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A Word from Rabbi Schulman - 8/15/14

Monday’s news of Robin Williams’ death shocked me. Like everyone else, I was completely unprepared to hear that this man who had been such a vibrant presence was suddenly gone.

My history with Robin Williams goes back a long way, predating his star turn on the television program Mork and Mindy. The year was 1977 and I was living in Los Angeles working as the Assistant Program Director at USC Hillel. One night, a friend invited me go with her to an Improv.Comedy club in Westwood. There were four performers that evening who acted out the crazy suggestions audience members shouted out. But I remember only one of the performers whose incandescence blew me away: Robin Williams. In the blink of an eye he morphed from Shakespearean thespian to Tolstoyan dramatist; from Irishman to Mexican; from Bay Area flower child to Southern redneck. I had never in my life seen such brilliance up close. Of course that night was only a small indication of the limitless talent that would burst forth from his boundless imagination.

He was a comedian whose antics in front of an audience could leave us howling with laughter. He was the one guy you did not want to miss when he appeared on a talk show because you just never knew what would happen. Seasoned hosts like David Letterman or Jay Leno could not contain him. They smartly just let Robin be Robin and let him explode on set like a dozen firecrackers going off at once.

His performances in such films as Good Morning Vietnam, the Birdcage and, my personal favorite, Aladdin, solidified his standing as one of America’s best comedians. Yet he also was an actor who could anchor his performance in a depth of soul stirring compassion. His performance as psychotherapist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, touched me deeply. Nominated three previous occasions for an Academy Award, his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Good Will Hunting reflected the admiration the Academy felt for this enormously talented man.

It’s remarkable to think that the same actor who appeared in Mrs. Doubtfire could also play serious roles. Yet, at their roots, comedy and tragedy, laughter and sadness, are intertwined. In the Book of Proverbs, we read: “Even in laughter, the heart can ache” (14.13). Evidently, the laughter Robin Williams gave to others could not balance the sadness in his heart. Apparently a deep dark depression led him to take his own life.

Like people around the world, I am saddened by the death of this brilliant man who brought laughter and tears to millions. I feel sorrow for his family who has lost a father and a husband. Friends remember him as a gentle and loving, who did countless deeds of kindness for others without seeking recognition.

I truly believe he was a righteous soul. Zecher Tzaddik Livracha – may his memory be a blessing .

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