Tuesday, August 12, 2014

O Captain! My Captain!

I had mixed feelings about devoting a blog post to the death of Robin Williams.

The award-winning actor/comedian, who died yesterday at his home in northern California at the age of 63, has been part of my life since high school. (The television show that made him a star, Mork & Mindy, aired on ABC from 1978 to 1982. I graduated in 1980.) He had appeared in over 80 films – many of which are truly iconic – and has held a steady position near the top of my “People with Whom I’d Love to Hang Out at a Bar” list since I became old enough, legally, to drink.

On the other hand, I’ve been shaken to my core by the slaughter of Palestinian children by the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza in recent weeks – as my many related Facebook and “What’s the Diehl?” posts attest – and it seemed irresponsible or at least inadvisable to lament the passing of a rich old white American, albeit a brilliantly funny one, when I was still worked up about the distressing violence in the Middle East. (The most recent report on August 6 claims 1,843 Palestinian civilians, including a reported 415 children, have died as a result of Israeli fire.)

I decided to heed Anita’s words of wisdom – although celebrities don’t impress her much, she told me that it’s possible, acceptable and in fact preferable to communicate and have feelings about more than one occurrence or development at a time – and share my surprisingly strong sense of sadness about this gifted man’s death (at his own hand, according to the Marin County Sheriff’s Office).

I really related to Robin Williams. Not, of course, to his gargantuan comedic talent, unparalleled improvisational skills and lightning-fast brain. Not to his wealth and capacity – his films have grossed $5.2 billion worldwide and Comedy Relief, the charity with which he’s closely-associated, has raised $50 million to combat homelessness in America. I related more to how he at times felt alone even when he was surrounded by others. I related to how his first and second marriages didn’t last and he was challenged by an addictive personality (he was a famous alcoholic and former cocaine addict). We were both eco-friendly – he drove a Toyota Prius and I spent years working for environmental causes. He was born in Chicago, my favorite city, in July of 1951, and grew up in Bloomfield Hills, north of Detroit, where I lived for years. And we were both sensitive clowns who knew how to hide our sadness by making others laugh. He just got paid a hell of a lot more than I did – and his severe depression, finally and sadly, proved too strong.

As Sy Parrish in "One Hour Photo"
Robin Williams was a four-time Academy Award nominee who took home the Oscar for his sensitive, layered portrayal of psychology teacher Dr. Sean Maguire in 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.” I loved his performance in 1987’s “Good Morning, Vietnam” (based on real-life Air Force sergeant and disc jockey Adrian Cronauer). I loved him in 1989’s “Dead Poets Society” (see below). He was amazing as Genie in 1992’s “Aladdin,” in the title roles in 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire” and 1998’s “Patch Adams,” and in what is my favorite Williams movie, “One Hour Photo.” (His 2002 performance as deranged photo technician Sy Parrish still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.) I even liked him as Alan Parrish in 1995’s “Jumanji” and as Professor Philip Brainard in 1997’s “Flubber,” the not-too-popular remake of the beloved “The Absent-Minded Professor.” Everyone has their own favorite Williams movie(s); if you can’t name at least two or three, you’ve either been comatose or locked up in a maximum-security facility without access to the touchstones of American culture.

I had the television on in the background when I was writing this and Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell and their guests used words like “superhuman,” miraculous,” “genius” and “brilliant” to describe Robin Williams. I’m glad the full extent of his talent is known and acknowledged. I just wish he would have known how to get help so I wouldn’t be blogging about him now.

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

The 1989 movie “Dead Poets Society” makes repeated references to this poem – written by Walt Whitman in 1865 about the death of President Abraham Lincoln – especially when English teacher John Keating, played by Robin Williams, tells his students that they can call him "O Captain! My Captain!" if they feel daring. At the end of the movie, the students defiantly show their support for the recently-dismissed Keating by reciting the phrase while standing on their desks.

P.S.  My Facebook friend Kimberly Costello, a television writer/producer, was longtime friends with Robin Williams. She's been kind enough to share several personal anecdotes with her Facebook friends that convey what a truly amazing and one-of-a-kind talent he was. Her loss - and ours - is indeed tremendous.

Kimberly Costello and Robin Williams
 at the Comedy Store in 1980

Sources: International Business Times, Hollywood Reporter, Internet Movie Database.

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