Warning: Graphic Content. If you are prone to triggers or depression, please consider another article.
For years, instead of writing memoriams, I’ve played this sick game with a friend in which we try to be the first to RIP the latest celeb.
RIP Elaine Stritch.
RIP Shirley Temple
RIP Casey Kasem
RIP Robin Williams.
Robin Williams was born in 1951 in Chicago, Illinois. After a stretch of community college, he went to Juilliard for theater, but before he finished, he moved to San Francisco, and then to Los Angeles to pursue dramatic acting. He was unsuccessful — his first time out, anyway — so he did what he knew to do – stand-up comedy.
The Comedy Store, the Laugh Factory, the Improv… he saw them all. His big break came when Garry Marshall, then showrunner of Happy Days, decided he wanted to see an alien on the show. Robin auditioned, and when they asked him to have a seat, he sat on his head. And so the world was introduced to Mork from Ork, an alien vehicle built for Williams’ improv skills. Marshall simply said of his casting, “Only one alien auditioned for the part.”
His 1980 breakout film, Popeye, was panned. It garners a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes, the consensus being it’s “messy, wildly uneven.” And yet, this is where I first fell in love with films, and when I first fell in love with the actor, Robin Williams.
Directed by Robert Altman (yes, the Robert Altman , director of Nashville, The Player, Mash, Short Cuts, and forty other films and died a legend), Robin’s take on the muscly sailor with a penchant for canned spinach was cartoonic, foolish and trite. I loved every second of it.
And so this past Monday, when at the age of 63, the strongest sailor in the world slit his wrists, wrapped a belt around his neck and closed the closet door, he suffocated a piece of my childhood along with himself. And I can see from the reaction around the globe that I’m not the only one that feels this way.
Facebook and Twitter connections all seem to be dealing with his death in similar ways. Fans of his comedy celebrate his life with a late night viewing of The Birdcage or Mork or Mindy, while fans of his dramatic work have dusted off old copies of Dead Poets Society or Good Morning, Vietnam. The Academy posted this in his honor.
On Facebook, fellow comedian and friend Chevy Chase posted a photograph of himself with Williams and Steve Martin. And countless fans across the world have sobbed, celebrated, and forgiven with this quote from 1997’s Good Will Hunting:
I, on the other hand, went home and put on another film: J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost. The 2013 film, starring only Robert Redford, is about a man who’s sailing trip turns into survival when his boat collides with a shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s a simple story, the script only 32 pages, with only three lines of dialogue. There’s no superhero motif. In fact, there’s nothing special about him at all. His character name is simply, “Our Man.” He’s an old man with demons. When crisis strikes, he begins reading the beginner’s guide to sea navigation. It simply is the story an ordinary man trying to survive in the middle of an extraordinary situation.
Robin Williams was a genius. He was a master of comedy, a brilliant improviser. The term “yes, and…” wasn’t a rule for him, it was a state of being. “Just go with it,” seemed to be his law of attraction. Watch his introduction to his 2001 appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio.
As Meryl Streep told Today, he was an unstoppable ball of energy. Interviewers loved him, but every interview I watched, it seemed that interviewers didn’t know how to handle him. He couldn’t be handled. For those moments Williams was on their set, it became no longer theirs. It morphed into a simply a player in his world of voices and characters and strung-together sentences that made no sense. There was no time to process his trains of thought, you simply had to jump on or be left behind.
“All the World’s a stage,” he seemed to breathe, “and all the men and women are simply players.” Or as it would seem for Robin, simply his audience.
The news reports that at the time of his death, he was battling heavy depression, as well as an addiction to cocaine and heroin. But I believe we need to look before this time, long before, to see a man who’s been on that stage for the entirety of his thirty-year career. A man who never let the camera see the person behind the improv. The world knows his artistry, but great artistry always comes at a great cost to the man under the mask.
