Remembering Robin

by Mara

He always reminded me a little of my father.

Robin Williams, as I knew him, was warm, gentle, expressive, nurturing, and brilliant. While it can be hard for me to remember filming Doubtfire, I’ve been flooded with memories in the past few days. It’s humbling to know I am one of the few people who was there for these moments, that he’s no longer around to share them.

He was a creator as much as a performer. After one of my friends posted Robin’s “impression of a hot dog” on Facebook, I realized she had no idea that wasn’t in the script. It was supposed to be a monologue where he listed every voice he could do, but he decided to take the ones he’d been given, add more of his own, and just riff for a while. Chris Columbus, our director, would let Robin perform one or two takes with what was written, then do as many more takes as Robin had variations. Sometimes I wonder why they didn’t give him at least partial screenwriting credit.

He was so quick and prolific, coming up with so many lines and bits even though there was no way we could use them all. At the end of the first dinner scene (where I said my most infamous line), he uses chopsticks like antennae to make me smile. That was a reference to a take that didn’t end up in the film, where Robin was supposed to make a speech about his new job boxing and shipping cans, then turn it into a song. He went off book, as always, and before we knew what he was doing, the chopsticks were by his ears and he was freestyle rapping from the point of view of an ant railing against the humans who kept stepping on its friends.

Robin would do anything to make me and the other kids laugh. Those hand puppets that dance alongside the genie in Aladdin‘s “Friend Like Me”? That must have been his suggestion, because Robin made those in real life. He’d break them out between takes to entertain us between takes. “I don’t like you,” his left hand would say to his right. “You smell like poop!” I would laugh uproariously — I was five, so poop jokes were the height of hilarity — as his right hand yelled back “Well, there’s no toilet paper at my house!” When he saw me watching him work on his laptop during downtime, he played a sound file of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz screeching “You wicked old witch!” When we were filming the petting zoo birthday scene, he fed a pony oats out of his hat, then held it out to me and said, “Wanna wear it?” When we were filming the climactic dinner party scene, he would make his carpet bag bark like a dog under the table, then order it to be quiet. He seemed to know instinctively what we would find funny, and never had to resort to saying anything that was inappropriate for children. He was, after all, a father himself.

Robin was so on so much of the time that I was surprised to hear my mother describe him as “shy.” “When he talks to you,” she told her friends, “he’ll be looking down at his shoes the whole time.” I figured he must have been different with grown-ups. I wouldn’t see that side of him myself until a few years later, when I was invited to be part of a table read of What Dreams May Come. He came alive in the reading, and had us all laughing at lunch, but my strongest impression came when we saw each other for the first time that day. Robin crossed to me from across the room, got down to my level, and whispered “Hi, how are you?” He asked how my family was doing, how school was, never raising his voice and only sometimes making eye contact. He seemed so vulnerable. “So this is what Mom meant,” I thought. It was as if I was seeing him for the first time. He was a person now.

As of this past Monday, Robin and I had not spoken in a few years. We weren’t on bad terms, we had just lost track of each other. He was working in films still, I was not anymore, he still lived in California, I’d moved probably nine times since I last had his contact information. The last time I saw him, I was a freshman at NYU and he was filming August Rush in Washington Square Park. I went up to him while he was walking away from the set to his trailer, and called his name. He turned around, not sure what to make of the girl in the glasses and NYU hoodie calling him like she knew him.

“It’s me!” I said. “It’s Mara.”

“Oh, Mara!” He told me how grown up I looked and asked how I liked NYU. It was small talk, but something about the way Robin looked at me made it feel like he truly cared. This was someone for whom everything mattered.

I wish we had talked more. I wish I had reached out more. Being a Worst Case Scenario kind of person, I’ve worried so many times about losing so many people I care about, but I never could imagine losing Robin.

My grieving has been private. I kept off my public Facebook page and my Twitter and tried to reading or watching avoid any entertainment media. Doing interviews is usually fun and easy for me, but I didn’t feel I could do any then. If I was crying seeing Robin’s face on the Daily News, I would not have been able to keep it together on cable news, and people didn’t need to see that. 1 Lisa Jakub, my big sister in Doubtfire and my honorary big sister in real life, wrote a beautiful blog post about her experiences with him and was able to appear on TV. She said all the things I couldn’t. It reminded me how she handled the Doubtfire 2 announcement a few months back with such grace, while I ended up coming off a lot more brusque and dismissive than I had wanted. Life imitating art, I joked with her: in Doubtfire, she was the more mature older sister, while I was the little one who always blurted out the wrong thing. One of us cautious and pensive, one of us quick and outspoken. 2  Much like the two sides of Robin, as my brother Danny pointed out: “You guys were him.”

I had thought maybe the next time I saw Robin I would explain myself to him, let him know that I had loved working with him but didn’t feel like we could do it again, and that being in major studio films again meant a level of scrutiny I didn’t think I could deal with. I wanted to apologize and know he understood. It hurts to know I can’t.

I’m glad people are starting to talk seriously about mental health, depression, and suicide. I’ve discussed my OCD, anxiety, and depression in the past and will continue to do so more in the future. Mental health needs to be taken as seriously as physical health; the two are inseparable. But I am afraid people will romanticize what Robin went through. Please don’t romanticize mental anguish. I know many people who think to be an artist means you have to suffer, or at least wallow in old miseries. It’s not only an incorrect assumption — there are comedians who had happy upbringings, I swear — but it will only hurt them and the people who care about them. Artists who struggled with mental illness, trauma, disease, addiction (often the latter is a way of self-medicating after the first three) did not want or welcome it. I don’t know if I’d consider myself an artist, but speaking as someone who sometimes makes stuff, my best work is created when I’m content and contemplative, looking back on painful times rather than in the middle of them.  To focus on someone’s pain instead of their accomplishments is an insult to them. As my friend Patrick put it, a person is a person first and a story second. 

In the past few days I have said “thanks” and “I love you” to so many people. I’m fortunate to know people who care and have been so good to me, and it’s heartening to know there are so many people who will miss Robin, too. I heard about his death from a comedian friend, and got the specifics from my brother Danny. Both had reasons to love him, and I was glad I heard about it from them rather than the internet. Though once I got on Facebook that night, I was immediately overwhelmed with how many people had kind words to say about him. Many of my friends are comedians who were inspired by him, but others just loved his movies and comedy and had since their childhoods. If you can affect someone when they’re young, you are in their heart forever. It is remarkable how many lives Robin touched, and how many people said, just as I had, that he reminded them of their fathers.

I suppose — could I really end this any other way? — we’re all his goddamn kids, too.

Notes:

  1. I did cry on the subway, but I live in New York, where no one cares.
  2. Matt got his physicality and irreverence.