Robin’s Best

Since the untimely death of comic and actor Robin Williams last week, I’ve been looking back at his performances on television. I’ve been continually surprised and impressed at how as a sitcom actor, guest star and chat show guest he was able to take command of the medium, especially as Williams’ talents were always thought best suited to the dynamic scope of cinema and unbridled spontaneity of the live stage. I was struck by how he accommodated his manic act and style to the contours of the small screen, used television to test his mettle as a character actor, and realised TV’s capacity for intimacy to bring his audience closer to Williams the man. The passing of James Garner, Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams in the past weeks is worsened by the knowledge that all were unusually good at doing television and have been lost to more than art form.

Mork Who?

Mork Who?

The significance of science-fiction sitcom Mork & Mindy to Williams’ career seems to have been regarded by most obituaries I’ve encountered as simply his stepping stone to popular exposure. This assumption drastically underestimates how important the role of Mork was to Williams’ development as an actor. In it, he learned to temper his aggressive bombardment of the audience with pathos thanks to the show’s romantic core and fable quality, a balance that would come to define his movie persona (and one that when tipped would sink him artistically). The sitcom wasn’t always the lightweight fantasy people perhaps remember, more Twilight Zone than Bewitched (if Williams’ catchphrase humming of the anthology’s theme tune wasn’t enough to sway you). There was hard science-fiction in there, unsettling biological imagery, and hard-hitting issues like mental illness and addiction. Seen now, Mork & Mindy prepared Williams for darker material he later turned his hand to.

Williams’ portrayal of Mork had an enduring impact on science-fiction television. Watching episodes of the series now, particularly when Mork is in his formal bow-tie and suspenders, I couldn’t help but think of Matt Smith’s incarnation of time-travelling extra-terrestrial The Doctor in Doctor Who. Common to both performances is the essential idea of a character who is not alien in appearance but in his social naivety, fashion missteps and absurd physicality. The success Williams achieved in depicting an otherworldly strangeness and difference without the aid of make-up, prosthetics or effects must have been a boon to anyone wanting to make science-fiction within a budget-dependent TV format. It took a concept as extreme as alien visitation to contain a freestyling comedian like Williams within a studio sitcom, but at its heart Mork & Mindy nailed that mix of the fantastical and the mundane that distinguishes all good and great science-fiction TV.

Williams was deep into his acting career before he started to take on purely dramatic parts, even though the ability to play emotion straight in his early movies was crucial to their appeal. However, years before his acclaimed deadpan turns in Good Will Hunting, Insomnia and One Hour Photo, Williams played a tourist whose wife is shot on the streets of Baltimore in an episode of complex cop show Homicide: Life on the Street. Williams’ demonstrated ability to completely disappear into a character without a trace of his conspicuous comic persona left really opened the industry’s eyes to his value as a serious actor. The gut-wrenching emotions experienced by his character were performed credibly, and without fuss, which undoubtedly marketed his ability to do strong emotion well. Thought something he and his directors did not always taken advantage of, it nonetheless signalled that he was a rounded actor of range.

Robin, Robin, Robin, Robiiiiiin!

Robin, Robin, Robin, Robiiiiiin!

I’m grateful to OWN for repeating full versions of interviews with Williams from the ‘80s and ‘90s on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Not only is it apparent that Williams’ could transcend limitations of television space and time, no matter how cardboard the set and videographic the production values, it is also notable that when disarmed with Oprah’s frank questions about his personal life (she was a different proposition as interviewer in those days!), he can exploit the potential for television to be a confessional medium to admit to a darker side to the always-joking persona he presented in public. Clearer than in any other medium, TV was privy to the qualities of Williams’ personality that would eventually consume him. One of William’s last TV appearances on Louis C.K.’s signature sitcom Louie cemented his legacy as a character actor, playing a fictional creation in a show full of comics playing themselves.

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