A master of comedy, lost to the scourge of depression
He was one of the funniest comedians of his age. Yet the suspected suicide of Robin Williams showed his demons never quite went away
Published 14/08/2014 | 02:30
THE darkness was always there. You could see it in his smile, hear it in the manic crescendos of his voice. Robin Williams may have been one of the most successful comedians of his generation, yet he, at all times, radiated a strange sadness, as if the approving laughter of strangers was all that prevented him from tumbling into a pit of angst. He was constantly laughing, but sometimes it appeared as if he was on the edge of tears.
In the end, it seems he finally lost his toe-hold and slipped over the brink. As the world now knows, Williams was found dead at his Los Angeles home on Monday - he apparently died by suicide. He had, it was reported, recently left rehab and was fighting depression: a star who, in public appearances, emanated a ferocious joie de vivre, exited the world quietly and alone - no longer, it appeared, capable of ploughing the sad, lonely furrow his life had become.
Tragically, his passing cannot be regarded as a surprise. Through his career, Williams had wrestled constantly with demons. In his first blush of fame - when the sitcom Mork and Mindy was turning him into a global household name - his solution was to lose himself in bottomless blizzards of cocaine, to become a party animal in extremis.
It's likely that he skated close to the precipice a few times. In the '80s, his notoriety as a hedonist was tremendous. A daily drug user, Williams was one of the last people to see actor John Belushi alive at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in LA in 1982, several hours before Belushi's fatal overdose. Williams was also close to Richard Pryor, likewise known for his struggles with substance abuse (his first TV appearance was on Pryor's show).
"Cocaine for me," he told People magazine in 2008 "was a place to hide. Most people get hyper on coke. It slowed me down.
"The Belushi tragedy was frightening," he added later. "His death scared a whole group of show-business people. It caused a big exodus from drugs. And for me, there was the baby coming. I knew I couldn't be a father and live that sort of life."
Comedians are known to loathe the tears of a clown caricature. People, they insist, are motivated to go on stage and make people laugh for many reasons. As news of Williams' death spread, Irish comic Dara O Briain warned against reading too much into Williams's occupation. "Let's not let this news bolster the dumb, pat cliche about 'tears of a clown'," he tweeted. "Depression is an illness that strikes anywhere in society."
Nonetheless, it's difficult not to see comedy - and the need to be loved it articulated - as a flip-side of Williams's depressive tendencies. He was never diagnosed as bi-polar, yet over the years, many psychologists have theorised that he displayed all the symptoms of the condition - flitting between maniacal and brooding, his giddiness underpinned by an air of frenzy.
Nor was he alone: Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax have spoken honestly about their depression; the British Journal of Psychology has noted that comedians are "predisposed to high levels of psychotic personality traits" - that is, they display a higher than normal predisposition towards bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Sobriety could not save Williams. On talk shows and performing stand-up, he was forever wired, hopped-up to the point where it was faintly queasy. It was as if he subconsciously understood that, to slow down long would be to surrender to his demons. If he kept moving, perhaps they could not claim him.
Ironically, he fell off the wagon making one of the bravest professional decision of his career. In 2001, he agreed to play the quietly psychopathic villain in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia. Set in the bleak wilds of Alaska, the film was a triumph - yet at too high a cost for William.
"I was in a small town where it's not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: 'drinking'. I just thought, 'hey, maybe drinking will help'," he recalled not long after, "because I felt alone and afraid. It was that thing of working so much, and going 'f**k, maybe that will help'. You feel warm and kind of wonderful. And then the next thing you know, it's a problem, and you're isolated."
He didn't return to drugs, understanding a cocaine relapse might be the end of him. Nonetheless, addiction dragged him back to a bleak place. He recalls arriving at an event in Cannes four sheets to the wind - too sozzled to care, yet aware of the stares and whispers.
"Most of the time you just realise you've started to do embarrassing things," he said.
"And I realised I was pretty baked, and I look out and I see, all of a sudden, a wall of paparazzi."
Williams made those comments while promoting a well-regarded domestic drama, World's Greatest Dad, in 2009. In hindsight, the film feels terribly prescient. Williams plays the father of selfish, indulgent son, who dies when an auto-erotic stunt goes awry. Reluctant to share the truth with the world, Williams' character recasts the death as suicide to win unmerited sympathy for his child, wrongly perceived as a gentle soul too fragile for the world. In the film, Williams utters the lines that will, this week, resonate horrifically.
"Remember," he says. "Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems."
In the movie, the comment is made in rather off-hand fashion. Today, the words feel horribly eerie.