Robin Williams Death Anniversary: An icon who lost his spark of madness to depression, drugs and illness
One of the best comedians and actors of all time, Robin Williams could cast a spell on his audience. With his uncanny improvisation and antics, he could impress anyone. Perhaps, it is the magic of his craftsmanship that the 'Dead Poets Society' and 'Good Will Hunting' actor is still remembered as a pioneer of television and movies.
On the afternoon of August 11, 2014, the actor was found dead by suicide at the age of 63. His personal assistant knocked on the door and was concerned when there was no response. When she opened the door, she found him cool to the touch. As per a BBC report, Marin County Sheriff's Lt Keith Boyd said Williams had been treated for depression and killed himself by hanging. The actor was last seen by his wife before she went to bed the evening before and left the house at 10.30 am, thinking he was asleep in the next room.
As we remember the actor on his death anniversary, here's looking back at his last days and his impact on cinema and comedy.
Born as Robin McLaurin Williams, he was raised by his father Robert Fitzgerald Williams, who was a senior executive in Ford's Lincoln-Mercury Division, and his mother, Laurie McLaurin, who was a former model from Jackson, Mississippi. In the earlier days, Williams was said to be a quiet child and he himself confessed that he overcame his shyness only after he got into drama in high school. Soon, he gained much popularity among his friends and they found him quite funny. In fact, during his graduation in 1969, he was tagged 'Most Likely Not to Succeed' and 'Funniest' by his classmates.
Williams studied with Christopher Reeve — who was best known for playing the DC Comics character Superman in the 1978 film — and they were like "brothers from another mother". In his autobiography 'Still Me', Reeve remembered his old days with his pal and wrote: "He wore tie-dyed shirts with tracksuit bottoms and talked a mile a minute. I'd never seen so much energy contained in one person. He was like an untied balloon that had been inflated and immediately released. I watched in awe as he virtually caromed off the walls of the classrooms and hallways. To say that he was 'on' would be a major understatement."
Williams was cast in a role in the 1977 low-budget comedy 'Can I Do It... 'Til I Need Glasses?' and was seen in movies like 'Popeye' and 'The Survivors'. Soon after, he proved his mettle and had an unforgettable string of impressions in films, especially his characters from 'Dead Poets Society', 'Good Will Hunting', 'Hook', 'Awakenings', 'The Fisher King', 'What Dreams May Come' and 'The Angriest Man in Brooklyn'.
Williams began stand-up comedy in 1976 and by the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, he got several solo comedy specials. TV host David Letterman had known Williams for 40 years and in a 2014 Slate interview, he said: "He came in like a hurricane" and added, "Holy crap, there goes my chance in show business."
The 'World's Greatest Dad' actor's struggle with alcohol and drugs to beat the performance stress was no secret. In Gerald Nachman's 'Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s', he opened up about the dark side of humor. "It's a brutal field, man. They burn out. It takes its toll. Plus, the lifestyle — partying, drinking, drugs. If you're on the road, it's even more brutal," he said. "Sometimes they get very bitter. Sometimes they just give up. Sometimes they have a revival thing and they come back again. Sometimes they snap. The pressure kicks in. You become obsessed and then you lose that focus that you need," he said.
In a 1992 Playboy interview, when Williams was quizzed about the balance between work and life, he said, "There's that fear — if I felt like I was becoming not just dull but a rock, that I still couldn't speak, fire off or talk about things if I'd start to worry or got too afraid to say something... If I stop trying, I get afraid."
A close friend of John Belushi, he partied with the Saturday Night Live comic at a Chateau Marmont bungalow and Belushi was found dead the next morning from a drug overdose. Post that incident, Williams said, "Was it a wake-up call? Oh yeah, on a huge level. The grand jury helped, too," and added, "It sobered the s**t out of me." He was depressed for a long time but took to exercise and cycling.
In 2003, Williams got into his drinking habit again and is said to have checked into a Newberg, Oregon, substance-abuse rehabilitation center in 2006. In 2009, he was hospitalized due to heart problems and had to postpone his one-man tour for his surgery. A year later, in an interview with The Guardian, he said, "No. Cocaine — paranoid and impotent, what fun. There was no bit of me thinking, ooh, let's go back to that. Useless conversations until midnight, waking up at dawn feeling like a vampire on a day pass. No."
His relationships were much talked about too. From his first married to Valerie Velardi in 1978, Williams had a son, Zachary Pym 'Zak' Williams. However, the couple parted ways in 1988. Williams is also rumored to have gotten into a live-in relationship with comedian Elayne Boosler. After the divorce, Williams had an affair with Zachary's nanny Marsha Garces and the two got married in 1989 when she was six months pregnant with his child. The pair had two children, Zelda Rae Williams and Cody Alan Williams. In 2010, the two got divorced. Williams then married his third wife, graphic designer Susan Schneider, in 2011 and lived with her at their Sea Cliff, California, house.
Before his death, he was believed to be suffering from severe depression. His wife Susan said that he had been diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson's disease but he was not ready to "share publicly". After his death, the autopsy reports revealed diffuse Lewy body dementia in his body, which had been diagnosed as Parkinson's. It is said that his health issues led to mental stress and depression. In an essay published in the journal Neurology, Susan said, "Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it... He kept saying, 'I just want to reboot my brain.'"
After his death, former president Barack Obama paid a tribute to him calling him "an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between". He said, "He arrived in our lives as an alien — but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most — from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets."
His wife Susan said, "I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken," and daughter Zelda said that the "world is forever a little darker, less colorful and less full of laughter in his absence." His son Zak said, "Yesterday, I lost my father and a best friend and the world got a little greyer," and son Cody added, "I will miss him and take him with me everywhere I go for the rest of my life, and will look forward, forever, to the moment when I get to see him again."
An icon, his absence will forever be felt. But his little spark of madness will stay etched in millions of hearts.