Like most of us, I grew up with Robin Williams. As a child who wasn’t particularly athletic or ruggedly handsome, Robin Williams was a super hero. He showed me that being goofy and going for broke was an asset — not a liability. I attribute a lot of who I am today to watching his comedy.
Since the news hit, I’ve been seeing a lot of in-depth pieces about some of his “underlooked” performances: a tortured killer in “Insomnia,” a distraught father in “World’s Greatest Dad,” or a vengeful children’s host in “Death to Smoochy.” All memorable performances that showed a dynamic range. But my favorite Robin Williams film remains one that was universally panned. I’ve written about it before. This is Barry Levinson’s “TOYS” (1992).
"TOYS" was a passion project, conceived by Levinson during the Vietnam war but not shot and released until the early 90s. It concerned a man who owned a whimsical toy factory, Zevo Toys, who was faced with a choice of who to will the factory to after death: his straight-laced brother, Leland Zevo, who served in the military (Michael Gambon); or his seemingly irresponsible and care-free son, Leslie Zevo (Williams).
The company ultimately goes to Leland, who quickly orders to production of war toys—something Zevo has never produced before because, in Leslie’s words (most likely improvised) “Dad didn’t like the idea of war toys. He thought that war was the domain of a small penis.”
But the general presses on and soon Leslie discovers his true plan: to create an army of small, remote crafts that children can operate via screens without knowing that they’re really flying combat missions. Children have the best reflexes, he argues, and they’re so desensitized it will all be just a game to them.
It is then up to the extraordinarily silly Leslie, his sister Alsatia (Joan Cusack) and his girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn) to fight fire with fire and destroy these war toys with the only means available: a warehouse full of old, windup ones.
There’s a borderline prescient line spoken by the Cusack character, comparing Leslie to his cousin, Patrick:
"He’s all silly and soft on the outside and on the inside he’s really strong," she says, "and you’re just the opposite."
This character of Leslie Zevo was a man-child. And it was a character. But this is how I’ve viewed Robin Williams ever since I can remember—and it’s true. He WAS silly on the outside. It seemed like he never grew up, nor would ever consent to doing so.
Yet he WAS strong on the inside. Anyone who overcomes addiction for that many years is strong. You could see it in his eyes.
Here’s the thing: addiction didn’t win. Depression did not win. It never will. Because every time a child sees a Robin WIlliams film, they will be happy. Every time I catch “Hook” on TV, I will remember exactly what made me want to entertain people to begin with—and I’ll want to keep doing it.
Robin WIlliams spread joy. He did it daily, through syndication, even when he was personally mired in despair. And he’ll continue to do so on celluloid for the end of time.
At one point in “TOYS” Robin’s character explains that “There’s a madman at the factory, and it’s no longer me.”
For the first time since that was spoken, he was right. And it’s gut-wrenching. But it’s also an opportunity.
In the past we’ve relied on Robin Williams to make us laugh, to forget the horrors going on around the globe. It’s on you and I now. Now, more than ever, is our time to go out and make people smile. To bring laughter and make sure people know that this world is not as bleak as it seems.
Robin Williams is no longer the madman at the factory. He’s punched his time card. Luckily, he’s taught us extraordinarily well. We’re all better off for it.