First off: I never met Robin Williams. This isn’t that type of story, although I do wish I had that story as well.
Williams did once visit Winnipeg for a time while filming the black comedy The Big White, a movie which, by all accounts, is not a high-water mark for either him or his vastly talented co-stars. The man stopped by the Starbucks where I worked at the time. However, I missed him by just a few minutes.
I was, oh what’s the word, crushed by this. I had, knowing Williams was nearby, fantasized what I’d say should he enter the premises. He’d come up to the coffee bar, I’d recognize him, and without missing a beat I’d calmly ask, “What’s a dazzling urbanite like yourself doing in a rustic setting like this?”
Anyways, I was, as I said, devastated; so much so that I may (read: yeah, I did this) have embellished the tale so that the great comedian and the middling barista did indeed share a word, even if that word was only venti.
No, my Robin Williams story is, weirdly enough, a tale of what can happen when rabid fan adoration comes up against stone-cold reality.
Like most of my generation, I can barely remember a time without Williams. From 1978 on (the year Mork and Mindy premiered and changed a seven-year-old’s life forever), I was a Robin fanatic. I never missed an episode of this living, breathing, absolutely insane cartoon character come to life. I wore with glowing pride a pair of jeans with Shazbot! monogrammed into a back pocket in gold thread (and how sad am I that I don’t still have them!). I had rainbow suspenders. And I’m still suffering from intense personal trauma inflicted upon my soul by the sitcom’s ultimate chapter, a time travel cliffhanger never resolved.
When Williams moved to film, I followed. Enraptured as only a ten-year-old child can be, I braved the threadbare seats and gummy floor of the Stage Theatre in Thompson, Manitoba and watched matinées of Robert Altman’s Popeye more times than I remember (luxuries such as VHS and DVD players still years in the future). I loved the style, the jokes, the music. I dressed in a pseudo-Popeye costume for Halloween (squinting my eyes and grimacing, wearing a blue turtleneck with the forearms stuffed with towels). While I haven’t watched the flick in decades (and there isn’t a copy at any library in New Brunswick), this Vanity Fair piece convinces me that my adoration is, at the very least, a valid stance.
Yet (and here we get to the crux of this piece), there was only so far into William’s then-scant oeuvre that a pre-teen could travel. I was not yet aware of the far more adult nature of his stand-up. I was unaware there existed movies I could be denied entry to. I only knew that a new Robin Williams move was coming out. I was maximum stoked.
I challenge you to find a eleven-year-old boy anywhere who gets excited at the thought of sitting through a screening of The World According to Garp. I’m certain I was the only eleven-year-old in the universe excited about it. And this was a time when kids could indeed concentrate for more than three minutes at a time without texting their friends about how bored they are.
So, a young Robin Williams fan plus a new Robin Williams movie? Should have been moviegoing magic. Alas, the Manitoba censor board was on to my nefarious plans to enjoy myself, and decided to bestow upon Garp an intimidating rating of “R.”
Meaning, no movie for poor eleven-year-old Corey. Bastards! What was a boy to do?
They can take away my cinema, but they can never take away…MY LIBRARY CARD! So off to the Thompson Public Library I trekked, set to borrow a copy of what was surely a novel of utter silliness and feel-good-timery.
The fellow’s name is Garp, for pity’s sake! Must be Mork in disguise.
Jenny Fields is a strong-willed nurse who wants a child but not a husband. She encounters a dying, severely brain-damaged ball turret gunner known only as Technical Sergeant Garp. Jenny nurses Garp, observing his infantile state and almost perpetual autonomic sexual arousal. As a matter of practicality and kindness in making his passing as comfortable as possible and reducing his agitation, she manually gratifies him several times. Unconstrained by convention, driven by practicality, Jenny uses Garp’s sexual response to impregnate herself and names the resulting son “T. S.”
That’s how the novel begins. And please remember: I was eleven. Garp, all 400+ pages of it, is in no way a story for children, particularly an innocent youngster such as myself.
But I devoured the novel like a stranded islander eats a raw crab. Every last morsel. I was starved for this kind of stimulation. Beyond starved. I didn’t even know I was hungry.
Garp becomes a writer. Garp gets married. Garp has lots and lots of sex. Garp writes a story so singularly disturbing and violent I’m still having flashbacks.
Still from Wikipedia:
The book contains motifs that appear in almost all John Irving novels: bears, New England, Vienna, wrestling, people who are uninterested in having sex, and a complex Dickensian plot that spans the protagonist’s whole life. Adultery also plays a large part…Another familiar Irving trope, castration anxiety, is present [Emphasis mine].
So…yeah. Just slightly above and beyond my eleven-year-old pay grade. In one short week I jumped from the unthreatening adventures of Tom Swift to a step below Henry Miller. I’m surprised my hair didn’t turn grey right then. I did an oral report for my English class, and while I have no idea what my final mark was, I do know I got a huge thrill from uttering the words “bastard child” in a grade 5 classroom setting.
Learning that people had these thoughts, and more importantly, that we were allowed to have these thoughts, and write these thoughts; that’s what pushed me into adulthood, far more than growing pains and weird body hair. It also pushed me into a clique of sorts, a clique of one for the longest time, until I eventually discovered more people who were similarly warped. They’re called writers.
So, you see, Robin Williams is responsible, literally and figuratively, for the way I view the world. His comedy directly twisted my perspective, but it’s his early choice of roles that indirectly forced me into the grown-up universe of sex, violence, confusion, and life itself. Had I not sought out ancillary materials to Williams’ career, I honestly don’t know who I’d be now. But I know who I am; a guy who reads, and wants to tell my own stories. Even when I don’t know what those stories might be.
Eventually I got to watch Williams’ Garp, and while I was (and remain) underwhelmed by the adaptation, I admire his performance. But more than that, I admire the chance he took, the chances he continued to take. I followed him everywhere.
I’ll miss you forever, Mr. Williams. I’ve got this life to thank you for.
P.S. 1982 was a huge literary milestone for me, not only because of Williams, but because of Harrison Ford. You think I had a chance in Hades of ever seeing Blade Runner? But nothing stopped me from discovering Philip K. Dick as a result of this denial. I also happened across The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the same time. Weird year. Weird, glorious year.