Remembering Robin Williams: the laughter, compassion, and humanity

When I first read the news of Robin Williams’ death, I was stunned by a reaction of deep sadness, dismay, and horror I don’t often feel in response to the news of a celebrity passing. He was like a family member gone too soon. It was as if I felt personally betrayed; he had at least 20 good years ahead of him to make us laugh, think, and feel.

Like other Gen Xers, I grew up with Williams’ manic comedy, starting with Mork & Mindy in the late seventies. Even as an 11-year old, I realized the show itself was asinine, mere scaffolding for Williams’ brilliant improvisation. William’s wacky portrayal of a silly-sweet-sardonic alien observing human behavior, able to appeal to adults and children alike with saucy double entendres and plain nuttiness, still stands as a major comedic creation.

Robin Williams’ career traversed stand-up comedy, television, and film. A Screen Actors Guild member from 1977, he appeared in dozens of films, including “Dead Poets Society,” “Awakenings,” “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “The Birdcage.” He won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for “Good Will Hunting” in 1997.

Much has been made of William’s cause of death; the familiar old “blame-the-victim” sentiments regarding suicide (it’s “selfish” or “cowardly”) have been trotted out and shot down. Williams suffered from depression and was struggling with substance abuse for much of his career. He was fairly open about his “demons”: note especially his 2010 appearance on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, in which he comically relates a “conversation” he had with his conscience when, in the depths of alcohol-triggered depression, he contemplated taking his own life: “How will you do it? Cut your wrists with a Water Pik?”

In the wake of Williams’ death, theories about motives for suicide continued to surface: despair over his waning career in the youth-worshipping entertainment industry; the stereotype of “the Sad Clown;” his ongoing struggles with alcohol; a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease; even guilt over his lineage (Williams was a descendent of an infamous white supremacist Senator from Mississippi, Anselm J. McLaurin).

Depression is an insidious, misunderstood disease with organic roots in genetics, life experiences, and resultant chemical imbalances in the brain. Suicidal depression is not a result of “character flaws,” to characterize it as such is a distraction, and does a major disservice to its sufferers and their loved ones.

One of Williams’ outstanding lesser-known performances is in Bobcat Goldthwait’s dark 2009 comedy “World’s Greatest Dad.” Williams plays the grieving father of an obnoxious teenager who accidentally kills himself by autoerotic asphyxiation. Williams’ character, a frustrated writer, redeems his son by staging his death as a suicide, ghostwriting a fake suicide note and memoir, thereby transforming the reviled punk into a beloved symbol of teenage angst. Williams’ performance is a masterpiece of heart breaking, understated pathos and hilarious awkwardness, in which he ironically delivers the clichéd mental-hygiene bromide: “suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems.”

Williams, hardly “selfish” or “cowardly,” gave back to the people via his career-spanning progressive activism, from speaking out against the dangers of nuclear power at the Hollywood Bowl in 1978, to raising money for a variety of anti-poverty efforts through Comic Relief, testifying before the Senate in 1990 on the problem of homelessness, and walking the picket line with union brothers and sisters during the 2007 writers’ strike.

Marc Maron aptly sums up Williams’ gifts:

“He was sensitive, he was perceptive, he was empathetic, his mental agility was astounding, he was full of love, and by the nature of putting all those out into the world, he required [those things] of us.”

Photo: In this Oct. 22, 2002 file photo, Robin Williams sings “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh inning during game 3 of the World Series in San Francisco. Williams was everywhere in San Francisco, it seemed, as he made a place for himself in the everyday fabric of a city where he once said he passed for normal. Julie Jacobson, File/AP