TIME Culture

Richard Dawkins Remembers Robin Williams’ Poetic Comic Genius

Robin Williams Popeye 1980
Paramount/AP Actor Robin Williams, shown in character as Popeye in Dec., 1980.

I witnessed an impromptu and unscripted performance that showed exactly the breadth of his creativity--rhyming couplets and all.

I met him only once. It was June 3, 2006, at the Academy of Achievement dinner in Los Angeles. After dinner, at the end of the conference, there was a loud band and dancing (Archbishop Desmond Tutu delightfully prominent among the dancers), and Sheryl Crow was the singer.

Suddenly Robin Williams hurtled unannounced, unrehearsed onto the stage. Sheryl Crow graciously (and with good-natured surprise) gave up the microphone to him and stood by. He treated us to an exuberant impromptu performance, delivering verse reports on most, if not all, of the speeches we had been listening to during the conference. He deftly summarized each of the lectures in a rhyming couplet (sometimes in the special rap sense of rhyming). Then, after stepping back for a few seconds’ thought while the band played on, he would advance to the front of the stage with a new verse about the next lecture, and so on.

Assuming it was genuinely unscripted – and that is certainly what we all thought at the time – it was a creative tour de force of comic genius.

In addition to his better known roles (Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting, etc.), I especially liked him as Popeye in the relatively little-known acted version, directed by Robert Altman, with Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl and an adorable baby debuting in the role of Swee’Pea. Robin got Popeye’s grating voice and strutting insouciance to surreal perfection.

So sad.

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist based in the U.K. and bestselling author of The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker, among many other books. He is founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science based in the United States.

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