As the outpouring of grief over Robin Williams’ death continues, it becomes more and more apparent that another legacy of the comedic genius will be heightened public awareness of the ravages of depression – and that is a good thing. In fact, Williams at his best would be pleased to play a part in bringing understanding and help to others battling the condition. The superstar who was so quick to lend his name and his energy to dozens of good causes, including the Comic Relief events he toplined with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, would surely have stepped up for this one.
Williams, as has been noted by many colleagues, gave his best in interviews. We experienced many of those rollicking sessions, during which he would fly rat-a-tat through free association craziness, character voice upon character voice, then veer into seriousness with insightful remarks. (I often quote his “humor half-life” measure of how funny a comedy bit is: funny if you laugh at the time, very funny if you think of it a day later and laugh again, exceptionally funny if you still laugh after a year or more. Robin scored lots of the latter. Think Mrs. Doubtfire, flaming bust, for instance.)
But the interviews changed in recent years, more and more tinged with the pain he was experiencing inside. He commented that his doctor used to tell him drugs could kill him. Now his doctor told him he needed drugs to stay alive. “So my doctor has become my dealer, and harder to get a hold of.”
He talked candidly about his return to drinking alcohol in 2003 after 20 years of sobriety. Asked by Decca Aitkenhead of the U.K.’s Guardian whether those who attributed his drinking to the loss of his friend, Christopher Reeve, were correct, he answered, “No…It’s more selfish than that. It’s just literally being afraid. And you think oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.”
What was he afraid of? “Everything. It’s just a general all-round arggghhh. It’s fearfulness and anxiety.” And loneliness, he said.
Ironically, he was promoting the black comedy film “World’s Greatest Dad” at the time – a film in which his character’s son dies, and he writes a fake suicide note that becomes a sensation. Suicide and death were present in several of his films.
Now, one can’t help wondering how much his fear and anxiety was at work within him, even as he made what was supposed to be, expected to be, a triumphal return to television last year with “The Crazy Ones.” The show had started off with 15.52 million viewers, making it the most highly viewed series premiere that fall – then ratings dropped off. Still, it was considered “on the bubble” until the announcement came that CBS was cancelling it – with an audience of 10.5 million, the highest-rated cancellation of last season. Don’t be surprised if stories emerge that there was more of a problem behind the scenes than a supporting cast that didn’t quite jell.
In fact, there will be, sadly, many more stories emerging of Williams’ decades-long struggle with depression, which fueled his alcohol and substance abuse, and the pain behind his tragic end. He was jarred by his heart surgery – for replacement of an aortic valve – in 2009. He felt open and vulnerable, and very mortal, a feeling he said never left him, which he considered a blessing.
He had reached out for help numerous times, had gone through 12 step program rehabs and sobriety journeys with friends. Tragically, it wasn’t enough.