Date: 12-08-2014 Time: 06:08:01:am
Just hours ago, my local paper reported that Robin Williams was found dead in his home in Tiburon, Calif. The Marin County Sheriff Coroner’s division said it suspected Williams had committed suicide by asphyxiation.
Many famous people live in Marin County, which is also my home, musicians and actors most notable among them. But none is as beloved a native son as Robin Williams, and no death has hit harder.
I met Robin Williams two years ago, only long enough for a warm greeting and gracious handshake, but I can tell you two things: He was kinder than he needed to be to someone he’d never met, and he had very, very sad eyes.
Here are the details, as currently known: Williams was found dead at noon today after a 911 call was placed from the home at 11:55 a.m. The Marin County Sheriff’s Office, the Tiburon Fire Department and the Southern Marin Fire Protection District sent emergency personnel to the scene, arriving almost immediately at 12:00 p.m.
Williams lived in the home on the Tiburon peninsula with his wife, Susan Schneider, but it isn’t clear if it was she who discovered him; reports say only that he was found “by family.” Williams had wed Schneider, his third wife, in the nearby Napa Valley on October 23, 2011. ”I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings,” Schneider said in a statement released by his publicist. “I am utterly heartbroken.”
The Mystery of Suicide
If Williams’ death does prove to be a suicide, it would raise many questions. How could Robin Williams, with a life as successful as anyone could wish for, be depressed enough to take his own life? Or, put even more simply, how could someone who made us laugh so hard be so sad?
The answer, of course, is depression. Depression is why someone could laugh and smile on the outside, and yet feel his life is not worth living.
That Williams battled alcoholism, drug addiction, and depression is no secret. The actor gave many candid interviews describing his struggles with these demons, and his at least temporary successes. Williams’ publicist, Mara Buxbaum, gave a short statement saying that Williams had been “battling severe depression” but stopped short of calling the death a suicide.
Last year Williams returned to television for the first time since his breakout hit Mork and Mindy, with a show called The Crazy Ones, in which he starred with Sarah Michelle Gellar as a father-daughter duo who ran an advertising agency. The show was cancelled after its first season due to low ratings and mediocre reviews.
It’s always tempting to look at a person’s life and professional situation for clues to possible “causes” of suicide. But the truth is, there is no cause of depression – it just is. And that’s the problem – we still look at it as something linked to logic, something a person has control over, when in fact it’s a mental illness (emphasis on illness) that takes control of the brain much as heart disease or cancer takes control over the body.
SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) has some excellent information about depression and suicide, which admirably avoids the us-vs-them attitude that pervades much of the reporting and research on this topic. Like this explanation of why people who are severely depressed don’t seek — or may not respond to — help and treatment.
“Many people who suffer from depression report feeling as though they’ve lost the ability to imagine a happy future, or remember a happy past. Often they don’t realize they’re suffering from a treatable illness, and seeking help may not even enter their mind. Emotions and even physical pain can become unbearable. They don’t want to die, but it’s the only way they feel their pain will end.”
Local Hero Bar None
Robin Williams was not one of those celebrities who hide, or surround themselves with acolytes, or hire security guards to keep fans at bay. He ambled into bookstores in Marin, dropped in on fellow comics and musician friends backstage at local theaters, and visited Redwood High School, from which he graduated in 1969.
Like many people who live in Marin and San Francisco, where Williams also lived, I have a how-funny-is-Robin Williams?! story. Many years ago, a very talented woodworker friend was hired to design and build an entertainment center for Williams’ Pacific Heights home. He asked another friend to help him deliver the piece, which was huge and very heavy.
When the two arrived at Williams’ house, the actor greeted them himself, then stood at the top of the stairs calling out directions as they attempted to maneuver the ungainly piece of furniture up the steep Victorian staircase. Williams went straight into his famous storyteller mode, tossing out quips, doing voices, calling out absurd suggestions. Laughing too hard to hold onto the cabinet, they had to set it down and order Williams into the other room in order to complete the delivery.
But his comedic spark wasn’t enough. Depression won. There were 39,518 suicides in the U.S. in 2011, according to the CDC.
Nominated for the best actor Oscar three times, Williams, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, in which he played the therapist to Matt Damon’s working class maths genius.
As a stand-up, his explosive, improvisational talent was so hard to match that even the established star Billy Crystal once admitted that following Williams on stage was like trying to top the Civil War.
Such was his talent that he was allowed to ad-lib in many of his films – and his quick wit enlivened many a media appearance.
During a media tour for the 1990 film “Awakenings,” when director Penny Marshall mistakenly described the film as being set in a “menstrual hospital,” instead of “mental hospital,” Williams had the presence of mind to offer the explanation: “It’s a period piece.”
Williams once likened his act to the daily jogs he took across the Golden Gate Bridge. There were times he would look over the edge, one side of him pulling back in fear, the other insisting he could fly.
He also said: “Comedy can deal with the fear and still not paralyze you or tell you that it’s going away. You say, OK, you got certain choices here, you can laugh at them and then once you’ve laughed at them and you have expunged the demon, now you can deal with them. That’s what I do when I do my act.”
Born in Chicago in 1951, Williams would remember himself as a shy kid who got some early laughs from his mother – by mimicking his grandmother. He opened up more in high school when he joined the drama club.
He began his career in stand-up comedy before first achieving widespread fame in the TV sitcom Mork and Mindy. The show ran from 1978 to 1982 and Williams was frequently allowed to indulge his talent for improvised comedy while playing Mork, an alien living on Earth.
All star cast: Susan Sarandon, Robert De Niro and Robin Williams star in The Big Wedding
As Mork and Mindy became increasingly popular, Williams started to reach an even wider audience with a series of televised stand-up comedy shows.
During the late Seventies and early Eighties, however, Williams developed an addiction to cocaine.
Williams was a close friend of the comedian John Belushi who died of a cocaine and heroin overdose in 1982. Williams had enjoyed wild parties with Belushi and subsequently admitted that the death of his friend and the birth of his son prompted him to quit drugs: “Was it a wake-up call? Oh yeah, on a huge level.”
On August 9, 2006, however, Williams checked himself into a rehab centre, later admitting he was an alcoholic. His publicist announced: “After 20 years of sobriety, Robin Williams found himself drinking again and has decided to take proactive measures to deal with this for his own well-being and the well-being of his family.”
Williams, though, appeared to have recovered well enough to joke, on a recent tour: “I went to rehab in wine country. To keep my options open.”
In March 2009 Williams was also hospitalised by heart problems, and had to undergo surgery to surgery to replace his aortic valve.
A keen charity fundraiser Williams had, with his second wife, Marsha, founded the Windfall Foundation, to raise money for a wide variety of causes.
As tributes poured in from stars around the world, the Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey tweeted: “Robin Williams made the world laugh & think. I will remember & honour that. A great man, artist and friend. I will miss him beyond measure.”
Steve Carell, the star of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and the US version of The Office, simply wrote: “Robin Williams made the world a little bit better. RIP.”
An autopsy is due to take place on Tuesday.