Life With and Without Robin Williams

Robin WilliamsAccording to various sources, Robin Williams is dead. The coroner suspects “suicide due to asphyxia.” I must admit to being shocked. It isn’t that I’m naive and think that any actor’s public face is who they really are. But Williams’ antics here in Sonoma and Marin were legend. So I always took him to be a narcissist who might well kill himself accidentally, but not on purpose. But according to his publicist, “He has been battling severe depression of late.”

So it is sad, as it always is when anyone feels the need to hurry death along. But I was wondering about it. I totally understand why someone in chronic physical pain would rationally decide to kill themselves. I guess the reason I don’t feel the same way about depression or, more generally, psychic pain is that it seems transitory. But I think that may be a bit of an assumption. It is certainly true of me, but then, my manic-depressive cycle is well known to me. But it remains hard to believe that there was not much joy left to Williams had he managed past this current crisis. But I wouldn’t presume to know for my own friends and family members, much less for a man I don’t know in the least.

As for what I do know—his work—I’m not especially a fan, but I admired him. I’ve always thought his acting was a good demonstration that comedy was the hardest thing to do, because he was a fine dramatic actor. I never really watched him on Mork & Mindy, but I thought his stand-up comedy was fantastic. I first noticed him as an actor in The World According to Garp, where I thought he had a wonderful Cary Grant type of likability. Then there was Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King. And that reminds me that I’ve been meaning to watch The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, so I guess I’ll watch it tonight. [Update: Will tells me they also really like Patch Adams and Awakenings. -FM]

My friend Will is especially bummed out. For one thing, Williams is probably the favorite actor of Will’s whole family. I know that they are very fond of Hook and Toys. But more than that, Will had this dream of Williams some day getting into politics and becoming president. Stranger things have happened. Unless, it would be stranger to have a fine actor become president than a mediocre one. Will also has a special fondness for local things, and I think he was taken with the fact that Williams decided to make the north bay his home.

I find it interesting that Robin Williams starred in the video for Bobby McFerrin’s song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Now, I’ve always found the song kind of offensive. The last thing you should ever tell and anxious or depressed person is to “be happy!” That’s not to say that it isn’t good advice—just that it is frustratingly useless. “It will soon pass, whatever it is.” But it does seem like an ironic comment on Williams’ death. Maybe it would have passed, maybe it wouldn’t have. But it is over now and he is at peace. And we are the poorer than we would have been, but the richer because he had been.


For the record, I do think people who die are at peace. The statement is a cliche, but I’m being serious. What is wonderful and terrible about life is its conflict. I do see death as a reward for life, and life as a gift.

4 thoughts on “Life With and Without Robin Williams

  1. David Rakoff had what I thought was a great estimation of Williams as an actor — he was best when he shut up. When he did his manic comedy bits he was not convincing as a character; in quiet roles, he was really fine, and good at conveying characters with powerful, strong emotions. I’m not sure he was ever in a movie I really admired, but he was a good actor.

    One of life’s strange little ironies; I was driving with some people back from a day at their lake cabin. After we left and they checked their phones, one called to tell us Williams had died. Guess where we were on the road? Right outside Hazelden, where Williams had checked himself in a month ago.

  2. @JMF – That’s interesting about Hazelden. I specifically didn’t mention Williams’ recent stay at the 12-step brain washing establishment, because I didn’t want to use his sad death as an excuse to rant about one of my standard things. But since you bring it up and this is just a comment…

    I wonder if all the "helplessness" propaganda didn’t have something to do with this. There is no doubt that the 12 step programs have had a pernicious effect on this nation. And it has been especially directed at people who are vulnerable. I don’t think it is any surprise that the 12 step programs teach (overwhelmingly) poor people exactly what the power elite wants the poor to think: there’s nothing you can do; just leave it to God.

    On the issue of Williams, however: I think he brings a lot of depth in his largely manic performance in [i]Good Morning, Vietnam[/i]. So I will dissent a small bit from Rakoff. But in general, he’s right.

  3. Of course it’s impossible to say. And some people do find those kinds of programs (particularly the support-group aspect of them) very helpful. Stephen King, Steve Earle, to name two famous ones I have respect for (off the top of my head; there are many more.) Certainly they are not helpful, and sometimes make things worse, for other people. As you know from dealing with depression there is no magic solution. If a doctor said "take Paxil, and if that doesn’t work, you are a weak and terrible person" that doctor would be delicensed (or would deserve to be.)

    Where I think these types of programs are the most harmful is in their psychological guilt. You abase yourself sharing tales of shame, you regard desires to take an intoxicant with feelings of shame. (And if you’re checking into Hazelden, you are at least having desires to take an intoxicant you’ve had problems with before, if not actually doing so.) Don’t most people whose use of intoxicants has harmed themselves and/or others already feel shame?

    Mixing our really limited understanding of what causes depression and how to address it with these kinds of guilt-based approaches to intoxicant over-usage is a dangerous (if you’ll forgive the word) cocktail. Sometimes it might just be better to go off on a bender in Mexico and come back feeling sick as hell and reminding yourself why you don’t do that anymore. Good bartenders who listened to your bitching and knew when to say "time to go home" were unlicensed therapists, in a way.

    All of this may seem insensitive, but you’d written about intoxicant usage and depression, I’ve dealt with both, so I don’t think it’s too tasteless.

    One last thing. When we were talking about this in the car the 12-year-old passenger asked who Williams was. Her mom, struggling to think of a movie the kid had seen, said "he was in ‘R.V.’" and the kid said "oh, no, I really liked him."

    If you’re a performer with any kind of intelligence, being in the kind of dreck Williams was in often in his later career (like "R.V.") can’t have been rewarding. But you have to do it, if you hope to work in something good again, just to keep your public profile out there. If you’re a U.K./Irish performer with comic and dramatic flair you can work in both areas forever (say, Billy Connelly in "Quartet.")

    We’d also been talking in the car, before, about how American teen stars (with rare exceptions) grow up very confused, while look at the kids from the "Harry Potter" movies, who all seem to be doing alright. And we decided that American teen stars grow up among adults fighting in a horrid market-based system while those Potter kids grew up with Maggie Smith, Brendan Gleeson, Thompson/Branaugh, etc. — you couldn’t ask for saner role models. It’s just a different attitude towards performers over there, and a healthier one.

    I can’t help thinking that Williams would have been better off moving to Wales. Or barring that, the lithium island.

  4. @JMF – There was nothing wrong with what you wrote–except your crack about [i]RV[/i]! I actually rather liked it, but I could have done without the scat and Barry Sonnenfeld’s face on the side of the RV. I thought the screenplay was actually quite well structured with a satisfying denouement. And Will Arnett as a rich jerk is so great. Not that it was a great film or anything.

    I think the thing about the British actors is that the whole way they look at acting is different: more like a profession and less like a lottery.

    Branagh? I’ve always assume that in private, he is a basket case. How else can he do this:

    Link missing.

    I don’t just mean the performance. I mean deciding to do it that way. My reading of it has always been that Macbeth is in a state of shock and so emotionless. It is rather too intellectual a speech as it is. But Branagh, as usual, pulls out the human emotion that is usually hidden to we mortals (and Shakespeare).

    So I assume he’s a basket case.

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