Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Wizard Arrives, A Genius Leaves

I would have thought the event would've been held in Hollywood or Manhattan's Radio City.  But, no.  It premiered in the Midwest.  Depression era moviegoers, used to seeing films in black and white, saw MGM's The Wizard of Oz on this day in 1939.  The film, with its rich Technicolor, made a star out of Hollywood newcomer, teen singer/actress Judy Garland, and began her ascent to becoming a show business legend.  In The Wizard of Oz, she introduced what would become her signature song, "Over the Rainbow."

The Wizard of Oz premiered on this day in history in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

1939 was a magical year for Hollywood.  Not just because of that fantasy adventure.  That year saw no shortage of films that went on to become classics.  Even some of the movies considered minor films went on to become classics.  It's been said that The Wizard of Oz wasn't a box office hit when it came out -- not like MGM's other releases such as The Women, Ninotchka and its longtime box office champ, Gone With The Wind.  The real story is, The Wizard of Oz was pretty popular.  However, most of the folks who went to see it were youngsters accompanied by adults.  Kids paid half price.  Or maybe even less than half price.  That's why the box office receipts weren't the same as for the features aimed at grown-ups.  It was a hit with the half price set.

The Wizard of Oz was re-released by MGM in 1949 and made its money back.  The re-release was a hit.  World War 2 was over and, by then,  Judy Garland was a Hollywood superstar.  She was slated to reunite with Frank Morgan, the actor who played The Wizard and three other characters in the 1939 fantasy.  They would've sung "There's No Business Like Show Business" with him as Col. Buffalo Bill and her as Annie Oakley in the big screen version of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun.  Unfortunately, Morgan died of a heart attack during production in 1949.  He was replaced.  Later, Garland was replaced by Betty Hutton.

Annual network TV airings made The Wizard of Oz an even more beloved classic.
Millions of us first fell in love with Robin Williams on network TV.  He played a fantasy character from "over the rainbow," a visitor from another planet who wore rainbow suspenders.  We were introduced to Mork in 1978 and 1979 when he visited the Happy Days characters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He was spun off into his own series.  Williams comic genius seemed too big for weekly TV screens on ABC's Mork and Mindy.                                                                                

As you know, Robin Williams revealed even more talents, deeper talents, on the big screen.  Yes, he was still hysterically funny, like in The Birdcage and Mrs Doubtfire.  But he was also very movingly dramatic.  His four Oscar nominations were for acting in dramatic films --  The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam and Good Will Hunting, the film that brought him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
His comic genius and its energy were like a runaway train that harmed no one.  In sheer, gleeful awe, we just watched it go and marveled at its speed.
We thought that track would never end.  But, sadly, yesterday it did.  Millions of us are heartbroken.  Robin Williams was very kind to me early in my TV career when I worked in Milwaukee and really needed kindness.  I got my first New York City television job because of his kindness and humor and performer's generosity.  I interviewed him twice for Milwaukee's WISN TV, an ABC affiliate.  He was promoting The World According To Garp (1982) and Moscow on the Hudson (1984).

Those interviews got the attention of New York's WPIX TV in 1985.  The station hired me.  Robin Williams found out that I'd been hired.  He contacted and congratulated me.  He made me feel significant.  My boss in Milwaukee never did.

The untimely death of Robin Williams and the outpouring of affection for him made me think of a line from The Wizard of Oz.  The Wizard says it to Tin Man.  Tin Man wants a heart.  The Wizard tells him that "hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable." When he kindly presents one to Tin Man, he gently adds this line that made me think of Robin:

"And remember, my sentimental friend, that a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others."

Robin Williams had a great heart.  I wish we could've kept it from breaking.


  1. Another brilliantly written and heartfelt piece! Everything I've heard or read about Robin Williams in the past day has included how generous and selfless he was. He truly made his mark on the world and left an even bigger void when he departed. He was on my short list of celebrities that I genuinely wanted to meet, and I even had something planned out for what I would say to him if the chance ever came. He will be missed.

  2. You are dead on when you say he was a great dramatic actor. I think his best performance ever was in the 1990 film, AWAKENINGS, directed by Penny Marshall. He proved he had some serious acting chops. He should have gotten an Oscar nomination for it, but didn't. I liked him in the three films you mentioned - GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, DEAD POETS SOCIETY, & GOOD WILL HUNTING. When he won his Oscar for the latter film, I remember the reaction of his good friend, Billy Crystal, who was the Oscar show host that night. It was one of genuine happiness for his good friend. Robin was good at playing creeps, too. Just look at ONE HOUR PHOTO & INSOMNIA. He was as versatile as any performer that ever lived. He will be greatly missed.

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