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Dances With Words: An Ode to Robin Williams

It’s painful to accept the fact that we now live in a world without Robin Williams.  Our beloved jester has been remembered in recent days as a “comic genius,” a “master of improvisation,” a “burbling, manic man-child,” and even a “shape shifter.”

Among the grief-laden accolades, Julliard praised its famous alumnus with these words: “… As an artist, he brought together a unique mix of traditional actor training with a creative spirit that set new standards for performance in cinema, television and live theater.”

Writing for the New York Times, A.O. Scott heralded him as “one of the most explosively, exhaustingly, prodigiously verbal comedians who ever lived.”

Truly and incessantly, Robin Williams danced with words. Every scriptwriter who worked with him faced the same, humbling task: something akin to choreographing a line dance sequence…for Baryshnikov.

To me, Mr. Williams’ genius was almost as physical as it was verbal.  From subtle facial expressions to outrageous bodily gestures, he used movement to develop many of his most memorable characters, and to create their most legendary moments onscreen. Who could forget Mork’s nanu-handshake? Or Mrs. Doubtfire boogeying with a vacuum cleaner? How about Adrian Cronaur’s open-jawed “Gooood Morning Vietnaaaaaaam!” salutation?  If facial yoga exists, that was it.

As for “stand up,” call it what you will, but Mr. Williams’ version often involved ricocheting around the studio, or charging head-on into his audience. For a live performance at Lincoln Center in 1986, he arrived onstage like a ballet star — literally leaping across the proscenium with a series of grand jetés.

And speaking of ballet, surely every dance aficionado can recall the hilarious scene from The Birdcage  in which Mr. Williams manages to parody Bob Fosse, Martha Graham, Michael Kidd, Twyla Tharp AND Madonna…, all in less than 30 seconds.

For five decades, he played a stress-busting sprite for our conflict-ridden world. And now he is gone. Suddenly, tragically gone.

Recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, this intensely physical comedian must have been devastated by the prospect of diminished facial expression, diluted vocal control, and loss of muscular function.

Had he lived long enough to discuss his debilitating condition in public, Mr. Williams probably would have harvested humor from the depths of his personal tragedy. After all, this was a guy who had openly battled addiction, describing cocaine as the “devil’s dandruff” and alcoholic blackouts as “sleepwalking with activities.”

So, what might he have said about Parkinson’s? Can you imagine him exclaiming something like this, preferably in one of his high-pitched, squeaky voices?

There’s a badass Pygmy with a jackhammer inside my leg and no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to make the little motherf***er stop!

Given Mr. Williams’ love of linguistic gymnastics, it seems fitting to conclude this post with some lighthearted wordplay. Those who have seen The World According to Garp will recall that when asked, “What does the T.S. stand for?”, Williams/Garp offers three responses: “Terribly sexy,” “Terribly shy,” and finally, “Terribly sad.”

With deep respect and admiration, here are a few alternative descriptors for Robin Williams:

Terrifically Silly

Theatrical Supernova

Terrifyingly Spontaneous

Tangy Satirist

Triumphantly Sober

Transgalactic Studmuffin

Touchingly Sentimental

Therapeutic Smilemaker

Truly Spectacular

Tele-Shaman

 

Mr. Williams, you are simply irreplaceable. Rest in peace, you incorrigible, incredible word-dancer.