American comedian and actor Robin Williams died yesterday from an apparent suicide after battling years of depression and addiction. While his award-winning acting, frenetic comedy performances and activism are what he will no doubt be best remembered for, to a certain set of fans like myself, his lifetime interest in gaming and toy soldiers likewise leaves a mark.
As a lonely, oddball child of wealthy parents, Williams developed an early escape valve through play with toy soldiers. In a 1993 New York Magazine profile, Williams’s mother recounted his boyhood obsession with toy soldiers:
“Robin had the entire third floor,” his mother, Laurie Williams, says. “He put his toy soldiers — he had thousands of them — in those rooms, carefully divided according to period.” Williams not only staged intricate battles between soldiers of different eras, he created dialogue for them in what was, essentially, a childhood version of his performance style.”
Not only was Williams a toy soldier fan from an early age, but gaming was a lifelong passion. He was an avowed Warhammer 40K player (apparently favoring Eldar forces), even posing for photos with staff and other players during stops at local gaming stores. He is also listed among celebrity players of Dungeons & Dragons, going so far as to participate in major gaming events up until a few years ago. His passion for gaming also extended to online and video gaming, and his daughter Zelda is rumored to have been named for the popular adventure fantasy video game series from Nintendo.
Like a lot of kids growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, Williams’s starring role in Mork & Mindy from 1978 to 1982 was a fixture in my weekly TV viewing. Starring as Mork, a zany alien from the planet Ork, Williams’s catchphrases, mannerisms and signature look became firmly imbedded in my young mind. There was definitely Mork madness in my life and in the culture for a bit, extending to toys, games and even rainbow suspenders (yes, I had a pair).
Williams certainly went on to much bigger and often more serious professional work, but that period in my youth where I was becoming an impassioned gamer myself definitely informed some of my own willingness to stretch into characters outside the bounds of reality. Williams’s life of playing characters, switching roles and acting out wild fantasies brought so much joy to audiences around the world, but for me, I like to imagine him as that little boy crouching over his little soldiers and creating a universe that was just his for a moment.