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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 22 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 34
Legendary comedian's death shines spotlight on depression, addiction
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Legendary comedian's death shines spotlight on depression, addiction

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

It would not be untrue to say that Robin Williams, both the man and the characters he played onstage or in movies, was out of this world. That's because some of the characters he played, like the boy who could never grow old or die, Peter Pan (Hook, 1991); American physician Chris Nielsen, an American physician who haunts his wife after having been killed in a car accident (What Dreams May Come, 1998); or the character he rose to fame portraying - Mork (U.S. TV series 'Mork & Mindy,' 1978-82) an extraterrestrial alien who comes to Earth from the planet Ork in a small, one-man egg-shaped spaceship, literally, were out of this world.

Characters, like legends, are almost always opposite the person playing them. A truth the world learned applied to the greatness of Robin Williams, too. On August 11, the man who made millions and millions of people laugh for decades, now made some of them cry. At 12:02 p.m. Williams was found dead after committing suicide by hanging at his home in Paradise Cay, near Tiburon, California.

Williams sometimes suffered from depression, which according to his wife at the time he died, had become 'severe' depression, and he also struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for much of his early career. Before one show, he says he accepted a line of cocaine that someone gave him, but added that cocaine made him paranoid, saying that 'being on stage is not exactly the place to go when you're paranoid. It was a short trip to hell.'

Still, for whatever reason, Williams began doing booze and blew every chance he got. In later years Williams shocked journalists and fans alike by how frank he would be about his use, sometimes admitting that for many years he was 'drunk or stoned every single day.'

Although he said that he never drank or did drugs while on stage, he admitted to having, on occasion, performed when he was feeling sick with a hangover from the previous day.

Williams described the life of a stand-up comedian in the '70s and '80s after he'd gotten sober, recalling, 'It's a brutal field, man. It takes its toll. Plus, the lifestyle - partying, drinking, drugs. If you're on the road, it's even more brutal. You gotta come back down to mellow your ass out, and then performing takes you back up.'

And then, somehow predicting his own death, Williams said, 'Sometimes they just give up.'

After the initial shock of his death began to subside in the hours and days after his death, the public would learn that, short of anything serious showing up in the toxicology report, Williams was not drunk or high when he, allegedly suffering emotionally and mentally, attempted to slit his wrist with a small knife but when that didn't seem to work, according to Marin County Sheriff's Lt. Keith Boyd Williams was found in a bedroom by his personal assistant on Monday with preliminary reports saying that Williams death is attributed to 'suicide by asphyxia.'

Williams was last seen at his home at 10 p.m. on Sunday. On Monday morning just before 11:55 a.m., an emergency call was made there. He was pronounced dead at age 63. For twenty years Williams had never stopped working but he did stop drinking and getting high. As far as we all know, Williams relapsed only once 'officially,' but returned to rehab in 2008.

Williams is survived by his first wife, Valerie Velardi, their son Zachary Pym 'Zak' Williams, second wife, Marsha Garces, their daughter Zelda Rae Williams and son Cody Alan Williams. In addition, William's third wife, the last person to see Williams alive, Susan Schnieder, survived Williams and on August 14 revealed that her husband was not drunk or high when he killed himself, instead, she said the actor/comedian was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson's disease, a progressive and debilitating neuromuscular condition.

'Robin spent so much of his life helping others. Whether he was entertaining millions on stage, film or television, our troops on the frontlines, or comforting a sick child - Robin wanted us to laugh and to feel less afraid,' she said in a statement via USA Today. 'Since his passing, all of us who loved Robin have found some solace in the tremendous outpouring of affection and admiration for him from the millions of people whose lives he touched. His greatest legacy, besides his three children, is the joy and happiness he offered to others, particularly to those fighting personal battles.'

'Robin's sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson's Disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly,' she disclosed. 'It is our hope in the wake of Robin's tragic passing that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid.'

News that Williams suffered from depression and the early stages of Parkinson's has a connection say experts.

'The brain disease often leads to depression and can elevate someone's risk of suicide,' says Jeffrey Lieberman, Professor and Chairman of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and Director, New York State Psychiatric Institute.

In a 2012, a study about Parkinson's revealed that more than 60% of people with Parkinson's reported depression, and 18% reported severe, major depression.

Lieberman says Williams was already at higher than average risk for suicide because of his history of depression and substance abuse, as well as his demographic group. 'Older white men, particularly those who have had heart surgery, as he had, are at higher risk. Parkinson's is another risk factor both psychologically and physiologically,' he said.

In fact, according to neurologist Irene Richard, an adviser to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, 'Depression appears to develop not because people are sad that they have a disability, but because of damage caused by Parkinson's to the brain.'

The National Parkinson's Foundation reports that the first signs of Parkinson's often include a tremor, a slight shaking of the finger, hand, chin, lip or leg. Other early signs, according to the foundation, include shrinking handwriting, reduced sense of smell, sleep problems, awkward movements, or a stiff or frozen facial expression.

