In Memoriam: Robin Williams as The Professor

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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“…the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table. His flat, large ears departed widely from the sides of his skull, which looked frail enough for Ossipon to crush between thumb and forefinger; the dome of the forehead seemed to rest on the rim of the spectacles; the flat cheeks, of a greasy, unhealthy complexion, were merely smudged by the miserable poverty of a thin dark whisker. The lamentable inferiority of the whole physique was made ludicrous by the supremely self-confident bearing of the individual. His speech was curt, and he had a particularly impressive manner of keeping silent”.

This is Joseph Conrad’s description of The Professor, the anarchist and explosives specialist that appears in The Secret Agent (1907), and this is how (pictured above) Christopher Hampton imagined him in his film adaptation of the book (1996, written and directed by Hampton). Hampton’s involvement with Conrad was of long standing: he spent a long time working on a script for Nostromo, David Lean’s last great project that was never to materialize (Hampton shared these reminiscences in an event organized at the Somerset House in London, in October 2013, where The Secret Agent was screened, but the story is well known). To his credit, he was the first person to imagine Robin Williams in a role that went against his type casting as a comic actor. Williams, for some reason, was not pleased with his performance, so the actor goes uncredited in the film – only adding to the viewer’s surprise when he first appears on screen in an unforgettable turn.

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In the end of the novel, the misanthropic Professor walks “averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insiginificant, shabby, miserable – and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men”. In the last shot of the film, he gently presses the button of the explosive mechanism he always carries with him, as Hampton carries Conrad’s logic to its inevitable end. It is an image that has stayed with me ever since.

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