The Tragic Life of Robin Williams

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The Tragic Life of Robin Williams

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Our heart breaks over this one. Today we'll be looking at the tragic life of Robin Williams. From his start as a brilliant comic in the 70s to his acting career in the following, decades Robin Williams has brought joy to millions of people but at a dear cost.
Transcript
Script Written by Nathan Sharp

The Tragic Life of Robin Williams


Robin Williams was one of the finest entertainers of our time. We’d say “funniest comedian of our time,” but really, he did so much more than make us laugh. Yes, his primary creative output was comedy, and he excelled at it. Whether he was raucously performing stand-up in clubs, or being relentlessly wacky on the big screen, Robin was a master of his craft. But he was also an adept dramatic actor, having been nominated for four Academy awards throughout his acting career - and winning one for “Good Will Hunting”.

Perhaps he was so good at drama because he drew from an internal source. You all know the joke about Pagliacci the clown – a man feels depressed and goes to see a doctor, who tells him to watch Pagliacci the clown to cheer himself up . . . but turns out, his patient IS Pagliacci. It’s a perfect summation of how people can use comedy to mask their inner turmoil. And Robin Williams was no different. He suffered bouts of depression, and he led a troubling and tragic life that was often hidden beneath his bizarre and wild sense of humor.

Things started out well for Robin, who grew up both affluent and popular. His father was a senior executive at Ford, and the family lived in a 40-room farmhouse in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. They were even rich enough to have a maid! Robin attended the private Detroit Country Day School and eventually became class president while excelling in school and partaking in various extracurriculars. Many of his old classmates also remember him as being a very funny and friendly person. In short, Robin was well-off, personable, charismatic, funny, smart, and popular.

Unfortunately, things weren’t as good at home as they appeared from afar. His parents were busy people, and Robin didn’t get to see them much. He was often left home alone, with the family maid being his only steady companion.

Despite receiving a full scholarship to Juilliard, Robin dropped out in his junior year and pursued stand-up comedy in the San Francisco Bay Area. Of course, being Robin Williams (one of the funniest men ever), he quickly found success. He graduated to performing in various clubs around Los Angeles in the mid-70s before winning the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album in 1979 for his live show “Reality…What a Concept”. It would be his first of four Grammys. He also found incredible success on TV by playing the alien Mork on the ABC sitcom “Mork & Mindy,” which aired from 1978 to 1982. By all accounts, his professional career was going perfectly.

But one thing ran rampant in the comedy scene in the late 1970s, and we’re not talking about laughter. It was drugs; and Williams soon formed an addiction to cocaine and alcohol. One of his friends, Bob Davis, remembers being shocked to see Robin so ingrained in the drug culture. On one occasion, David said, he watched as a fan holding cocaine on a spoon walked up to Robin, who snorted it without question. Robin also began drinking to come down from the manic coke highs. “Mork & Mindy” director Howard Storm recalls that Robin would stay out all night taking drugs, drinking, and “screwing everybody in town,” and he would be “a wreck” on set the next day.

Things came to a head in 1982, when Williams’s close friend John Belushi died of an overdose after mixing heroin and cocaine – a dangerous concoction known as a speedball. Williams was left particularly devastated by his death, not only because John was his friend, but because Robin had partied with him earlier that morning. His death had a profound effect on Robin. With his first child on the way, he decided to quit drugs and alcohol. And he wasn’t the only one. Williams later told People, “[John’s] death scared a whole group of show-business people. It caused a big exodus from drugs”.

This transitional period, however, also caused Williams to spiral into himself and become depressed. Needing an outlet, he took up cycling and quickly formed a bond with the bike shop owner, Tony Tom. Tony claims that Williams once told him, “Biking is a whole lot better for you than cocaine,” and he reportedly credited biking for “saving his life”.

It’s often been suspected that Robin suffered from clinical depression and/or manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder. However, in 2006 he told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2006 that he had never been clinically diagnosed with either. What we can say with certainty though, is that Robin continuously struggled with addiction. After 20 years of sobriety, Robin fell off the wagon in 2003 and returned to alcohol. He was filming a movie in Alaska called “The Big White” and was feeling “alone and afraid.” To allay his fears, he returned to drinking. He told Parade that it started with “just a taste…but it escalated so quickly. Within a week I was buying so many bottles I sounded like a wind chime walking down the street”.

After some tough love from his family, Robin admitted himself into rehab in 2006. But it wasn’t enough. He later returned to alcohol and went to rehab yet again in 2014, checking himself into Minnesota’s Hazelden Foundation Addiction Treatment It’s possible that Williams returned to alcohol near the end of his life because he was suffering from depression, and that this depression was linked to his failing body.

Robin began suffering from a horrible case of Lewy body dementia in late 2013 - though it wasn’t identified as such until after his death. Robin’s widow, Susan Schneider, wrote a brilliant and horribly tragic piece called “The Terrorist Inside My Husband’s Brain” that offers a lot of insight into his heartbreaking final days. The early indications of the disease began in October 2013, around the time of Robin and Susan’s second wedding anniversary. Robin began suffering from a host of seemingly unrelated problems, including insomnia, heartburn, gut discomfort, “a slight tremor in his left hand,” and an “alarming” rise in fear and anxiety. Most of these symptoms were waved away or - in the case of the hand tremor - attributed to a prior shoulder injury.

But then things got worse. By winter, Robin began suffering from more extreme and worrying symptoms like paranoia, delusions, and memory loss. While filming “Night at the Museum 3,” Robin had immense difficulty remembering his lines, and his memory loss combined with his rising anxiety struck a lot of fear into the struggling actor. He began having “unfounded” fears and suffered from a profound case of insecurity. Nothing Susan said could calm him down or help him see clearly.

According to Susan, Robin was fully aware that “he was losing his mind,” but he put on a brave face and kept the worst symptoms to himself. But near the end, there was simply no hiding the severity of his case. Robin was walking with “a slow, shuffling gait.” He had trouble speaking and often forgot words. His left hand wouldn’t stop trembling. He could no longer judge distance and depth, and sometimes he even had trouble moving, a condition Susan calls “a frozen stance.”

Robin had made up his mind. On the night of Sunday, August 10, Robin said goodnight to Susan. It was the last thing he ever said to her. He committed suicide on August 11, a final, declarative statement against the disease that had been plaguing his brain for the last ten months.

Susan was lost. The world was shocked. Everyone grieved. The world had lost one of the most beloved and talented men in show business, and it came as a complete surprise. Robin was good at hiding his problems and keeping his issues to himself, and he simply hadn’t been ready to share his tragic battle with the world.

Robin is survived by his widow and three children – Zak, Zelda, and Cody. Cody married on July 21, 2019. It would have been Robin’s 68th birthday.
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