When every day’s news is filled with reports of murders or war atrocities, I never understand why I should be uniquely saddened when a famous person passes away. It sounds heartless, but I find that their absence doesn’t affect my life in any significant way. That’s why I’m usually left confused by the rituals of communal grief that consume television and social media in the wake of a celebrity's passing.
But then Robin Williams took his own life, and I felt it far more deeply than I had any right to.
I wasn’t alone. Tributes began pouring in almost immediately from all over, and everyone was recalling their favorite Robin Williams moments. Was “Good morning, Vietnam!” the first quote that came to mind, or was it “O Captain, my Captain"? Will you remember him as Aladdin’s Genie or Mrs. Doubtfire? And did you find yourself putting your hand into a sideways Vulcan salute and saying “Nanu nanu”?
See, that’s what I did. Because Robin Williams was many things to many people, but he will always be Mork to me.
Most people begin their recounting of Williams’ brilliant career with “Mork & Mindy,” but I remember, with crystal clarity, when Mork from Ork first showed up on television by walking into Arnold’s on “Happy Days.” I had been following the show since it debuted in early 1974, when I was only 5 years old. I watched every episode religiously, as did most of the kids of my generation. Fonzie was my hero, and I didn’t think anyone could knock him off his pedestal.
Then Mork entered the scene.
I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9, but I was immediately captivated by this strange, remarkable performance. Williams seemed truly alien in a way that nobody on television had ever been before. But even though he was there to kidnap Richie Cunningham and take him back to Ork as a zoo specimen, he was a delight to watch. He seemed to radiate joy. It was impossible not to like him.
From that point forward, Mork became my idol. I imitated everything he did, from “nanu nanu” to “shazbot” to sitting down head first. Mork from Ork burned himself into my brain in a way that no other pop culture icons had ever done before — or since. It wasn’t until years later, when I went back and rewatched some of those old “Mork & Mindy” episodes, that I realized they had any flaws at all.
But those flaws were there. Overall, “Mork & Mindy” was wildly uneven, and it went through drastic format changes every year that made it hard to follow. But through it all Robin Williams was never less than captivating. The material he was given wasn’t always that good, but he was always better than his material. That was true of everything he did throughout his career. He made some great movies, and he made some dreadful ones, but every movie he was in was somehow elevated by his presence in it.
And like everyone else, I watched those movies and laughed at his genius and was moved by his outstanding dramatic work. But all the time, it seems like it was Mork who was Popeye, Mork who was the Vietnam DJ and Mork telling his poetry students to "seize the day."
That may not be fair to remember him that way, but I don’t really have any choice. He taught me at a very early age that it was essential to remain playful throughout life, that there is beauty in silliness and that joy can be found in unlikely places. That was Mork’s gift to me, and I didn’t realize until he was gone how much it mattered.
I will miss Robin Williams. And so will everyone else.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.