One of the most magnetic, enigmatic performers of his or any time, actor and comedian Robin Williams died of an apparent suicide on Monday. He was at home and had been suffering from terminal depression. Williams was best known for comedies like the joyful Mrs. Doubtfire and the sublime The Birdcage, but it was for his role as the inspirational Walt Whitman-loving teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society that he may in the end be best remembered.
John Keating was a role Williams was born to play. Like Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting–for which Williams won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor–Keating was a misfit in New England who has wisdom to impart but only a dim notion of his own place in the world. In Dead Poets–a very sad movie with suicide at its core–Williams’ marvelous performance as Keating gave an echoing depth to every comic role he played after. Now Robin Williams himself has joined the great dead poets society–with Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, Walt Whitman and all the others who struggled mightily to live, to see and to share. Here is John Keating quoting Whitman to his students: “The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life? Answer. That you are here… that the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” What verses Williams left us. Joy and zest and in the end sorrow. Rest in peace, genius.