Monday, August 11, 2014

Death of a Funny Man

"Comedy can be a cathartic way to deal with personal trauma."

Robin Williams
Parade magazine
September 2013

I heard about Robin Williams' death on the radio when I was driving home late this afternoon. Like just about everyone else, I was stunned by the news.

And then I started thinking about it, and I wondered why I was stunned. Why are we all stunned when we hear that someone famous has died — whether by his own hand, as this death appears to be, or by some other cause? Celebrities really aren't any different from anyone else. They feel pleasure and pain. They get sick, and they die — just like ordinary folks you never met.

For some strange reason, I suppose we believe they will live forever. Of course, they don't.

People were shocked when Elvis died and when Michael Jackson died. They were shocked when Princess Di was killed in a car crash in a Paris tunnel. All three — as well as other famous people, like John Belushi — died young, younger than Williams. Kurt Cobain was much younger than Williams when he died by his own hand.

Sometimes they do take their own lives, you know, just like some ordinary folks. Some people have a hard time with that. Celebrities have everything the rest of us can only dream about, don't they? What reason do they have to kill themselves?

Depression and suicide don't respect fame or fortune. I've known some people who took their own lives. The fathers of two my boyhood friends killed themselves — one was quite a bit older than Williams, the other was quite a bit younger. The brother of one of my closest friends took his own life.

The only thing that separates the famous from the ordinary is that they did whatever it was that they did in full view of the world. Ordinary folks don't have audiences judging their every move during a working day. Life isn't "The Truman Show."

Otherwise, I heard someone say on the radio, the famous are no different from the rest of us — except for the fact that most have money. That's a pretty big factor with the economy we've had for the last six years. Take it from me. The lack of money has been at the root of most of my problems for the last half dozen years, and I can understand how a person could be driven to take his life when it seems he will never crawl out of the financial pit in which he finds himself.

Apparently, that money thing was a problem for Williams, too. When the investigation into his death is over — and, reportedly, the coroner will issue a statement tomorrow following an autopsy that presumably is being conducted as I write this — it may turn out that something else was behind Williams' death. But I have heard several people speak tonight of how depressed he had been recently — and that despondency appears to have been rooted in how much money he had lost in two divorces.

Whatever the reason for Williams' death, whether he caused his own death or he met his fate accidentally, I am sorry for those he leaves behind who must cope with his sudden loss.

For Robin Williams, whose struggles with drugs and alcohol were well documented in his lifetime and who sought help for his problems only a month ago, it is over now. Whatever pain he felt, whichever inner demons tormented him, that is in the past. It is those he leaves behind who will need help now. He had three children — all adults now, but much younger than they should be to have lost their father.

I have heard many people tonight reflecting on Williams' great movie performances — and, to be sure, there were many of them. He was always entertaining, whether it was on the big screen or the small one. My first exposure to Robin Williams was in his breakout role on TV's Mork & Mindy. He was an astonishing talent. I don't know if he fully realized it. In my experience, people seldom seem to appreciate the qualities that others admire in them.

If Williams didn't know how special he really was, there are plenty of folks who will spread the word long after the shock of his death has worn off.