Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

One of a Kind Genie in a Bottle

Mrs-Doubtfire-mf02Losing a lifelong companion is painful. Especially a companion who is a hilarious class clown like Robin Williams.

The high-energy, hyper-verbal, genre-unto-himself comedian, who died Monday, has been a source of laughter for nearly as long as I can remember.

Like the rest of the world, I first saw Williams when he landed in Happy Days and tried to abduct Richie Cunningham as a human specimen to his home planet of Ork.

The popularity of the episode launched Williams as a star in Mork & Mindy, which debuted in 1978 and took place in Boulder, Colorado. As someone who grew up in Colorado, it didn’t seem all that odd an alien chose Boulder to observe the oddities of mankind. It did seem odd that Mindy was a straight arrow and lived in Boulder.

Williams’ manic improvisational style dazzled viewers, as much perhaps as it confounded directors. Much later in his acting career that Williams came to see the value in following a script, at least some of the time.

Hardly a year went by without a new Williams movie – The World According to Garp, Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, The Birdcage, Jumanji, Hook, PopeyeNight at the Museum. Two two characters were ever alike. And the zaniness flowed through whether Williams was visible on screen or just a voice of a cartoon character.

Williams seemed to be everywhere. He appeared on stage. He did TV interviews and cameo appearances, such as his unscripted improv with Bill Crystal on an episode of Friends. He cavorted with the Muppets. He did five USO tours. He gave concerts that left audiences in stitches. In a Portland appearance, Williams deadpanned that he went to a rehab center in Wine Country to keep his options open. Most in the audience knew he actually had gone to a rehab center in Yamhill County. That’s where our daughter, also in rehab, met him.

man_of_the_yearOne of my favorite movies starring Williams was Man of the Year. He played a wisecracking political commentator who made a satirical run for the presidency and won in an upset because of a computer voting glitch. His character’s unfettered campaign commentary was – and still would be – a zephyr of fresh air in what have become stale, stage-managed performances.

Even though President-elect Tom Dobbs could have hidden the truth about the computer error, he went on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update to explain what actually happened. Tina Fey, then the co-host of the spoof news show along with Amy Poehler, said they only knew how to report fake news, not real news. The movie was all too tantalizingly close being real.

Of course, Williams’ masterpiece for me was Mrs. Doubtfire. A decade earlier, Dustin Hoffman wowed us as a cross-dressing Tootsie who wriggled into a girdle and won a job as a woman on a soap opera. As good as Hoffman was, Williams was better as Mrs. Doubtfire, a disguise he donned to trick his back into his wife’s household so he could be with his two kids.

No question Mrs. Doubtfire is a comedy, but the role of Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire also burns with embers of pathos. Under that mask and mash of old lady garments, Williams delivers a lesson on determination, grit and cunning. He becomes and ever more will be Super Nanny. When I see someone vacuuming, I immediately think of Mrs. Doubtfire dancing with hers.

Williams QuoteBecause he didn’t hide his demons, we knew Williams suffered lows as low as the mercurial highs he reached when performing.  We realized the other side of hilarity for him was deep despair.

In its retrospective of Williams, NBC’s Today show ran on-air clips and outtakes of Williams on his many appearances on the early morning show. Like the rest of us, the crew couldn’t stop laughing at his antics and one-liners.

Just as telling were stories about how Williams would introduce himself to everyone in the production before the show aired and circle out to Rockefeller Plaza to greet onlookers. Williams loved people. Even more, he loved to make people laugh. And he did. His body of work will ensure we keep laughing after we stop grieving over his loss.

And if Williams gets his wish, he will find laughter in heaven. As he once said in an interview, it would be music to ears if he heard God start a speech, “And two Jews came into a bar…”

There will never be another Genie quite like him in a bottle.

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