In her seminal work, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron speaks of a friend of hers. An unnamed Artist of ”formidable talents. He is assured a place in history for his contribution to his field… Nonetheless, this is an artist suffering in the throes of artistic anorexia. Although he continues to work, he does so at greater and greater cost to himself. Why, he sometimes wonders, does his life’s work now feel so much like his life’s work?”
There’s no lack of artists, actors even, that have died too young, whether that young is 23-year old River Phoenix, or 24- year old James Dean. Or Chris Farley, 33 of an overdose, as well as John Belushi, 33 as well, also of an overdose. Phil Hartman, 49 by his wife. John Candy, and James Gandolfini.
At the time of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, we learned that he had long been suffering from an addiction with meth, heroin, and several other drugs. Aaron Sorkin’s piece for Time said they would share mini AA meetings in between breaks on the set of Charlie Wilson’s War. Ones where they would tell their horror stories and then simply acknowledge, “Yeah, I used to do that.”
I remember where I was when word came that Kurt Cobain shot himself. Outside lunch area, T.L. Hanna High School, Anderson, South Carolina. A group of teenage metalheads and hippies circled around a nylon-strung guitar to sing an off-pitch amateur rendition of “Come As You Are.” In the days following, Kurt Cobain was elevated from the leader of a hit grunge band with a powerful message to a musical God. He’d never have the chance to release a final so-so product, such as Elliott Smith’s 2004 posthumous release, From a Basement on a Hill, which suffered from unfinished songs and overproduced sounds, or Candy’s Canadian Bacon, which released at any other point in his longstanding career would have been just another flop.
Lindsay Lohan’s drug and alcohol-fueled antics are ripe with gossip column fuel, complete with two stints in jail. After Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991, he coped with alcoholism. Corey Haim passed in 2010 after a prescription addiction, Brittany Murphy in 2009. David Hasselhoff videotaped himself during an alcoholic stupor to remind himself of a time he wouldn’t remember sober. Heath Ledger, Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny Depp, Ed Harris, Anna Nicole Smith, and even the ever-romantic overdose of Marilyn Monroe. Sylvia Plath’s suicide in an oven is legendary, perhaps even more so than the haunting work she left behind.
Even almost two centuries ago, after Van Gogh cut off his ear, he wrote in a letter to his brother, “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head… at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse.”
It’s tough when artists are always in and out of rehab, in and out of prison, or take their own lives, but it’s not uncommon. While the world laughs or cries or takes shots at Justin Bieber, while the men and women in high offices and expensive suits and factories and farms look at a comedian and say, “it’s not like they had to really work,” I have to respond, most likely, they did more work than you.
In the January 2014 article “The Dark Side of Creativity,” CNN reports that in a study done at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, researchers tracked nearly 1.2 million Swedes and their relatives. The patients showed signs of conditions ranging from schizophrenia and depression to ADHD and anxiety.
“They found that those working in creative fields [actors, dancers, writers, photographers, etc] were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were a staggering 121% more likely to suffer from the condition, and nearly 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population.”
Why is that, you might wonder. My answer would be this: that the general population is not forced to deal with their inner demons in order to punch numbers, or build robots, or make deals, or grow vegetables or raise cattle. They’re not forced to create from within, not like artists are.
A writer tells a story, and in order to make it a “good script,” he is forced to deal with research and emotions and characters and relationships. He’s forced to “have something to say,” to put a theme to his work that someone will relate to. To take his story and his characters to the very end. To tell the tale of an ordinary man struggling to survive in an extraordinary world. An actor reads a side and, in order to make it a good performance, is forced to dig deep within and connect to a time where they’ve felt similarly. Meryl Streep had to remember when she was forced to make a tough decision for Sophie’s Choice, and Jim Carrey was forced to find control over his life for The Truman Show, and Heath Ledger was forced to find that insanity, the one that would spark the rumors that it led to his death, for The Dark Knight. The artist is forced to go places the general population will never be asked to go, and then they’re forced to deal with the repercussions as the general population sees, discusses, and critiques their work.
