The first time I ever saw him in a serious acting role was in Seize the Day. I didn’t like the film. I didn’t like the character he was playing. He was sad and pathetic and weak and not Mork. I didn’t watch all of it. Not then. Since then—that was years ago—I’ve read the book and located a fresh copy of the film which I did sit through right to the end. But, of course, by this time I’d seen Good Will Hunting, and Dead Poets Society and Awakenings and One Hour Photo and The Final Cut. I still didn’t like the adaptation—the book is better—but I appreciated his performance.
In 1988 Steve Martin and Robin Williams acted together in Waiting for Godot. It was not by any manner or means the definitive performance of the play but that’s not why people went to see the play. Martin took his role seriously enough and although Williams tried to he couldn’t resist ad-libbing; Beckett would’ve been writhing in his grave I have little doubt. I’ve seen a brief clip—here’s a link—but that’s it. WorldCat has an entry for it and I know the New York Public Library has copies of the DVD’s but no commercial release was ever made. That I would like to see.
My wife cried when she told me he’d died. It was the first thing she said to me when I got up that morning. She hugged me and cried but then she’d just lost her mum a few weeks earlier and probably wasn’t really ready for another death. Especially an unnecessary death. In most people’s opinion. We who think we know better. We who weren’t him. We who had no idea what was going on in his head.
My first thought was: Well there goes another bit of my childhood. Eric Morecombe’s dead. Spike Milligan’s dead. And Billy Connolly’s not too well these days. The world’s not the same as it used to be. It’s less than it used to be. I remember when Igor Stravinsky died. It was 1971. The BBC, as wasn’t uncommon back then, cancelled some programme or other to pay tribute to the great man and I asked to stay up late to watch it. It was a performance of The Rite of Spring. I have no idea how much (if any) Stravinsky I’d heard at this point—at twelve probably not a lot—but this was the first time in my life I realised that there were people in this world whose lives mattered and not only to their immediate family. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the performance and I was dog-tired by the end of it but I insisted on sitting up until both movements had been played. It felt like the right thing to do.
The next death I remember affecting me was John Wayne’s in 1979. I went down to John Menzies in East Kilbride where I was living with my first wife and bought a commemorative magazine.
Death is one of those big topics. It certainly tops the list when it comes to unavoidable topics. I would’ve said I hadn’t written much about death but the fact is I have. It keeps finding a way into my writing. In three of my novels the protagonist is dead; in two someone dies during the course of the book (although one is a flashback) and in one the entire plot revolves around trying to understand what kind of character a man who’s now dead was when he was alive based on what little evidence he’s left behind him. No one dies or has died in my most recent book. I’ve no idea what that says.
After my parents died I wrote poems. I wrote a couple about my dad right away but the better one came a year later and the same with my mother. I guess I needed time to gather my thoughts. The poems came when they were ready. As it should be. Grief doesn’t care to be rushed.
So I’m sad that Robin Williams is dead. No, ‘sad’ won’t cut it. Characters in books get to be sad. They’re cut-down people. They get to be just happy or simply sad. I’m gutted. That’s what I am. That’s a good colourful Scottish expression. It feels like a Scottish expression. It probably isn’t but we’ve a habit of making things our own. Like we made Robin Williams our own. And even if that’s not the word they’d pick I bet most people when they step back and think about how they feel about the death of Robin Williams, that’s how they feel: gutted.