Getty ImagesFor me, like so many others, Robin Williams was my childhood.
It's been a day since I heard the news of his death and the knot in my stomach has yet to unravel. "This is an actor," I tell myself. "Someone you don't know personally." And yet, I mourn because Williams felt like so much more than a stranger on the screen.
I was different growing up...peculiar, headstrong, and awkwardly ebullient, though harnessed by a creative and intelligent mind that always earned praise from teachers and other adults. These quirks led to days where I was bullied mercilessly by my peers and, as a result, I consistently struggled to define my personal identity. Like so many of today's youth, I felt abandoned, lost, and quite simply, out of place.
Television and movies eventually served as a respite from the daily torment. I found entertainment to be a place where I could surrender my self-loathing and just be me. I remember one particular day where I came home miserable. A neighbor on the bus harassed me with an onslaught of obscenities that successfully drove me to tears. As a way to cheer myself up, I popped in my VHS copy of Aladdin. The lyrics “you never had a friend like me” could not have come at a better time. Despite Aladdin’s insecurities and his failure to conform to societal norms, the genie showed him a love that was unconditional and even celebratory. This “street rat” mattered. I mattered. Everything was going to be okay.
To surround myself with fictional characters who were so outrageously different and celebrated for these differences was both therapeutic and empowering. I took great comfort in Robin Williams, the genius who brilliantly took on roles that we relied on to put us at ease, even if it was temporary. From a cross-dressing nanny who danced to the beat of her own drum to this animated genie who prided himself on bizarre antics and befriending those around him, there was one message for all of us: just be happy with yourself and everything will fall into place. These personalities, so ripe and rich with individuality, lived in a world where fear of judgment was simply nonexistent or squashed by the overwhelming presence of heightened self-worth. Robin Williams showed us that this world can exist if we just make a simple effort to block out the negativity and cultivate our best qualities. For this crazy world is the only one we've got, and we might as well be ourselves.
There is a significant amount of sad irony in this reflection and realization. While I credit the drag club owner, passionate teacher of poetry, and boy who didn't want to grow up for daring me to be different, the actor himself could not find his own resources to deal with the demons that plagued him.
This is particularly heartbreaking for me, especially after witnessing Williams’ humble nature firsthand. I met the actor once in his dressing room at the Late Show with David Letterman. “You are my childhood," I declared, starstruck. “You are in every one of my favorite childhood movies." Williams just laughed and shrugged off the significance I breathlessly bestowed upon him. This was a man who entertained purely for the benefit of others. It was not a job, but a way of life. I have met and worked with many celebrities, and Robin Williams’ innate selflessness was both uncharacteristic and slightly startling.
Robin Williams and Zimbio TV Editor Joey Skladany backstage at the Late Show with David LettermanAfter a high profile death, there is always talk of the legacy that person will leave behind. Unforgettable laughs, tears, and award-winning acting will certainly top most peoples' lists of Williams' eternal contributions. But for me, it's freedom; the freedom to explore and appreciate myself through the roles that he so fantastically made relatable; the freedom to break the chains of those who fought so hard to ostracize me for acting in a way that defied the norm; the freedom to wake up every day and simply love myself.
Perhaps much of my sadness stems from a fear of losing this enhanced sense of self. I question whether our time with him was sufficient. I question whether his work will be appreciated by future generations. I question whether we will find others to fill these clown shoes and assume the important role of steering our children in a direction of respect and dignity. But the great thing about the entertainment industry is that your legacy lives forever onscreen. Though a light has certainly been extinguished, it is now our responsibility to bottle his lessons of self-worth and empathy, and share them with those who need it most.
As Mrs. Doubtfire would say, “All my love to you, poppet, you're going to be all right."