Robin Williams, depression, and demons
Guest post by Matt Crowther
“If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
There’s seating near the front. The concert begins at 5.00. It’ll be Mozart, Elvis and anyone of your choosing. Or if Heaven exists it would be nice to know there’s laughter. That would be a great thing to hear God go: “Two Jews walk into a bar.”
The above is a quote from the Q&A portion of Inside the Actor’s Studio. The opening is interviewer James Lipton and the response is Robin Williams. The late Robin Williams.
These are words that I never thought I’d type, not for twenty or more years on whatever website we would have then and not in such circumstances. My words will be the trillionth since the news broke about half midnight British time but words they are.
Like many I first saw Robin Williams when I was a kid and like many others I saw him as the lovable alien Mork who had come to Earth to find out more about life. Lucky for Mork he got to live with the smashing Mindy. Williams said on occasion that there would sometimes, often, be a bit in the script that said “Robin does his thing” and off he went; that there was a translator on set to cover every aspect of what he said and sometimes even she had no idea.
It was said on the radio today that Williams sometimes despaired that the British only ever knew him for Mork & Mindy, or seemed to: “Hey, Mork!” they’d shout. There was that joke on the Graham Norton Show where, talking about his Oscar win, he was on an emotional cloud and then next day someone shouted: “Hey, Mork, where’s Mindy!” and it brought him down with a crash.
From that sitcom (which sadly grew stale after a little while, a show that defeated Battlestar Galactica as well) I became a fan, a follower, and an admirer. There was something about this man that as a kid I latched onto. Maybe in my childhood angst, like TV characters I idolised, I saw an anchor amidst the torrent. Growing up I appreciated the man for all his talent. This is a man who came onto the aforementioned Actor’s Studio and went off on some comic tangent for so long that when Lipton says: “And so the first question” Williams falls over laughing. A man who, in that same programme, made a woman shriek from laughter so loudly even he was startled. A man who could be scarily creepy in One Hour Photo and yet warm and caring in Patch Adams (the first film to make me cry in the cinema. It’s no classic but it’s affecting) and then, yet, zany in Mrs Doubtfire.
And yet… and yet, he had his demons. They say that the archetypal comedian has his demons and that’s what shapes him or her. Tommy Cooper had them, Tony Hancock succumbed to them and many others used them for comic effect. Few proved the exception like Eric Morecambe and maybe the likes of Don Rickles. I knew like others he had his drug addiction (“I was on everything but skates”) and his alcohol addiction, and so after the initial shout of disbelief when I saw “Actor Robin Williams Found Dead” I feared his past had caught with him. Then I saw it: “apparent suicide”. Tonight it’s confirmed as death by hanging.
One can only imagine the torment that lay beneath the surface. I can make no pretensions on this. How we are publicly and how we are privately are different things. It is the height of pretension to say I share the same demons as Robin Williams and others. Yet from my own demons I have tempted to stray to that edge. Even today as I kept thinking about his death I felt the thoughts and feelings rebound in my head like endless waves. Indeed, I thought of these for a while concerning another famous man to take his own life. For a few weeks I’ve relived my childhood by watching Alias Smith & Jones. It was only of late I realised that actor Pete Duel (who played ‘Smith’, a.k.a. Hannibal Heyes) had taken his own life after battling depression. With him, it was a failing show, a stagnant career and failure in love that contributed amongst so many things. It paints a sadness…
As is the case when someone famous dies, you look back over clips of their work and the like. Last night I re-watched one of his appearances on Craig Ferguson’s show and this is what drives my sadness. The two had such rapport that Williams lacked with Letterman or Carson or even Leno. They got on like mates, they knew and fed each other’s comic effect. At a stage show that Ferguson was doing, Williams appeared to dance to Britney Spears’ Hit me Baby One More Time. You watch these clips now and look at that face. Did he, after the show, sit somewhere by himself, down and depressed? A case of being exhausted from keeping up a front? Did he lie awake with repetitive dark thoughts? Did he one day cycle across that beloved Golden Gate Bridge and wonder of jumping? No…I don’t know.
We can never know. Already the rumours circulate that it was in part down to the cancellation of his show. He leaves behind a wife who loved him, and the way he talked about his kids on Letterman for example showed a loving father. Williams had only divorced a year or so ago and so that might not have helped but he leaves his kids. Whatever demons drove him to hang himself… they were that great. One got the impression as he talked once, that he would hope to be there for his kids when they got married, when they got older and had kids of their own.
All of the while I find it unfathomable. I am one of many who liked his work, liked him in spite of his faults – who amongst us is perfect? But… it’s the damndest feeling. Numb, depressed and sad. Sad that he went this way, muddled that he went this way and all the while depressed. Like many who I liked and passed I hoped to meet him one day. That’s big-headed perhaps: what makes me special? Maybe when I finally landed in San Francisco he’d be the man I crossed the street with, I would say hello and he’d be humble, as was his way in public, and that’d be that. In my flights of fancy when my imagination soared I’d imagine him acting in something I wrote.
It’s like losing a friend. It’s silly but it is. I’ve lost a friend, almost a brother really and to this day I can’t stop thinking of him or at least on most days. And so with Robin Williams today I thought of him. It also made me think of my depression and how I often wish I just wasn’t here. Obviously I have not stepped off the platform yet but one can’t help but wonder that like him I might one day just snap and go.
His demons made him to a point. It showed in his work and it showed in his life. Growing up, I was a fan and I liked to think that I took on some of his humour. Or at least I tried to. Nowadays I tend to affect a Dylan Moran Black Books kind of thing. Damn, what pretentious dribble but that’s the case. I’ve long had this weird thought process which few if any understand. People say I’m funny but who knows. It’s down to Robin Williams I owe part of this (and Bill Murray and all the others). Down to a man who would be part of the cheer-up cure I’d seek sometimes.
Seeing the front-page of one of the tabloids today I let out an involuntary groan. You don’t expect people to die. Even James Garner the other day but dear old Garner had lived a full life. At sixty-three Robin Williams was relatively young and there was more in store.
Something I envied him was living in San Francisco. More-so when he talked of cycling out from the city across the bridge and through Marin County for miles.Envious of being able to cycle amongst that green, across that bridge and just for being there. I remember as a kid wanting to write him and saying could you get me over there?
In this age we can wax lyrical on social media, we can share videos, we can go to YouTube and enjoy his heyday – the Craig Ferguson interviews, his 70s/80s stand-up routines, the Comic Relief shows with Billy Crystal – or watch one of his finest films. As it happens, by quirky coincidence, Good Morning Vietnam was already pencilled in for a re-watch on Sunday. This reminds me of when James Garner died, and just days earlier I’d made a mental note to re-watch Grand Prix. Eeerie.)
And so, he’ll never be forgotten. Like his best friend Christopher Reeve. Certainly, I will remember him – and as I do, I’ll desperately hope not to picture in my mind those last moments. Yet I will batter on through the waves that are the dark thoughts and suicidal moments of my own. I’ll do so until either I triumph or I fail. In such terms I tend to live my life.
Even now, after what seems an age since the news broke, I find myself hoping it’s a bad dream. People were concerned for me, knowing my empathy for the man, but they shouldn’t have been. For one, it paints me out as a fanboy but also, what does it say about me? That my depression is such that the death of a man who I never met, and could never have met, has such an impact?
What it says about my friends is that they care and worry. But demons aren’t that easy to rid. Sometimes I think I need those dark thoughts and feelings. Most of the time I don’t know of a life without them.
We’ll miss Robin Williams. In the end that is more than enough for a man who touched so many.