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“I’m watching Ronald Reagan’s funeral, and the phone rings, and I go hello,” comedian Billy Crystal recalled. “Bill, it’s Ron Reagan.” It was Crystal’s friend, Robin Williams.
These kind of phone calls happened often between them. Crystal replied, “So, what a coincidence. I’m watching your funeral.” Williams continued, “I just want to tell you that I’m in heaven now, and I’m at a party. I’m having a wonderful time.”
Playing along, Crystal said, “Really? What’s heaven like?”
“Well, it’s a lot hotter than I thought it was going to be,” Williams answered.
“Really, you may not be in heaven, sir,” Crystal added. “You may be in the other place.”
“Oh, that would explain why I’m in a hot tub with Nixon, and his balls are resting on the bridge of my nose.”
This is a Robin Williams story, one of many featured in the HBO documentary, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” which premiered July 16.
Jokes about Ronald Reagan featured prominently in Williams’ 1986 comedy special, “A Night at the Met.”
Like many of his impressions, he would do the voice of Reagan at any given moment to enhance a quip. But what I appreciate about Crystal’s anecdote is the thought that Williams did not care about letting Reagan have his moment. While the media celebrated him, Williams could not resist going up to the edge then crossing it with some wonderfully crass humor based on the premise that Reagan was not a moral figure.
The documentary premiere was an opportunity to revisit several of his films over the past weeks. In doing so, I notice that he brought a deep level of empathy to each of his characters. It seemed to stem from his training in improvisation, where a person has to listen carefully, stay in the moment, and then react honestly when playing a scene.
That helped make Williams the humanitarian he became. The charity work he did for Comic Relief USA, especially to address homelessness, was very important to him. He saw people who were living on the streets as being part of “America’s refugee nation.”
Williams, along with Whoopi Goldberg, testified before a Senate committee in 1990 about a bill to establish “housing-based family support centers” that could help elderly individuals with chronic illnesses. It also would have established mental health services.
“It cannot be denied anymore. We cannot be a kinder, blinder nation. We must look, and you have to see it,” Williams said of homelessness in the United States. He mentioned the impact of “Uncle Ron’s” theory of “trickle-down economics” and pleaded with senators from the Republican and Democratic political parties to do something to address a systemic problem.
The particular bill he supported did not pass, however, a related bill did. Yet, homelessness has not become any better. A scathing report from the United Nations on poverty in the U.S. recently called attention to the sheer scale of the problem, especially how homeless people are criminalized.
“Homelessness on this scale is far from inevitable and reflects political choices to see the solution as law enforcement rather than adequate and accessible low-cost housing, medical treatment, psychological counseling, and job training,” the report stated.
Terry Gilliam’s “The Fisher King” (1991) was one film, where Williams was able to play a homeless character, Parry, who suffered from mental illness. Parry is unrefined in his behavior, but the world gave up on him a long, long ago. That gives him a low self-esteem. He masks his suffering by giving himself a purpose—obtaining a “Holy Grail” or distantly following the daily movements of a woman he loves.
Its magical realism reflects a cruel and dark world back at us. Jack (Jeff Bridges) is a sleazy radio personality who incites a tragedy. His life falls apart, and he encounters Perry, who rescues him from young white adolescents who beat up homeless people for trying to live on the city streets. Jack crudely believes if he gives Parry even the littlest bit of help his life may return to normal. It is vain, but it reflects our collective lack of compassion for those living on the margins of society.
One of Williams’ more underrated films was “World’s Greatest Dead” (2009) from another one of his friends, Bobcat Goldthwait. It is an exceptionally dark offbeat comedy. The first act sets up a brilliant second act that is a meditation on the lengths someone may go to gain acceptance among a group of people. It shows how easy a community can reinforce destructive behavior.
The finale sequence features an incredible speech from Williams’ character, who is a writer and teacher. It includes the spectacular line, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”
If there is anything particular to be taken away from “Come Inside My Mind,” it may be that there are many rotten aspects to the consumption of American culture. Specifically, we reflexively develop expectations. We become collectively ignorant of age. We believe an artist or performer can escape deterioration. We pretend changes outside the control of aging actors or musicians won’t impact their success later in life, even as they strive to remain relevant.
Certainly, it would be outlandish to suggest American culture killed Robin Williams. His dementia drove him to his tragic death. He also was 62 years-old. But let’s not overlook the fact that Williams may have been able to survive a few more years with treatment if he did not fear his fans would no longer love him. He was afraid he could not dazzle us anymore with the quickness of his wit as his body rapidly deteriorated, and he had the dismal reactions to his later work to amplify the dread that he was losing that spark that constantly renewed his spirit.
On screen or on stage or one-on-one with children or veterans, Williams brought an authenticity and element of compassion to his performances. He did not merely play characters in films that saw laughter as a simple way of making life better. He often used his ability to make people laugh to help others in some humanitarian way. That seems to be why people dwell on him and have trouble accepting that Lewy body dementia brought his life to an abrupt end.