I can't believe the news about Robin Williams. I am so sad. I never met him but I just know that he was a great guy. Rest In Peace.
These are not my words (though they might easily have been), but those of Simon Cowell, who took to Twitter to pay his respects to the comic actor who killed himself on Monday.
It is tempting to be rather sniffy about Cowell's press release dressed up as a note of condolence. What's it got to do with him? He never met the guy, he's not expressing a unique sentiment or revealing a painful truth. He's just indulging in recreational grieving, a pursuit that first swept the nation after the death of Princess Diana.
Celebrities and wannabes have been falling over themselves to tweet mournful messages about Robin Williams, ostensibly so that they would get quoted in news stories, and in this way they could claim that, to a small extent, it became about them. There's nothing wrong in finding this all a little nauseating, but this is the way the world revolves today.
And what about Joe Public, the thousands – perhaps even millions – of ordinary people who posted similar messages of sympathy, who expressed seemingly heartfelt emotions, for a man they'd never encountered, and had only seen when he was pretending to be someone else? Have we become a shallow, sentimentalised society? Has touchy-feely replaced stiff upper lip to such a degree that we find it difficult to distinguish between real, imagined or peer-pressured feelings?
Robin Williams: A career in pictures
Robin Williams: A career in pictures
1/30 Robin Williams
1980: Robin Williams in the world-famous Mork and Mindy series that launched his career.
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1984: Williams in 'Moscow On The Hudson'. The actor earned his first Golden Globe nomination for his turn as a Russian circus performer in this 1984 hit.
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1987: Williams in the critically acclaimed 'Good Morning, Vietnam'. Williams ad-libbed all the radio broadcast scenes from this 1987 film about a radio DJ sent to Vietnam to entertain the US troops serving out there.
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1989: Robin Williams appeared with Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles in 'Dead Poets Society' as English teacher John Keating - or the “slightly more daring O Captain, My Captain”.
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1990: Williams and Robert De Niro in Awakenings, an emotional film that saw Williams portray a British neurologist who administered a drug to catatonic patients that briefly awoke them from decades of catatonia.
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1991: Williams appeared as an adult Peter Pan forced to return to Neverland to rescue his children in 'Hook'. The film received mixed reviews but proved popular at the box office.
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1992: Williams in 'Toys'. The film followed a military general after he inherits a toy factory and decides to produce war toys.
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1993: Williams appeared in one of his best-loved roles in Mrs Doubtfire, where he played an actor disguising himself as a female housekeeper in order to spend more time with his children.
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1995: Williams appeared as man released from a board game after being trapped for decades inside it in the blockbuster 'Jumanji'.
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1996: Williams starred opposite Jennifer Lopez in 'Jack', a film about a young boy who ages four times faster than other children.
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1997: Williams appeared alongside Matt Damon in 'Good Will Hunting', a film that won him an Oscar for his portrayal of psychologist Sean Maguire. As he accepted his award, a touched Williams warned the audience: "Oh man, this might be the one time I’m speechless".
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1997: The box-office hit Flubber saw Williams take the role of Professor Philip Brainard, who creates the unstoppable green goo Flubber in his bid to produce a new energy source.
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1998: Williams gave a poignant turn as Dr Hunter 'Patch' Adams, an unqualified doctor who treats patients with laughter in 'Patch Adams' .
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1998: Williams stars alongside Cuba Gooding, Jr in 'What Dreams May Come', a film that follows American physician Chris Nielsen's journey through the afterlife after he is killed in a car crash.
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1999: Robin Williams, Bob Balaban (left), and Armin Mueller-Stahl star in the movie 'Jakob the Liar' about a Jewish shopkeeper who uses his imagination to engender hope throughout a Polish ghetto in 1944.
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1999: American Science Fiction drama 'Bicentennial Man' followed an android (Williams) as he experiences emotions and becomes more human
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2002: Williams took a more sinister role as reclusive crime writer and murderer Walter Finch in 'Insomnia'.
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2002: Williams undertook an unsettling, psychopathic role in One Hour Photo, where he played a photo lab technician obsessed with a family who frequented the store.
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2002: Williams starred alongside Danny DeVito in 'Death to Smoochy', a film about a corrupt children's television host disgraced by an FBI sting.
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2005: Robin Williams stars in 'The Big White', a film about a financially struggling travel agent trying to make a bogus life insurance claim in order to pay for his wife's Tourette treatment.
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2006: Williams and Ben Stiller star in 'Night at the Museum'. Williams will appear in upcoming film "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb," playing the statue of Teddy Roosevelt who comes to life at night.
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2006: Robin Williams, Jeff Daniels and Cheryl Hines star in roadtrip comedy 'R.V.', which followed the tribulations of a dysfunctional family.
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2006: Williams took the leading role in the political comedy drama 'Man of the Year' about a comedian who decides to run for President and finds himself mistakenly elected.
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2007: Robin Williams and Freddie Highmore in 'August Rush', where Williams played a homeless musician who teaches children living on the streets music and employs them as performers.
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2007: Robin Williams, Mandy Moore and John Krasinski starred in 'License to Wed'. Williams played a reverend who places a couple through a series of tests to see if they should marry in his church. The rom-com was poorly received by critics.
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2010: Robin Williams and John Travolta star in 'Old Dogs', a comedy that sees two friends and owners of a sports marketing firm struggle to deal with seven-year-old twins placed in their care. The film was nominated for four Golden Raspberry Awards.
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2013: Susan Sarandon, Robert De Niro and Robin Williams star in The Big Wedding
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2013: Williams starred as President Eisenhower in Lee Daniels' 'The Butler'.
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2014: Robin Williams with his Mork and Mindy co-star Pam Dawber in The Crazy Ones series. It was axed after one season.
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2014: Rob Williams stars in 'The Angriest Man in Brooklyn', the story of a bad-tempered man mistakenly told he has 90 minutes to live.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't feel sad about a famous person's death. Just because we haven't met him or her doesn't disqualify us from being touched by the fact and circumstances of their demise. I was shocked rather than saddened when I heard the news about Robin Williams' death. I never really took to him as a comic actor, finding his mannered persona just a little irritating, but it was his story, a deeply tragic resolution of the human condition, that made me properly sad. And like everyone else given pause for thought in such circumstances, I started thinking about my own life, and that of those around me. Yes, I felt doleful for Williams and his family, but that quickly gave way to a minor bout of self-reflection.
I didn't feel the need to share my thoughts on Twitter, but I wouldn't criticise anyone who did. Social media has changed society, and has democratised celebrity. Robin Williams had 140 characters in which to express himself, just like me and you, and his last message, delivered through keystrokes made by his very own fingers, was sent to me and to you, too. He wasn't our "friend" but he was our correspondent, and we felt connected to him.
And that's the point, really. Social media connects humans, and not just virtually. It links us more closely to other people's triumphs and tragedies. It gives us a sense of a greater humanity, and exposes us – albeit in a small way – to the wider truths of the human condition. It's no wonder we feel we know people we don't know, and that we're moved by their plight. And in that way, Simon Cowell was speaking for the nation.Reuse content