Robin Williams Is Dead At 63
Some thoughts on his life, death, and career
Robin Williams has died, an apparent suicide, at age 63, and tributes are pouring in from every corner: career overviews, tweets from celebrity colleagues, YouTube supercuts of his defining moments. It's the kind of news that travels fast--yesterday, within minutes of finding out, I overheard at least four people in my immediate vicinity reacting to the story, whether by way of a headline or a tweet or text message from a friend. All of them sounded surprised. Usually, when a famous person dies, we pause momentarily from whatever it is we're doing--checking Facebook, answering emails--and skim over the story, scanning for (and maybe attempting to predict) the cause of death. We stare at photos, trying to rectify the familiarity of their features with the fact that, starting now, these are not news photos but artifacts. We feel, maybe, as if we've taken them a little bit for granted. But these feelings are short-lived (#RIP), and in a minute or two we've gone back to whatever we were doing before.
Robin Williams's death does not seem to be like that. Almost from the outset, it's been clear that, in the realm of celebrity deaths, this is one of the Big Ones. Not to imply that any death isn't big, but that some become Cultural Moments, a where-were-you-when--due, this time, not to the ubiquity of social media, but to Williams's comforting familiarity and profound, cross-generational appeal.
What do you think of when you look back at Robin Williams's career? Do you think of his early sitcom success on Mork & Mindy? Do you think of the star of family fantasies like Mrs. Doubtfire and Hook, or do you think of the profane, brilliant riff machine of his stand-up comedy specials? Like the voices that seemed to surge from him in torrents, there are at least six or seven versions of Robin Williams swimming around the collective unconscious, similar mainly in the warmth and overarching dedication to empathy he made his career trademark.
Watching Williams's stand-up, it's striking how little mockery there is in his impressions--how, rather than reduce his subject to a couple of one-liners, he seems to capture and revel in their singularity, that elusive thing that makes them them. And Williams, of course, was able to capture whatever that happened to be with uncanny technical precision, his apparent effortlessness undercut only by the sweat typically seen streaming from his brow in gouts.
Williams's compassionate approach was most evident in his acting career, and it could lead him to choose projects that were sentimental to the point of mawkishness: films like Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man were derided as the cinematic Hallmark cards they were. But throughout his career he occasionally turned in performances that hinted at darkness that, in his comedy, reared its head only as self-deprecation. One Hour Photo, the wrongly maligned Death to Smoochy: these are genuinely bleak films, steeped in moods of desperation and despair. And while it would be a mistake to conflate a fictional performance with the performer enacting them, they're bracing reminders that Williams's own life included troubles that contradicted (but never broke) his outwardly cheerful persona.
Maybe that's why his death comes as such a shock. Not all deaths are tragic, but all suicides are; it's disconcerting to be reminded that no level of wealth or success can guarantee a happy life. Williams was allegedly struggling with depression in recent months, and checked himself into a rehab clinic in Minnesota (Williams's struggles with substance abuse date back to the 1980s) even though he was allegedly many years sober. The truth is, we can't know exactly why Robin Williams chose to end his life, and we probably never will. All we can do is watch his films again, and marvel at the warmth, exuberant humor, and the fearlessness on display--the things, in other words, that made him him.
Lastly, if you or someone you're close to is struggling with depression, whether at home or in the workplace, we encourage you to read this post on overcoming the stigma of mental illness and knowing how and when to seek help.