When I began teaching, people called me Robin and began to say “Nanu nannu” in class. I had no idea what they were on about until I saw “Dead Poet’s society” which was quite shocking. It was like looking in a mirror. Both the actor and the story were horribly familiar. Already, I had asked students to stand on their desk to see things from a different perspective, so I knew in an instant, as I watched that film, that my teaching career would be brief and that I was somehow linked to this bewitching man called Robin Williams.
As an animator, spending hours at my desk, there are times when I feel I am walking off the set of “Awakenings”. Also, on animation- the Genie in Aladdin. While this character and the film owe so much to Richard Williams earlier work on “the Thief and the Cobbler”, the Robin Williams voice allowed for a huge range of activity on screen. Often an animator tries to mimic the actions and moves of the actor providing the voice, but in this case Eric Goldberg notes that Williams tended to be fairly static when recording, so what we see on film is a representation of the zany spirit that must have been in Williams’ head. The face is a loose caricature of Williams nevertheless.
Now, back to my story. In 2004, some twenty years after my adopted mother died, I finally located my “birth-mother”, a woman with the improbably Dickensian name of “Cobbledick”. She had been to a supermarket in Derby around Christmas-time and had bought some flour there that in her words “was riddled with mites”. She had put the flour in her kitchen cupboard and later, opening the cupboard, she found the insects had spread. “I could not go into the kitchen without weeping. The flour decimated Christmas.”
Once we read this story on the internet, we knew that we had found my birth-mother- a lady of remarkable theatricality. We learnt perhaps too late that she was also someone who was sadly malicious, deceptive and divisive. She seemed to take pleasure in dumping each of her many children often in a particularly cruel way and those I made contact with remain quite bruised by the experience. I was lucky, I think, to have been adopted. She visited us on a few occasions, intending to stay for a couple of days but lingering for a week or more each time. On one occasion she turned up unannounced having had a tiff with her 5th or 6th husband who she claimed on and off to have divorced or lost. She claimed that he was beating her, but he was the one with the bruises. And he was there till the end.
At some point in the 1960s, I discovered that she had been prosecuted for bigamy. I simply did not think that sort of thing happened, but it is all over the bits of my family tree I could piece together. My grandfather fought in the Somme, survived and returned to a wife in Ireland, and another one in Manchester, never letting on that there was a third thriving somewhere in Paris. With a family like this, is it little wonder I still think there may be a direct link to Robin Williams? In the end, while I was recovering from a botched appendectomy arising from haemophilia complications, one of the few things my mother must have given to me- she went away and we never saw her again. She died a few years ago. Ironically she died on a day while I was filming the Edward Lear film in Albania and discussing my bizarre family with some Albanians. They could not get round the idea that she had given birth to 9 children and abandoned them all. She might have been an appalling mother but she was a great yarn!
I was one of three children born during a relationship she had with a man called Erik Williams- there is the Robin connection (I know it took a few paragraphs to get there)! I think my parents had eloped from Ireland or something. Although my mother claimed to know the addresses of my two siblings, she never let on and took the information to her grave. All I know is that Ronald joined the Navy, served in Malta and married a Maltese girl. I know next to nothing about my sister except that she spent time in Nottingham.
Anyway, that is the peculiarity. After being identified as a Robin Williams’ lookalike in school, I found that my real family was also called Williams. How strange is that!It is odd that two of the men I have come most admire over the years, Robin Williams and the animator Richard Williams should both share the name of my birth parents! We look for connections in life but frankly they do not need to be biological. Whether there is any real link between me and Robin, therefore, I cannot tell. But today, learning that Robin Williams had died and apparently had killed himself, I feel quite bereft. It is like loosing a member of the family!
There are many sweet stories appearing about Robin. Some of the nicest are linked to the help he gave to Christopher Reeve after he fell off his horse. Williams turned up in hospital pretending to be Russian (he had perfected a Russian accent for “Moscow on the Hudson”) and offering an anal probe. It made Reeve laugh at a time when he thought there was really no point in going on. More than that, Williams covered his medical expenses. Here is some of that story from a news report and interview with Chris Reeve:
It is awful to read stories of his fears of bankruptcy and of the details of his death. More awful perhaps are the tales of bile and prejudice that have come out from people who should know better or who should shut up – suicide is an illness and often a terminal one. It is something that calls out for greater care from friends, medical professionals and the wider public, particularly of those who survive a suicide bid and those who are left behind when the attempt is, as here, evidently successul. Poor Robin.
Here is a picture in his memory. Such a gifted man and a kind man too.