Dear Robin Williams,
I was asked recently why I have this picture from “The Dark Knight” as the wallpaper on my laptop. My response, “I use it as a reminder of the dangers that go hand-in-hand with the heights of success in this industry.” As artists, what are we but actors on a stage? But, I’m preaching to the choir; you know this. You know what it’s like to put on a mask day after day, night after night. Today this mask, tomorrow that mask. But who’s behind it? More importantly, IS there anyone behind it? Or have the characters we have opened ourselves to so fully become the cumulative sum of who we are when the cameras stop rolling?
Do we slip away from set, quietly, to return to our self-made prison where we sit wondering who we are. Do we actually belong in this world? Sitting alone, we stare at pictures of other people’s lives wishing we were a part of them, wishing they would include us, but knowing it will never happen because we have chosen our path. We have chosen to open ourselves so completely to love, to pain, to loss, to agony, and not only open ourselves to them but to express them beautifully, so beautifully that the masses applaud and scream and laugh and cry and throw accolades at us and give us statues and status and celebrity, and we bow and say “thank you” and accept these things, and we see them walk away shaking off the gruesome, laughing nervously at the darkness, wiping it away easily while we hold it all inside, a smoldering fire we cannot put out. The smoke touches us always. But you know this.
I didn’t get to watch much film or television when I was young, but I do remember “Hook.” I loved Peter Pan. I loved the danger, the sense of adventure, running away, finding the place a person was always meant for. “Hook” and “The Princess Bride” opened me up to the universe of story-telling and make-believe and the magic of the big screen. I was swept up in Neverland like millions of others. I dreamed of being yanked out of my simple little existence to be thrust into the middle of great battles where other little, lost boys would look to me to lead them. I knew I could never do it like you did, but I wanted to try. The fire was lit.
Then I left Neverland and grew up. I learned to hide my emotions. I prided myself on not crying in movies. I put on the mask that society says “tough guys” should wear. But despite the facade, I still felt. I felt deeply. Films, music, and people would touch me, and I wanted to respond, I wanted to show, but the walls I had built were too thick. I forced everything down, unwilling to believe that anyone would ever understand who I really was. I needed someone to sit with me for an hour and not say anything and after watching me walk away, smile and say “that was progress.” I needed someone to tell me I didn’t know everything, that I was being a cocky prick. I needed someone to tell me they did understand. I needed someone to tell me “it’s not your fault, “ and when I responded “yeah, I know” they’d come back again “no, it’s not your fault” and they’d mean it, and they’d open their arms and let me finally—after so many years—let the walls crumble. I needed that. And, Robin, I won’t say there weren’t other actors who touched me, but you were one of them. You made me realize it was okay to let my guard down, to access emotions I’d buried, to be present.
So as I pick up my next mask, I look in the mirror and see my own eyes looking back at me from someone else’s face, and I’ll ask myself “who am I?” Am I defined by this story I’m about to tell, by this life I’m about to slip on, by this breath I’m about to start breathing? And the answer is yes. And the answer is no.
You knew this. And you wore your masks beautifully. You gave life and laughter, while inside you smoldered away, and we took your gifts and we loved you for them when we really should have been looking at your eyes, not your mask, looking to see if you were still there, if Robin was still there. Then maybe we would have seen that you were the one that needed saving. And in that moment of realization, we would have stood on our desks and took our stand with you. Because you were worth it.