Though Robin Williams and I were friendly for nearly three decades, we were never really friends. (Nor did we ever have a professional relationship.) Though he recognized me whenever we met, and we invariably kibitzed as if we had never parted, I doubt if he remembered my name, though he always pretended that he did.
Though he convincingly portrayed Jewish characters in many movies, though he utilized Yiddish expressions as effectively as any Borscht Belt comedian, though he headlined Holocaust fundraisers pro bono, and though many of his Jewish fans assumed that he was a member of the tribe, in fact, Robin was not Jewish. He described himself as “an honorary Jew.”
Then why do I feel compelled to compose a Hesped, a Jewish eulogy, in his memory?
Why, though in view of his public diagnosis of manic-depressive illness I was not shocked by the news of his suicide, was I simultaneously so devastated by it?
Why was the Jewish population in particular, and the world’s movie-going public in general, similarly distraught? One reason was that everyone felt they knew Robin, and would have called him by his first name.
Though he portrayed frightening murderers in more than one film, everyone still instinctively knew that he was not only the funniest human alive but also one of the kindest. Every Jew sensed that he was, in the words of Steve Martin, “a mensch.”
He and I met at a fundraiser shortly after our first children were born. He was emceeing for John Houseman, his teacher at Juilliard. At the time, he was only Mork, not yet a movie star, but no less hilarious on television. As we exchanged stories about our kids, we quickly realized that not only were they contemporaneous, but so were we.
We were interrupted by a lady at our table remarking that we resembled each other. Robin feigned outrage: “That’s ridiculous! I’m much better looking!” I replied, ostensibly equally indignant: “And I’m much taller!” He immediately shot back smilingly, as he cuffed my shoulder: “But I have the bigger Flanken!”
That was the first, but not the last time I learned that trying to match wits with Robin was like trying to keep pace with a world-class marathoner.
That evening was the first time I was mistaken for Robin, but hardly the last. This phenomenon peaked in 1997 when “Good Will Hunting” debuted. In the role for which he won his Oscar, Robin portrayed a rumpled, bearded psychiatrist. I was invited to the premiere and the subsequent party at Red Eye Grill. As soon as I arrived, I was serendipitously speaking with his costars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and the latter’s then girlfriend, Gwyneth Paltrow. This trio of photogenic superstars understandably attracted the paparazzi, which made me uncomfortable.
Thankfully, the photographers asked for a photo of “the three of you.” I gratefully withdrew. They responded: “No, not you, her!”
They preferred me to her? What planet was I on?
I was on Mork’s planet. He had not been able to attend, so when another rumpled, bearded man of the same age, ironically a psychiatrist, was talking to his costars, the mistake was understandable.
When I subsequently told Robin about it, he was hysterical, in both senses of the word. After doing a brilliant imitation of me imitating him: “How are you doing, Robin?” “What do you mean by that question?” he offered to pay me to replace him at future premieres.
I understood why. Robin wasn’t always hypomanic. He wasn’t always a zany, boundless bundle of energy. What goes up must inevitably come down. This led to the third reason that seemingly it is inappropriate for me to write a Hesped for him.
He committed suicide.
There are two reasons that are traditionally offered to exculpate a Jew who commits suicide and allow him to be buried inside the cemetery. The first is that he suffered from an illness beyond his control, clearly the case with Robin. The second is we presume he had regret.
In truth the reasons he deserves a Hesped far outnumber the arguments against it. If being a Jew means engaging in tikkun olam, leaving our world a better place than we find it, Robin was Jewish.
The $50,000 he anonymously raised for a Seattle food bank was but one salient manifestation of that. Arranging and paying for a fully equipped van to transport his former roommate, Christopher “Superman” Reeve, after an accident rendered him quadriplegic, was another. When the press learned of this, Robin insisted that Reeve’s movie career had been more successful than his own, implying that Reeve had paid for it himself, to preserve his friend’s dignity.
If being a Jew means “loving your neighbor as yourself,” Robin was Jewish. Jeff ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Garlin was performing standup when a heckler prevented him from continuing. Garlin was unable to shut him up. Suddenly someone in the back with a thick Irish accent started heckling the heckler so effectively the heckler desisted and Garlin could continue.
It was Robin to the rescue.
The first Sabbath after Robin died, I was trekking a mile to go to a minyan in Lenox, Massachusetts. I was wearing a baseball hat from Harvard, the school where Matt Damon’s ‘Good Will Hunting’ experience took place. I passed a dozen early-morning walkers, joggers and bikers on the way. This being the Berkshires, not the big city, each of them cheerfully wished me good morning. One however, stopped dead in her tracks. The blood drained from her face when she looked at me. Finally, she whispered: “You look like...”
Neither of us finished her sentence. We didn’t have to.
I did not quip that I was taller than him. I never will again. It is only too late that I realize that he was a far bigger man than I will ever be.
He called himself “an honorary Jew.”
The honor was ours.
Isaac Herschkopf, a local psychiatrist, writes frequently for these pages