News that Robin Williams committed suicide has left a huge number of people in a state of shock. Celebrity deaths tend to hit fans hard, but I simply cannot recall the loss of a public figure that has had such a profound impact on nearly everyone. One report even noted members of ISIS taking a break from their terror streak in Iraq to note his passing and comment on the movie Jumanji. The level of public sadness is near total.
But why does the death of this one person have such a significant emotional toll.
I’ve had a number of conversations with people, read a lot of public reaction, and seen countless social media posts, all grappling with the loss and it seems to me there are a number of compounding elements that make this particularly hard to take.
The way he left us
Robin Williams was a man that made us laugh. His stand up comedy, his film and TV roles (all 102 of them), and his humanitarian efforts always gave us a sense of a guy who loved the world. Even his dramatic roles had an element of humor and joy. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, discussing his deceased wife, breaks into a story about her flatulence waking the dog and in that single moment we were able to laugh and cry with the man simultaneously. He was a person that could lift the spirits of all who saw him.
Yet we understand now the depths of his depression. That he took his own life is almost unfathomable. Early in his career, Williams had significant challenges with drug and alcohol abuse. It’s clear now that even then he was battling inner demons that eventually made him take his own life.
We’re left to wonder, if a guy who is capable of making others that happy was unable to make himself feel joy, what chance do we have?
Yet He Leaves Behind a Thousand Laughs and Nearly As Many Tears
He was a guy who made us laugh. He was a guy who brought us to tears. Yet he was far, far more than that. For many of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, he was, in many ways, our guide through life.
As an eight year old, I recall watching Mork and Mindy and the bond I felt with this strange alien. Granted, I lived a short drive from Boulder, Colorado at the time. I recall making my mom take the drive from Broomfield to Boulder so we could drive past the house where Mork lived. We went to Wheels Roller Rink to skate because that was what Mork did. As a kid, I was thrilled to have access to Mork’s world.
As a teenager, one of my first experiences with suicide was through Dead Poets Society. I remember watching that movie while filled with the same teen angst that grips Charlie, Neil, Knox and Todd. When Neil killed himself, it was William’s Professor Keating who guided me through it.
Good Morning Vietnam helped people whose parents, grandparents and siblings had seen combat in Vietnam come to terms with the fallout of that war a decade after it happened. Together with movies like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July, movies helped us heal as a nation and helped us come to terms with the veterans who had been shunned.
Movies like Ferngully and Toys introduced kids to the ideas of environmental damage and war. Nine months began to prepare us for parenthood. Good Will Hunting taught us it is ok to accept your past, but not to let it ruin your present.
In his movies, he was a true entertainer. In his comedies, he was the undisputed king of perfect delivery and lovable absurdity, yet he transcended the role of funnyman. In dramas, he was the master of the monologue and had the impeccable timing to take us to the brink of tears before pulling us back with a dark joke.
His Lasting Legacy
Through all his roles, all his public appearances, and all his charitable works, Williams found something that appealed to everyone. He was everyman. I suspect you would be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t like him. If you asked people today, I would imagine all of them would tell you they might have liked to have a drink with him, or to sit and chat, or to simply be in his presence.
It is that quality that so endeared him to America. He became, at once, not just an actor or comic, but our friend, our confidant, our mentor, and our therapist. He helped us deal with our own depression, yet apparently could not escape his own.