As I write this, social media has been overtaken by the news that actor and comedian Robin Williams was found dead in his northern California home, apparently the victim of suicide. His publicist noted that Williams – who openly admitted to his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction – was battling severe depression recently, possibly fueled by reported financial troubles. Williams had also recently checked into rehab to “fine tune” his sobriety.
Williams had a long and prolific career. He was known in the 1970s for his particularly manic standup style, which he then brought over to his breakout gig as the titular spaceman Mork on the sitcom “Mork & Mindy.” Williams was famous for ad-libbing his character so much that scripts were left with entire pages blank just to give Williams room to do his thing.
Williams then turned to movies, and starred in no small number of them, including a number of critical and box office successes. Along the way, he won pretty much every accolade an actor like him could have won, including a 1998 Academy Award for Best Supporting Role in Good Will Hunting. He had three projects in post-production at the time of his death.
While Williams was known as a comic, not all of his roles were light. About half of his filmography were serious roles that revealed how, for all of his supercharged clowning, he was also capable of tapping into the kind of deep melancholy that seems to drive many comedians. Williams’ work was about tears, whether they came from laughter or sorrow. Maybe with him, there was little difference.
There have been a number of online tributes to Williams. The one that matters most is a statement from his daughter, Zelda. What comes second are from those who knew Williams best, as a man of genuine sensitivity and generosity. It is hard to resist the urge to mythologize those who have died, but Williams left behind a huge number of people with no small number of good things to say about him as a professional, but more importantly, as a person.
But the most numerous tributes are from his fans. One features a screenshot from the Disney animated feature Aladdin (in which Williams was the voice of the Genie) quoting the line, “Genie, you’re free.” Another features a quote from Williams in which he says, “We are only given a little spark of madness. We mustn’t lose it.” Lines he said from the film Dead Poet’s Society, when he exhorted young men to seize their own destinies. Lines from the film Patch Adams, where he plays a pediatrician, and speaks on the difference between accepting death and battling illness. The list goes on.
One that seems to hit the hardest, given Williams’ career and cause of death, comes not from his own work, but from a passage in the graphic novel Watchmen, which seems to capture the conflict between Williams as a bringer of levity, and Williams as a man who suffered from inescapable darkness:
“Heard joke once. Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says “But Doctor…I am Pagliacci.”
We have written about mental illness and suicide in these pages before. Williams was a wealthy man who could afford whatever care he needed. If he did indeed take his own life, then it is because he was in so much pain that when he woke each morning and asked himself the question we all ask ourselves whether we know it or not – “Today, will I embrace life or death?” – the answer was no longer, “Life.”
Depression is an illness, and often a terminal one. It afflicts millions who need not our pity or judgment, but our care and compassion. Words after someone is gone are nice but meaningless. Action when somebody is ill is what matters. If William’s passing must teach us something, let it teach us to open our eyes to the suffering around us, so that when we see a cause for action, we will take it. After all, the big outpouring of sympathy for Williams’ passing will last a day, maybe two. In that time, countless others will suffer the same fate.
Let’s help all the Pagliaccis that we can.