We like to pigeonhole actors. It makes our lives easier…even if it doesn’t make it very easy for them. So yes, Robin Williams was a comedian. But even in the freaky, far-out world of Mork & Mindy — the sitcom that made him a star — he always seemed too smart, too fast, too uncontainable to stay put for very long. Williams was too big for the small screen; what none of us knew, though, was just how much he would be able to do once he segued into movies.
The first taste most of us got of the other Robin Williams — the one who made a career of defying easy categorization — was in 1982’s The World According to Garp. It’s my favorite of his movies — and it’s funny. But it was comedy in a key he hadn’t played before. It’s whimsical, weird, idiosyncratic, humane, charming, and sad. Deeply sad. Based on John Irving’s best-selling novel, the film chronicles the unlikely life of T.S. Garp, his relationship with his smothering prep-school-nurse mother (a fabulous Glenn Close), and his eventual frustrations as a struggling writer, husband, and father.
Through every stage of his life — from when the T.S. stands for ”Terribly Shy” to ”Terribly Sexy” to ”Terribly Sad” — Williams managed to give Garp a hopeful optimism and heartbreaking sense of melancholy without slipping into clown-crying-on-the-inside clichés. It’s all the more remarkable considering it was his first dramatic film role. Williams left us with dozens of memorable performances — many of which we’ll rewatch in the coming days and weeks. For me, Garp is where I plan to start. And, more likely than not, also end up.