Williams donated to Seattle Food Bank
Robin Williams was a very generous man; some stars donate here or there, but Williams' philanthropy was exceptional.

Alongside fellow comedians Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, Williams raised an estimated $80 million for people in need over two decades with their Comic Relief standup specials.

'No words' is what Crystal tweeted late last night in response to the 63-year-old Williams' suicide on Monday. Goldberg also posted, 'Billy Crystal is right...There are no words.'

This week Washingtonians learned that the Oscar-winning actor's generosity was bestowed upon people in need in the Emerald City. According to news reports, in 2004, Robin Williams performed stand-up comedy at the Showbox nightclub in downtown Seattle, and without telling anyone, donated all of the proceeds to the West Seattle Food Bank.

'I was just astounded,' said Executive Director Fran Yeatts.

Yeatts revealed that Williams also performed shows in 2007 and 2008 and raised nearly $50,000 for the organization, just as the economy was collapsing and need was skyrocketing.

'Robin Williams is the type of person who really understands there are a lot of people who are really, really struggling,' Yeatts said.

Robin Williams made a connection with millions the world-over
There is no doubt that Robin Williams is one of comedies great legends. He will not fade away. The amount of (good and bad) films he made is stupefying. He was funny for sure and it just seemed like he was a man doing what it was he was born to do. Who else could've been as perfect as he when he recorded his voice for the Genie in the Disney animated cartoon Aladdin?

And there is certainly nobody that can touch the fantastic drama and comedy required to nail the part of Adrian Cronauer, the young disc jockey who shook up Armed Forces Radio during the conflict in Vietnam, the leading role in 'Good Morning, Vietnam.'

On Tuesday, Cronauer reflected on the life and death of the comedian and actor. 'He's a very big name, a very funny guy.'

The two never met during filming, but after the movie was complete, they got together to compare notes.

'It was never intended to be a point-by-point biography,' he said. 'It was always intended to be a piece of entertainment.

'He was playing a character named Adrian Cronauer, but what he was really doing was being Robin Williams, and he was good at it. I was gobsmacked.'

Josh Black, a local entertainer best known for his disturbed clown character Ronald McFondle said, 'I met him once at Re-bar and drunkenly talked his ear off about Shakes the Clown and told him about Ronald McFondle. As I was leaving later that night he came outside grabbed me by the shoulder and laughing hysterically told me Ronald McFondle was the best clown name ever and shook my hand. Such a nice guy.'

I never met Robin Williams or even saw him live. But, I cannot tell you the impact Birdcage had on me when it was released in theaters, nationwide, in 1996. Remember, in 1996 not everyone had a computer in their house, you could not log onto this Internet thing easily anyway, Facebook did not yet exist and little boys who realized they liked other boys felt very, very alone. I was sixteen and I couldn't believe what I was watching! I looked around the theater and throngs of straight people were laughing and having a great time. You see, up until that point in my life I hadn't ever even knowingly met someone else who was Gay, let alone think that others were like me and that 'liking' us and thinking we were funny instead of disgusting changed my life forever. It was empowering. I convinced like four different groups of friends to go see it, just so I could see it yet again.

Not everyone likes it though; The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), known for its vile anti-Gay hatred and for picketing the funerals of soldiers, is now threatening to spread their hate at the funeral of Robin Williams.

The group has denounced Williams as a 'fag pimp' because he played a Gay character in Birdcage and a cross dresser in the family film Mrs. Doubtfire.

Even President Obama, on vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, chimed in saying in a statement issued Monday night (8/11) that Williams 'arrived in our lives as an alien - but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit.'

The president said the actor was generous with his comic talents for those who needed it, including troops abroad, and he ended the letter by saying, 'The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin's family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.'

The cast of Good Will Hunting also remembered Williams.

Ben Affleck Tweeted, 'Heartbroken. Thanks chief - for your friendship and for what you gave the world. Robin had a ton of love in him. He personally did so much for so many people. He made Matt and my dreams come true.

Affleck then asks, 'What do you owe a guy who does that?'

'Everything.'

Matt Damon reacted by saying, 'Robin brought so much joy into my life and I will carry that joy with me forever. He was such a beautiful man, I was lucky to know him and I will never, ever forget him.'

Minnie Driver also tweeted: 'My heart's broken. Robin was a beautiful, kind soul. Can't bear that he's gone.'

However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted, in memory of him, something that just seems so perfect: 'Genie, you're free.'

Robin Williams' closest family members and friends gathered at a private funeral in San Francisco last week to mourn the passing of the comedy legend.

Although none of his fans were able to attend the intimate funeral, many of them extended their condolences by placing fan-made shrines at some of his most famous film locations.

The executive producer of the Emmys confirmed they are planning a public tribute to the beloved comedian to air during the August 25 awards show.

The actor's body was cremated just one day after the actor was found dead, and the family scattered his ashes in San Francisco Bay not far from his home.

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