Performers reflect on death of Williams

Like many kids growing up in the 1970s, local renowned actor Greggory Brandt loved to watch the hit TV show “Mork and Mindy” to see the antics of the alien and his human roommate that week.

Now Brandt joins area theatrical colleagues mourning the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams, who not only played the role of the alien, but became known for portraying countless other characters in film, TV and on Broadway.

Williams was found dead Monday in his home in Tiburon, California, which is near San Francisco, police said. The cause of death was ruled suicide. Williams had bouts of severe depression and issues with addiction, they said.

Williams’ TV series “Mork & Mindy” began in 1978 and ran for four years, Brandt said.

“Watching him as a kid in ‘Mork and Mindy’ was thrilling,” said Brandt, who has appeared on Broadway and now coaches youth in his theater program.

“His comic timing and improvisation skills were impeccable and I looked forward to see what he would do each week.”

One of Brandt’s favorite quotes is from the film, “Dead Poet’s Society” – “Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys, make your life extraordinary.”

Other films that Williams made that Brandt especially like include “Good Will Hunting,” “Awakenings,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Aladdin.”

“He displayed such versatility as an actor, which is what all actors (hope) to attain,” Brandt said. “I just wish people knew how much they are loved and appreciated before such a tragedy occurs.”

Another well-known local theatrical fixture, Steve Helsel, said the phrase “there will never be another like him” is probably used too much, but in Williams’ case, it definitely applies.

“I’ve never been one to fanaticize about a particular performer or fixate over a specific movie, but his body of work speaks for itself, and I’ve been impressed by everything I’ve seen of him, because of him,” Helsel said.

“He was a genius at every type of performanceand probably the quickest, sharpest, most outrageous mind in the entertainment industry when it came to improvisational or extemporaneous comedy.”

Helsel, who is the operations manager at Altoona Community Theatre, said he was shocked when he first heard about Williams’ sudden death and then stunned to hear that the cause was probably suicide. But he said the theatrical world can have a darker side.

“Acting is about putting on a facade so I guess it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that a performer as brilliant as Williams, both in comedy and drama, could just as easily (hide) his own life and hide whatever turmoil might control it,” he said. “Supposedly, though, it’s more common than we’d ever imagine, and reportedly the more manic the public personality, the more troubled they’re likely to be in private.”

Elaine Mastalski, executive director of Cresson Lake Playhouse, is a fan of the film “Mrs. Doubtfire,” along with others films of Williams’ including “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Jumanji,” she said.

“Robin Williams worked so hard throughout his life to make people laugh and inspired many people to pursue acting,” she said.

Mastalski said she had heard media reports that Williams was struggling with “mental health issues and depression” but she was still stunned to hear of his death.

“He will be deeply missed,” she said. “He was a brilliant artist, passionate in his desire to entertain and (he) changed many lives.”

Another local theater supporter who fondly remembers “Mork & Mindy” is Valerie Stratton, the co-founder and co-production manager of Things Unseen Theatre, which performs in The Church in the Middle of the Block Cultural Center in Altoona.

“He stood out as a real original,” said Stratton, who has worked with community theater groups for more than 25 years.

“He was totally unlike any other comedian before him or after. He was one of a kind. And so talented. To be able to move so effectively from comedy roles to serious parts was truly impressive.”

Stratton has a dual perspective on Williams’ life because not only has she worked in theater but she is also a retired psychology professor from the Penn State Altoona campus.

“From both of these areas of my life, I’m familiar with the unfortunate tendency for very creative people to

suffer from mood disorders and addictions,” she said. “And this illustrates how we seldom know what inner struggles and conflicts others are battling with, despite having lives that seem on the surface to be happy and trouble-free.”