Driving home late on a Monday evening, I tuned into a conversation on local radio about Robin Williams, and my stomach twisted in premonition of a tragedy, which was later confirmed when the conversation turned to asphyxiation. The word ‘suicide’ was never uttered, but I knew enough about my favorite actor to know that it was a real possibility. I remember hearing that Williams, an upper middle class boy in 1950’s Chicago, had trouble keeping his mother’s attention. In order to gain it, he learned to be entertaining. Extremely entertaining. As we know, this became his life’s work: Gaining and keeping the attention of millions of people around the world by his rapier wit, spot on impersonations, and hilarious physicality. Apparently the comedy was not enough to sustain him.
No one could approach William’s manic sense of humor, which he learned from comedian, Jonathan Winters. In an interview, Williams said of him, “It was like seeing a guy behind a mask, and you could see that his characters were a great way for him to talk about painful stuff.” 1. The two comics had “painful stuff” in common; Winters spent years of his life in a mental institution with several nervous breakdowns, and now the world is mourning Robin Williams who unable to escape the grips of alcoholism and deep depression, has committed suicide. The two had similar styles, manic humor, remarkable impressions, and peeking out from beneath it all, a pathos that they could not hide. Jonathan Winters died last year of natural causes at 87, surrounded by his family. Miraculously, he overcame the pain masked by his comedy. We now know that Robin Williams was not so fortunate.
In the opera Pagliacci, Canio, the main character, is a clown in a travelling show who overhears his wife, Nedda pledging her love to another man just as the show begins. The couple act in a play whose plot centers around her infidelity, and Canio cannot bear it: He sings the heartbreaking aria, “Vesti La Guibba” where he states the dilemma of how the clown acts funny to hide a broken heart.
The people pay you and you must make them laugh. And if harlequin should steal your columbine, laugh,You’re pagliaccio (clown), and the world will clap for you! Turn into banter all your pain and sorrow, And with your clown’s face hide grief and distress...2
I think that the overwhelming grief and shock expressed around the world at Robin William’s suicide, is not only because he was too young at 63, or that he took his own life while his career was still wildly successful: It was reported that he has six films coming out after his death. I think our grief at his death runs much deeper.
At some level, we all hide internal pain, and many of us, transform ourselves into clowns in public, entertaining our friends and even strangers with comic routines to mask our suffering. Some of us find comfort in faith to feel loved and hope in a better future. Most of us are blessed with family and friends who lift our spirits and our self-esteem. We need the attention in varying degrees, but most of us, do not need the attention as much as Robin Williams did, and none of us are as incredibly funny as he was. The world knows that he was one of a kind.
We needed his twinkling eyes, his impeccable timing and his rapid fire wit to help us forget our melancholy. We related to his vulnerability and his kindheartedness in films like “Good Morning Vietnam,” and “Patch Adams.” Robin Williams in his emotional openness; admitting his struggles with substance abuse publicly, his three marriages and his last ditch attempt at rehab in July, is our Everyman. We wonder at how much silent suffering he endured as we were laughing and silently feel guilty because, as his first producer Gary Marshall said, “He could make everybody happy but himself.”3.
We can’t help but wonder if we knew Robin Williams personally could we have helped him overcome his demons by letting the funniest man on earth know that he would still be loved even if he weren’t funny anymore. Too many Hollywood idols become just that, larger than life idols to whom we don't allow to own their humanity.
Dee Dee Harvey sums it up in the comments on Deadline Hollywood:
What can one say? I was shocked. People think being famous is so great. Not me. To be ON all the time, to be zoomed in at all the time… With the Internet and instant posting who can really take it? Please people give Stars their much deserved space. They are people just like everyone else. They need to go to restaurants, be with their kids, live live! Just leave them alone! Maybe then, and only then, we won’t lose people prematurely. Let them live!!!!4.
Robin, you made us laugh and taught us how to give to others with your acts of charity to the homeless, to veterans, and sick children. You needed our laughter to help mask your pain, and we needed you to make us laugh. We hope and pray that you are making the angels laugh in Heaven and, once in a while, look down upon us and forgive us for not loving you enough.
Spero columnist Leticia Velasquez is the author of A Special Mother is Born, available at Amazon.