The whole world was left in shock on Monday when the news broke that award-winning actor and comedian, Robin Williams, had been found dead at his home after committing suicide. The 63-year old, who was married and had three children, was discovered by his personal assistant on the morning of Monday 11th August after having hanged himself in the bedroom of his California home.
When trying to make sense of the passing of such a iconic and beloved individual, where do you even begin?
Robin Williams was a man who was simply born to make people laugh, but behind the wild comedy lay a much darker side. His infectious smile and twinkly eyes hid the pain of his struggles with the demons in his life, from drug and alcohol addiction to bouts of depression. It has been reported that he had visited a rehabilitation centre to try to ‘fine-tune’ his sobriety in the weeks leading up to his death and had also been suffering with severe depression, and although the question of why he would take his own life remains unanswered, this depressive mind-set seems the most likely culprit for leading a man with seemingly everything to live for to the dark depths of suicide.
To someone who has never suffered from depression, the option of suicide can be not only unfathomable to imagine, but also appear a fundamentally selfish act. The late star has already been criticised by some for his ‘selfish’ suicide, prompting his daughter Zelda to hit back in defence of her father with a statement faithful to his fondness for laughter:
“As for those who are sending negativity, know that some small, giggling part of him is sending a flock of pigeons to your house to poop on your car.”
His death has put a spotlight on the mental health issue of depression, which affects millions of people every day. I know a great many people who have, and still do, suffer with depression, but if you’ve never experienced it yourself then you can only ever reach a limited extent of understanding of the disease, and it is a disease, no doubt about it. It is a serious affliction with no rhyme or reason to it and one which has stolen many a good soul away from this Earth before their time.
Robin Williams is not the first comedian to lose his life to depression; indeed, these types of high-profile figures are probably more susceptible to addiction and mental health problems than most others. Spike Milligan, Stephan Fry, John Cleese, Ruby Wax, David Walliams… these are all great comedic minds who have openly spoken about their battles with depression, and others such as Tony Hancock and John Belushi both died at too young an age following drug overdoses.
An academic study published in January 2014 established a link between comedy and depression, revealing that research had found that comedians display high levels of psychotic personality traits. In a Sky News article, Professor Gordon Claridge of the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology, is quoted as follows:
“The creative elements needed to produce humour are strikingly similar to those characterising the cognitive style of people with psychosis – both schizophrenic and bipolar disorder.”
Robin Williams’ death has filled the world with sadness, but perhaps some light can be found in the resultant discussions about the darkness of depression that have been opening up. There has to be hope that some good can come from such a tragic loss. This wonderfully talented man was truly one of a kind. He gave the world the gift of laughter, and in doing so, created a legacy that will long survive his death.
He was a phenomenal entertainer who, whether he was performing on the stage or screen, commanded the attention of his audience. He started as a stand-up comedian, and returned to the stage throughout his career, leaping between improvised jokes and pre-written material with ease and infusing his routines with a high-level of maniacal energy that was just very, very, very funny. He also performed in several theatre productions over the years, starting with his appearance in the Off-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot opposite Steve Martin at Lincoln Centre in 1988.
He brought his one-man show, Robin Williams: Live on Broadway, to the Broadway Theatre in 2002 and returned to Broadway in 2011, starring in the title role of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at the Richard Rogers Theatre.
He was best-known for his television and film roles though. He first shot to fame in the Happy Days spin-off series Mork and Mindy, playing an alien from the planet Ork who comes to live on Earth. This led to roles in several films, including Moscow on the Hudson, Seize the Day and Club Paradise, before he was cast in the 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Adrian Cronauer, the popular radio DJ on Armed Forces Radio Services.
He strengthened his acting reputation with further roles in such films as Dead Poets Society and Fisher King and went on to forge a highly successful career as a film actor, particularly for his comedic performances in many beloved family movies such as Mrs Doubtfire, Hook, Jumanji, Jack, Flubber , Night at the Museum and Patch Adams – not forgetting of course his memorable voice work for the Genie in Disney’s animated movie Aladdin. He also proved himself as a truly versatile and talented actor with his various serious roles in films like One Hour Photo, Insomnia and Good Will Hunting, this last one earning him a ‘Best Supporting Actor’ Oscar for his role as therapist Dr. Sean Maguire.
His death has led to an outpouring of tributes from many celebrities who knew/worked/met him, including Ben Stiller, Kevin Spacey, Minnie Driver, Steven Spielberg, John Travolta, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Johnny Depp and so many more. Comedian and actor Billy Crystal, who was one of his closest friends, said: “Robin was both my friend and my hero, a unique talent and a kind and generous man; the world will be a much poorer place without him.”
Robin Williams will be remembered as a exceptional talent and a true comic genius whose intelligence and wit was only exceeded by his kindness and generosity. Many who knew him describe him as a man who was filled with love and compassion and found the greatest joy in making people laugh. I was especially touched by a story that was recounted from the late Superman actor Christopher Reeve’s autobiography. The two enjoyed an enduring friendship that began when they first met as room mates at the Julliard School in New York in 1973. In his autobiography, Reeves talked about the time surrounding the horse-riding accident that ultimately left him paralysed. He was in hospital preparing to undergo an operation which carried a 50/50 chance of killing him when Williams burst through the door dressed in surgical scrubs and speaking in a Russian accent, announcing that he was a proctologist and there to carry out a rectal examination. As Reeves wrote: “For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.”
There are countless people who have equally heart-warming tales about a man who lived to make others laugh. Their words are what we should be listening to following his death, not rumours of money troubles and criticism of him from people who can’t understand his pain. A line from his 2009 film, World’s Greatest Dad, has taken on a new poignancy since his death, as he looks to the camera and says, “If you are that depressed, reach out to someone. And remember, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” We could remember him as a man who had everything to live for didn’t, but I prefer to listen to his family. His wife asked that people not focus on his death, but on the ‘countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions’, while children have also offered memories of him as ‘one of the kindest, most generous and gentle souls’. His son, Zak Williams, also asked people to ‘seek to bring joy to the world as he sought’, which is perhaps the most important lesson to be taken from this tragedy.
His death is not only for a loss for those who knew him, but the entertainment world and the millions of people around the world who grew up watching him do what only he could do. Robin Williams has left a huge hole in people’s hearts, and though we might not be able to understand the pain and desperation that led him to take his own life, some may find comfort in the knowledge that he has been released from it. The heart-breaking tribute from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists perhaps said it best with just three simple words:
‘Genie, You’re Free.’
By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25
Wednesday 13th August 2014