Mental illness was part of the true, inextricable, celebrated package of Robin Williams’ genius and should be freed from the bondage of the taboo dirty little secret it remains.
By Nate Thayer
August 11, 2014
Robin Williams was genuine and flawed and a genius and a manic-depressive and an addict and he made the world a better place–at least my world–by making me laugh.
He is the only person I know who had to apologize to several different entire countries for offending them–including Australia and Brazil.
Robin Williams gave a performance in London right after the election of Obama in 2008. In the audience was the Prince of Wales and his wife. Williams begins: “Chuck, Cam great to see you.”
Williams went on: “Take a moment of silence to bid a fond farewell to George W. Bush. It is the end of the reign of George the 2nd. The reign of error is over. America is officially out of rehab.”
Robin Williams said of Bush to the British audience: ” He said: I have been misunderestimated’. No, not really. He said ‘Our enemies are looking for terrible ways of destroying our country, and so are we.'”
Some random tidbits of Williams humour included: “I live in California, a 60% Hispanic state and we have an Austrian governor. Even old Nazi’s are going: ‘That’s weird.’ Arnold (Schwarzenegger), a little Austrian boy who had a dream and a bottle of Anabolic Steroids.He married a Kennedy. Which is why he has become a moderate Republican–it is like a Volvo with a gun rack. You s don’t see a lot of them.”
Referring to Clinton: “Bill just had some bad luck. He found the only Jewish girl who couldn’t get a stain out.”
On Jack Nicholson: “Who could we get to run for president and make the whole world go ‘Wow!’ That guy would be Jack Nicholson. You would never have a sex scandal with Jack. He has done everybody. He fucked Angelina Jolie and then she adopted him. He is the only man who has done every drug known to mankind. He is the only man who Keith Richards would say: ‘I have to go home now Jack.'”
Robin Williams comedy genius was part of him.
There were other parts, too.
During his entire career, Williams battled drug and alcohol problems and severe depression. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Williams was a heavy cocaine user, a friend of John Belushi. He said the death of Belushi contributed to him giving up the drug. “Was it a wake-up call? Oh, yeah. The grand jury helped too.” In 2006, Williams had a drug relapse and admitted himself to rehab.
Williams comedy mentor and friend was Jonathan Winters.
I had an occasion to spend a couple of days with Jonathan Winters in the early 1980’s. I sat next to him at small dinner party one night in Singapore (other guests included Richard “Shaft” Roundtree and Playboy playmate of the year Barbie Benton, who was seated on my left, but that is an entirely another story). Jonathan Winters was the funniest man I have ever met. Simply being in his presence made me uncontrollably break into laughter.
He was also, not coincidentally, a manic-depressive who had battled many demons, including drugs and alcohol.
Like Williams, Winters began a serious battle with depression and drinking soon after he became famous.
Their illness derailed both of them, one could argue, for many years. Or one could argue it fueled and was a necessary and legitimate part of their genius.
One could view the depression that killed Robin Williams today as part of the full, real, take it or leave it genuine, authentic and good and necessary package for both Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters.
“I became a robot,” Winters said in 2000. “I almost lost my sense of humor … I had a breakdown and I turned myself in to a mental hospital. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” Winters was hospitalized for eight months in the early 1960s.”If you make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and you’re talking to the blue-collar guy who’s a farmer 200 miles south of Topeka, he’s looking up and saying, “That bastard makes all that money and he’s crying about being a manic depressive?”
Both Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters were very serious people, with serious talent and serious illness.
The fact that Robin Williams–a man with such awe inspiring talents who contributed to the joy and happiness of many millions–was so sick that he felt life was no longer worth living has, for reasons I can’t quite identify, deeply distressed me.
“I think laughter is the rarest thing we have. You can think of the diamonds, the rubies, the gold, the silver and platinum, oil–all these little goodies that bring so much wealth to people, and you can say they are rare–and they are very rare-but as far as laughter, how often can you say to yourself, or to your wife or loved ones, whatever, that you sat down and watched this TV show or movie or whatever and found yourself out of the chair or on the floor from laughter? That is how rare laughter is, that is how rare comedy is. We don’t find ourselves on the floor very often,” said Winters last year.
“I had a terrible fear of failing. I still do,” said Winters. “Not as much as I used to. I am 74 years old. If I fail, so what? I improvise. It is a lot of fun, and to be honest, I am in charge. I like that. It is important to me. I took in and still take in everything around me in life.”
“I was in Greece. A woman turned to me after coming out of the temples near Athena,” Winters recalled.
“I know who you are?” she said to him.
“Yes. So do I. It is on my dog tags,” replied Winters. “The important thing is who are you dear?”
“I am Agatha Leonard. We are from Terre Haute, Indiana. This is my husband, Howard. My second husband. My first husband was run over by a car.”
“You better be on your toes,” Winters said to the woman’s husband.
“Let me ask you something Mr. Winters. What did you think of the temples?” asked the woman.
“Well I was a terribly disappointed. Everything was broken.”
“Well my God, it was over 5000 years before Christ,” she said.
“Well it should have been repaired by now,” replied Winters.
She shook her head and her husband said: “You know, honey, a lot of them are completely burned out.”
“That was perfect,” said Jonathan Winters of the conversation.
Robin Williams was, in my mind both perfect and, apparently, in his mind, burned out.
As world humanity is crossing the irreversible hump, to the point of no return, over such issues as racial, religious, and sexual equality, I hope that mental illness, that taboo dirty little secret that, in truth, affects, at least by a not very far extension, most everyone on the planet, will be freed from the bondage that killed Robin Williams and contributed centrally to his ability to make the rest of us happy.
These have been my thoughts tonight.