When I heard the news that Robin Williams died, I immediately thought of my brother. Andrew and I had two VHS tapes on heavy rotation growing up in the early 90s, which we would watch every Saturday morning before our parents got up: “Hook” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
Andrew and I didn’t always get along as kids—we fought, pushed each others’ buttons, and sent each other to the emergency room on more than one occasion. But every Saturday morning we had one thing in common: Robin Williams.
We would pull all the cushions off the couch and build a fort, laying side by side on our bellies, our faces close enough to smell each other’s terrible morning breath.
“You brush your teeth.” “No YOU brush your teeth!”
We were kept pretty busy during the week thanks to school and extracurriculars, so the time before our parents got up was special, and in the early hours of these weekend mornings, we avoided a fight at all costs. If mom had to come downstairs to tell us to stop fighting, we would most certainly be told to put the cushions back and thus destroy our fort. Then it was game over.
Neither of us would brush our teeth.
“Hook” (directed by Steven Spielberg and released in 1991) was a particular favorite—a story that imagined just what exactly had become of Peter Pan, with Williams in the lead role. The premise: A sea of Lost Boys were abandoned and left to fend for themselves while Peter went off and got a job, got married, and had kids of his own. When his kids get captured by Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman), Peter’s beckoned back to Neverland, which has since become foreign to him.
He he arrives at the Lost Boys’ hideout to hear “Rufio! Rufio! Ri-fi-ooooo” as the group calls after its new leader, and Peter (who is now a stuffy lawyer) scolds the boys for acting so dangerously. He can’t fly. He can’t fight. He can’t crow. Tinker Bell’s fairy dust makes him sneeze.
As the movie rolls on, one of the Lost Boys assesses who this guy actually is. Could he really be Peter Pan? He touches his face, pushing up his eyebrows. He smooths out his wrinkles. He pokes and prods and pulls his mouth wide into a forced smile.
“Oh there you are, Peter,” he says, a line that Andrew and I routinely misquoted as “It is you, Peter!” The effect was the same.
“Hook” was about the fear of growing up. Or even worse: realizing you had.
My brother and I are very different: while I was outgoing and really into school, Andrew has always been a quiet guy who’s more into cars and digging in the dirt than reading books. (”Dead Poets Society” was a movie I would have all to myself.) Despite our differences, we’re both fiercely loyal to our family. I would later learn as an adult (via my mother) about times he told off someone because he was defending me. He has my back.
Part of what drew us to Robin Williams’s movies was that they were about just that: you do whatever it takes to help your family. (In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Williams adopts an alter ego of a 70-year-old nanny just so he can be around his kids all day.) We watched these movies so much, we knew them by heart. We roared at his impressions, lifting lines and parroting them back to each other.
Williams made the kind of movies that allowed you to laugh in the face of difficult situations. Movies that made it okay not to take yourself so seriously. Movies that inspired you to live a bigger, fuller, more meaningful life. In light of his tragic death, it seems that his innate ability to bring humor to otherwise difficult or tense situations hit closer to home than most realized.
But back then in the cushion fort, we didn’t know any of this and certainly weren’t thinking about it. We just wanted to watch Williams tell off Rufio one more time, fling frosting across the table and ignite a food fight one more time, learn to fly and rescue his kids one more time.
My heart aches for Williams and his family — for how hard it had to have been for him to decide to take his own life. If only Neverland were real.
I’m not sure when our early morning Robin Williams ritual stopped — or why. At some point we were pulled out the front door by more exciting things like hockey games and sleepovers and cheerleading competitions. At some point we grew up, leaving Neverland (and Williams) behind.
Every now and then though, if I’m in a bad mood or if my brother is trying to diffuse family tension, he’ll tease me until I start to laugh, force me to smile, and say: “There you are, Peter.” Bangarang.