In my tribute to one of the most talented, well respected and widely loved actors and comedians, I discuss Robin Williams’ inner demons, his battle with depression, and why he learnt that laughter was the best medicine.
Through the smiles Robin Williams planted on our faces via his work on stage, television and film, he was able to feed his hunger to entertain. It was this ability – an electric energy switched on when the spotlight illuminated him – that allowed his inner shield, a showbiz comfort blanket, to mute a personal turmoil that he hoped would remain backstage.
Tragically, it wouldn’t stay backstage forever and on August 11th 2014 Robin Williams committed suicide at his home in California. His publicist revealed that Williams had been suffering from severe depression in the months leading up to his death.
It’s especially sad given the recent passing of another terrific actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Both gave every ounce of their being to the profession – when the camera was rolling you could see that passion oozing from every pore. But it came at a cost, as is so often the case.
Robin Williams was a self-confessed party animal during the early years of his career. He enjoyed, rather than battled against, a penchant for cocaine and alcohol. However, the death of his friend John Belushi and the birth of his child, prompted him to reassess his life. He ditched the drugs and alcohol. This sobriety lasted 20 years.
In 2003, he turned to alcohol again and eventually checked himself into a substance abuse centre. He publicly declared that he was an alcoholic and needed help.
Sometimes having a great imagination – like all great (and not-so great) artists whether they be painters, poets, musicians, novelists, film-makers or actors – can be as much a curse as it is a blessing. We’re all creative one way or another, and our imagination is something to hold dear, but those that make a living out of it, those who must find it within themselves to switch on that creativity when demanded and yet struggle to switch off when unrequired, find the extreme highs are shadowed by devastating lows.
Indeed, although not diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Williams’ description of his symptoms to interviewers over the years displays clear signs of the condition. It is categorised as experiencing periods of elevated mood followed by depression and afflicts approximately 5.7 million in America alone. Other notable Hollywood stars who have admitted to the condition include Carrie Fisher, Linda Hamilton and Jean-Claude Van Damme. British writer and comedian Stephen Fry has also freely spoken about his experiences with bipolar disorder, a condition that has prompted several suicide attempts.
Williams’ death once again brings to light the difficulties faced by those suffering from depression. It is a condition very often viewed by those who have not experienced it for themselves or through a loved one or friend, as one unfitting of sympathetic attention. How can someone who had it all – the riches, the fame, the success, feel sad? “Snap out of it”, they say. “Look, the sun is shining, smile, what’s there to be worried about.”
Depression isn’t about feeling sad. It’s a combination of emotions and thought processes which build up and eventually weigh so heavily on your mind it’s all you can think about. Those things in life that once made you feel happy no longer have any value. Even the simplest things in life become chores. There is no difference between having everything you can wish for in life and having absolutely nothing, because life has no meaning anymore. Therefore, you can’t simply snap out of it.
For me, Williams used comedy as his own personal antidote. There are viable ways to combat depression allowing people to live their lives with normality. Prescription drugs can make a significant difference, while self-help books, professional therapy, a change in diet, and the love and companionship of friends and family can help ease the symptoms. But there are other ways to numb those feelings of isolation and anxiety such as alcohol and recreational drugs.
Another way is to throw yourself into your work as Williams did. His often manic style may have hinted at a much darker personal trait but he beautifully balanced entertaining caricature with more sombre, empathetic moments. This is probably best exampled in some of his finest films like Dead Poet’s Society, Good Morning, Vietnam and The Fisher King. He could make crazy seem normal, and normal seem crazy, never preventing us from warming to those characters we should be sympathetic to. And who can deny that his one-liners, often improvised on film, and impressions, were some of the best in Hollywood.
It’s a terrible irony that a funny man like Robin Williams, who has genuinely given me some of the biggest laughs I’ve ever experienced in the movies, should pass away in such circumstances. But after our time of reflection there’s a reason we should rejoice, particularly because this talented comedian chose a career path that brought enjoyment to so many people’s lives. And in cinema, which will be here long after we’re all gone, his most joyful moments in life are immortalised. Sometimes laughter is the best medicine. Williams knew it.