I think the world feels like Mr. Keating did when reading the poem at Neils desk after he committed suicide in the Movie Dead Poets Society. Oh Captain My Captain.
I remember meeting someone who once tried for 10 years to become a stand up comedian. He told me horror stories about the immense travel, drug and alcohol use, broken relationships and lonely times. He talked about living near poverty for 10 years and being ripped off by many of the people who he hoped would help him. Eventually he said he just didn’t want it anymore. He eventually married, had a child and is a very a happy man. Comedy is a rough life.
It has been said more than a few times that comedians are usually the saddest and most dysfunctional of all the artistic performers. The suicide of Robin Williams is another in the long line of tragedies involving comics. The list of troubled and tragic comedian deaths over time reads like a who’s who of hollywood. From John Belushi and Chris Farley, to Freddie Prinze Sr., Gilda Radner and Andy Kaufman. Add John Candy, Bernie Mac and John Ritter to the mix and that is the tip of the iceberg of those with great comedic talents who are gone but yet had so much more to give. From cancer to suicide, to drug and alcohol abuse to overdose; there just seems to be a sick joke often played on comedians.
I remember when I had my medical business in Marin County. I talked to a lady at my old church who had studied with Williams at the Marin Theater. She said once that the class was making fun of Robin until the teacher scolded them and said, “That guy is going to make it big someday”. She said his talent was easy to see and he was a very caring and nice person.
Robin Williams was a poster child for the lifestyle of the 70’s and 80s. He rocketed into stardom with his appearances on the hit show Happy Days, which soon turned into his own hit show with Pam Dawber called Mork and Mindy. Just like that show, Williams had a long strange trip ahead. His break on Happy Days was preceeded by a couple of appearances on the Richard Pryor show.
In the 70’s and 80’s there were no limits to the excess of the party scene. For many the drug of choice was cocaine. It allowed people to be able to party all night and yet be energized for the demands of their busy careers.
In his early years you could see the effects of his lifestyle. On talk shows he would talk so fast and so long, that you didn’t have a clue sometimes what he was talking about. Soon that lifestyle would take it’s toll and he lost his friend John Belushi in 1982 from an overdose. Two years later he would lose another great comedy friend; Andy Kaufman; who as a non smoker; lost his battle to lung cancer at the age of 35.
As with most comedians his relationships were also very hard and strange at times. He was married three times, including marrying the nanny of his son.
After entering rehab in the 80’s Williams embarked on 2 decades of sobriety. He said the birth of his son and the loss of John Belushi were key things that made him want to stay sober.
I was never a huge Robin Williams fan and I didn’t lose my mind over Good Will Hunting, but I did enjoy his talents. My top 3 films of his were Dead Poet’s Society, Good Morning Vietnam and Awakenings. Each movie had amazing casts. He portrayed an honest depth and sincerity in his roles and showed off his amazing wit and sense of humor, to go along with a passionate heart. When given the right material, he was pretty special. Williams had so many good films to go with a dud every now and then.
As with so many comedians, the demons seem to always reappear though. In 2006 Williams re-entered a rehab facility after he began drinking. In 2009 he had his aortic valve replaced but had a good rehabilitation.
Many Comedians such as Williams have hearts of gold. He was very giving of his time and money and was a big part of the Comedy Relief fundraising efforts. When his good friend Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in an accident, he visited him and his family said it was the first time Reeve’s had laughed since being hurt. He was a kind man. Reeve’s wife Dana talked about how Robin helped pay for some of his treatments after his tragic injury.
Now that he is gone, there will be a frenzy of media attention. Why did he do it? We will probably never really know. It’s hard to know what makes people do what they do, especially celebrities. Some famous people can’t handle not being on top; some can’t handle the lack of notoriety and attention. Some are just troubled souls due to the long effects of addiction and the torment and the destruction that it brings. No matter how far they’ve come or how much they’ve accomplished, they still can’t find their way. Some fans, family and friends are going to be angry and some will be overly apologetic. In the end, suicide is a terrible thing for all; and the pain for family and friends can be suffocating.
I will always have a special place in my heart for comedians though. I love going to comedy shows and it drives me nuts to see hecklers or comedy club owners who don’t treat comedians right. And even with so many who will be close to judge, in reality there is a little comedian in all of us.
And so closes another chapter in a sad tale of a comedian that we lost too soon. As a society we lose big time. Family and friends have a loss that is beyond measure. All we can really do now is say thank you Robin Williams for making us laugh and for being so kind to so many. We pray for the ones you leave behind. We hope that in some way you have found the peace that you were always looking for.
This is the poem that was read at the opening of the Dead Poets Society meetings:
“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life!
To put to rout all that was not life
And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…”