who goes through grief and anger when his wife is murdered. It remains one of Williams' most devastating performances.

"Good Will Hunting" (1997): His role as a loner shrink who tries to break through Matt Damon's shell could have been unbearable, but Williams managed to sidestep every cliche and collect his well-deserved Oscar.

"Blame Canada" (2000): Williams had nothing to do with "South Park: The Movie," but he was the ideal candidate to perform the film's centerpiece number when it was nominated for an Academy Award. It's a vigorous performance that pretty much stole the show.

"Louie" (2012): WIlliams played himself in a super-short, strangely sentimental story about he and Louie CK being the only ones to show up to the funeral of a despised comedy-club owner. To honor the man, they decide to visit his favorite strip club where they learn some startling things about the deceased. It's not Williams' best work, but it's the one that keeps rolling around in my head.

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