Aladdin is the first movie I saw in theaters, and Robin Williams has been a constant presence for me on TV and movie screens since then. As a result, the news of his death was rather surprising, especially since it included the phrase “apparent suicide.”
There seems to be a stronger response to Williams’s death than that of the typical celebrity, even the typical Oscar-winner. I think there are three reasons for this.
Someone said that Robin Williams was the first movie star they were aware of, and that’s easy to understand. In the early to mid 90s, he was in a lot of stuff that got the attention of kids (Hook, Aladdin, Mrs Doubtfire, Jumanji.) I might have been aware of who he was before I became familiar with movie stars who specialized in films I didn’t get to see until I was older, and that didn’t get advertised on Sonic the Hedgehog.
He was a prolific and talented man, so there will also tend to be something he did that most pop culture consumers really liked. He would rank pretty highly as a comedian, and he was great as a comic actor. If that was the entirety of his career, he’d simply be known as a legitimate contender for “funniest man alive.” Youtube clips from his comedy specials and appearances on Late Night Shows will live forever.
But he also had a separate entirely respectable career as a dramatic actor. In that category, he seemed to be roughly on the level of the likes of Jon Voight and William Hurt. All three had three Academy Award nominations plus one win, with recent (and not always successful) stints on television. Williams had some interesting recent projects under his belt (World’s Greatest Dad was daring) and was in the type of prestige pictures like The Butler you’d expect to see an actor of his caliber. And he was in the types of films you’d find a name actor like him slumming. As a movie star, he was probably bigger than Michael Douglas, John Malkovich or Jeremy Irons. Except for Williams, this was essentially a sideline to comedy.
The outsized impact on my generation and on comedians combined with the range meant that a lot of people were impacted by the news, and that it would be a bigger deal for some. It’s the perfect storm for think pieces and online memorials.
Finally, there is also simply the way he died. He’s probably the most famous suicide since Marilyn Monroe. Fortunately, he’ll be remembered for more than just that.