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An improvisational genius

An improvisational genius The only thing faster than Robin Williams’s mouth was his mind.

Part of the shock of his death on Monday came from the fact that he had been on — ubiquitous, self-reinventing, insistently present — for so long. Part of the shock of his death on Monday came from the fact that he had been on — ubiquitous, self-reinventing, insistently present — for so long.

Some years ago, at a party at the Cannes Film Festival, I was leaning against a rail watching a fireworks display when I heard a familiar voice behind me. Or rather, at least a dozen voices, punctuating the offshore explosions with jokes, non sequiturs and off-the-wall pop cultural, sexual and political references.

There was no need to turn around: The voices were not talking directly to me and they could not have belonged to anyone other than Robin Williams, who was extemporising a monologue at least as pyrotechnically amazing as what was unfolding against the Mediterranean sky. I’m unable to recall the details now, but you can probably imagine the rapid-fire succession of accents and pitches — macho basso, squeaky girly, French, Spanish, African-American, human, animal and alien — entangling with curlicues of self-conscious commentary about the sheer ridiculousness of anyone trying to narrate explosions of coloured gunpowder in real time.

Very few people would try to upstage fireworks, and probably only Robin Williams could have succeeded. I doubt anyone asked him for his play-by-play, an impromptu performance for a small, captive group, and I can’t say if it arose from inspiration or compulsion. Maybe there’s not really a difference. Whether or not anyone expected him to be, and maybe whether or not he entirely wanted to be, he was on.

Part of the shock of his death on Monday came from the fact that he had been on — ubiquitous, self-reinventing, insistently present — for so long. On Twitter, mourners dated themselves with memories of the first time they had noticed him. For some it was the movie Aladdin. For others Dead Poets Society or Mrs Doubtfire. I go back even further, to the Mork and Mindy television show and an album called Reality — What a Concept that blew my eighth-grade mind.

Back then, it was clear that Williams was one of the most explosively, exhaustingly, prodigiously verbal comedians who ever lived. The only thing faster than his mouth was his mind, which was capable of breathtaking leaps of free-associative absurdity. Janet Maslin, reviewing his stand-up act in 1979, catalogued a tumble of riffs that ranged from an impression of Jacques Cousteau to “an evangelist at the Disco Temple of Comedy,” to Truman Capote Jr at “the Kindergarten of the Stars” (whatever that was). “He acts out the Reader’s Digest condensed version of Roots,” Maslin wrote, “which lasts 15 seconds in its entirety. He improvises a Shakespearean-sounding epic about the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, playing all the parts himself, including Einstein’s ghost.” (That, or something like it, was a role he would reprise more than 20 years later in Steven Spielberg’s A.I.)

Onstage, Williams’s speed allowed him to test audience responses and to edit and change direction on the fly. He simultaneously explained and acted out this process in Come Inside My Mind, a two-and-a-half-minute tour de force of manic meta — “I’m doing great! I’m improvising like crazy! No you’re not, you fool! You’re just doing pee-pee-ca-ca, no substance!” But if Williams was often self-aware, commenting on what he was doing as he was doing it, he was rarely arch or insincere. He could, as an actor, succumb to treacliness sometimes — maybe more than sometimes — but his essential persona as an entertainer combined neediness and generosity, intelligence and kindness, in ways that were charming and often unexpectedly moving as well.

In his periodic post-Mork and Mindy television appearances (on The Larry Sanders Show and more recently on Louie), he often played sly, sad or surprising versions of himself, the Robin Williams some of us had known and loved since childhood, which means an entertainer we sometimes took for granted or allowed ourselves to tire of. Many of his memorable big-screen performances were variations on that persona — madcap, motor-mouthed, shape-shifting jokers like the genie in Aladdin, the anti-authoritarian D.J. in Good Morning Vietnam, Parry in The Fisher King and even the redoubtable Mrs Doubtfire herself.

That was a role within a role, of course, and Williams’s best serious movie characters — or maybe we should say the non-silly ones, since an element of playfulness was always there — had a similar doubleness. Watching him acting in earnest, you could not help but be aware of the exuberance, the mischief, that was being held in check, and you couldn’t help but wonder when, how or if it would burst out. That you knew what he was capable of made his feats of self-control all the more exciting. You sometimes felt that he was aware of this, and that he enjoyed the sheer improbability of appearing as the straight man, the heavy, the voice of reason.

He was very good at playing it cool or quiet or restrained as other actors in his movies — Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, Robert DeNiro in Awakenings, Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting — brought the heat, the noise or the wildness. He was an excellent and disciplined character actor, even as he was also an irrepressible, indelible character, a voice — or voices — that many of us have been hearing for as long as we can remember.

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