In 1998, Robin gave an interview with weekly Brazil magazine “Veja”, to promote the fantasy film What Dreams May Come. He spoke candidly of how he felt about critical reviews:
“It’s hard when you read an article saying bad things about you. It is as if someone is sticking a knife on your heart. But I am the harshest critic of my work. It’s like having this interior voice which disapproves me all the time. But sometimes it is that voice which admits that I did something right.”
For the 2006 documentary, The Bridge, filmmaker Eric Steel spent one year filming the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most popular suicide spots in the country. An estimated 1600 people have made the 220-foot fall into the San Francisco Bay. The film was inspired by a 2003 New Yorker article, Jumpers, written by Tad Friend. In the article, Friend wrote “Survivors often regret their decision midair, if not before.”
The film interviews survivor Ken Baldwin, now paralyzed and bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, who tells the filmmakers, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable — except for having just jumped.”
I have to wonder what it is that someone like Robin Williams saw in those final moments, who on the outside had so much, but on the inside must have been constantly at war with those demons. Did he try to fight the belt, but simply lose? Did he grasp for the handle of the door? Did he immediately realize that everything he thought was totally unfixable was completely fixable?
We’ve heard the line a million times this week, but it never loses its weight. Because deep down, we all realize that it’s the truth, and it relates deeply to all of us who consider ourselves Artists. The depression we may feel, the guilt we may hold, the feeling that those around us can never love us because of the choices that we have made. We have to know, we have to realize, and we have to understand, it’s not your fault.
We all have our Demons, and as Artists, we are all forced to fight with them day after day after day. This guilt, these problems, this cocaine and sex and alcohol do not define the man or the woman behind the mask. They are our Resistance, as Steven Pressfield calls it in the War of Art— the coping mechanisms we hold onto because we are afraid the person we are is not the person we are supposed to be. We are afraid we are failures. We are afraid we are losers. We are afraid we are unfixable. But we are not our Demons. They are not the real us. Artists are not our addictions. We are not our past. We are not our guilt. We are not the unfixable beings we see ourselves to be, and we do not need to touch death to see that.
In my head, I will always see Robin Williams as a mix between Patch Adams, Dead Poets Society, and Good Will Hunting, with a bit of Mrs. Doubtfire on the side. I can no longer see him as Popeye. It’s not because of his lack of strength, or because Popeye overcame and Robin did not. It’s because I was 1 when Popeye came into my world, and we all grow up. We all learn and discover and fight and struggle, and we all feel. I know now that the man in the sailor outfit was not the real Robin, but these other films, I believe those were as close as we’ll ever get.
In my grown up Artist’s mind, I see Robin Williams as the man who loved the stage so much that he never wanted to leave it. I see him as a man who was so in tune with his inner thoughts that he could improvise a scene like this in Good Will Hunting and have it be one of the most memorable scenes of the film.
In my grown up mind, I see that Robin Williams also grew up. And I can only guess what went through his mind in those final moments, but I can sense that the man who’s always on stage realizes that at some point, his character will exit. And when the time comes, will it be of his own choosing, or the writer’s? I can imagine that Robin felt it was time for his character to exit stage right, and being the man always in control of his stage, he chose his own exit.
At the end of every Inside the Actor’s Studio, James Lipton asks his guests ten questions:
What is your favorite word? (Cloaca.)
What is your least favorite word? (Cunt.)
What turns you on? (The sound of my wife’s laugh.)
What turns you off? (Violence towards children.)
What sound or noise do you love? (Farting.)
What sound or noise do you hate? (Brakes squealing.)
What is your favorite curse word? (Pussy.)
What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? (Neurologist or theoretical physicist.)
What profession would you not like to attempt? (Bomb tester)
And finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates:
Rest in peace, Robin. To the actor, and the man. And thank you.
If you or someone you know displays signs of depression or suicide, tell someone. Call the National Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.