He emerged in the late 70s–a stand-up comedian of an undeniable originality and brilliance. His 1978 HBO special was staggering–an explosion of lightning-speed, gear-shifting improv that elbowed its hairy way into the pantheon of great comic performances the second it was recorded. A chance meeting with Arthur Fonzarelli at a Milwaukee leather bar landed him a cameo on a dying (Fonzie had literally jumped the infamous tiger shark earlier that same season) television show and he made enough of an impression to be handed his own show, in which he excelled. As the 80s dawned he, and Steve Martin, were considered the cream of the crop of the new young comedians.
Hollywood beckoned. But even as early as 1984’s Moscow on the Hudson, you could see the cream starting to curdle a bit as Robin hammed it up and chewed on the scenery like it was so many bowls of Bugles left out by craft service. In quality, the 80s were probably his peak, as he managed to give (generally) low-key and nuanced performances–with The World According to Garp, Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society the highlights. Even the early 90s granted “us” a brief stay from the ugliness to come as he turned in some solid work in The Fisher King and the beloved zombie movie Awakenings.
Then it all went pear-shaped. His inability to turn his hyperkinetic zaniness “off” was probably pathological. It certainly didn’t do the guy any favors. Witness his enormous three decade body of work as an insufferable, out-of-control talk show guest. If you can. I simply could never watch these psychotic episodes for more than 30 seconds before switching over to QVC’s baseball card show or Tony Little’s latest miracle body-swelling implement infomercial. Whether Robin really was coked up or parodying someone coked up doesn’t matter a bit–leaping around the set treating both the host and any other guest(s) who happened to be around as pieces of furniture while screeching out non sequiturs in the same rote half-dozen “funny voices” he had cooked up in 1975 (flamboyant Stonewall-era hair dresser, stentorian Big Brother/God type, hybrid of the witches from The Wizard of Oz, panicked pilot in a nosediving fighter plane, addled Slavic peasant, feces-flinging monkey gifted with the power of speech) hardly qualified as humor. He simply wasn’t funny. Just sit still and answer the question in a succinct and coherent manner, sir!! But he couldn’t.
As far as his movies go, his greatest shortcoming seemed to be an inability or unwillingness to turn down any script or cinematic concept that came his way, no matter how wretched it was. For every One Hour Photo there were five or six Jakob The Liars. For every Good Will Hunting there were seemingly TWENTY Old Dogs. As long as he got to “do his thing,” as long as the role called for him to be insane, mawkish, vulnerable, uncontrollable, childlike, madcap, tearfully sentimental, filled with unfathomable wonder, or any combination of such, he was all in. The very lowest point was something called Patch Adams–cited by one critic as the worst crime against humanity since the dark days of Europe in the early 1940s. I actually just spent 15 minutes on IMDB and determined that 80% of his filmography is completely unwatchable. This must be a record of some sort. Tor Johnson, the poster child for appearing in worthless dreck, clocks in at only 60% on the same exact scale, for Heaven’s sake!
But back to Robin. Innately talented? Yes. Good-hearted guy? It certainly appears that way. National Treasure? Give me a fucking break.