As a comedian, Robin Williams delivered a high-wire act of verbal dexterity balanced with an unpredictable physicality. A word or phrase appeared to set him off on a trajectory of free-association, delivering punchline after punchline. On stage, he appeared as a vital force that would push a joke as far as he could take it. But what many fans never realized was that Williams’ unstoppable energy, his ability to think and process at a lightning speed, his need to get the laugh, bled into both the public and private sectors of his life.
Williams said comedy is rooted in a 'deeper, darker side'
When Williams died in 2014 at the age of 63, the world mourned a stand-up comic and Oscar-winning actor who could make them laugh – and think – due to roles in television and film such as Mork & Mindy, Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, Jumanji, Aladdin, and The Birdcage. Audiences at Williams’ stand-up shows recall hilarity at the speed of an out-of-control freight train. According to good friend and occasional comedy partner Billy Crystal, doing a set with Williams “was like trying to lasso a comet.”
“For me, comedy starts as a spew, a kind of explosion, and then you sculpt from there, if at all,” Williams once said of his work. “It comes out of a deeper, darker side. Maybe it comes from anger, because I’m outraged by cruel absurdities, the hypocrisy that exists everywhere, even within yourself, where’s it’s hardest to see.”
“The urge to be funny… was so innate, almost like breathing for him, that if he didn’t get it out of his system, it would have affected his performance in a bad way,” Mark Romanek, who directed Williams in One Hour Photo, says in the documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. “I realized when he made people laugh that hard, he used to get a kind of high from it, an endorphin rush or something.” Crystal, also featured in the documentary, agreed. “It’s a very powerful thing for a lot of comedians. That laugh is the drug. … That acceptance, that thrill, is really hard to replace with anything else.
A quiet child, Williams understood the effect of a good joke
Williams had a reserved upbringing in an affluent Detroit suburb. “I was so f*****g quiet,” he recalled in pre-taped segments in Come Inside My Mind. “My father was very intense,” he said, adding his dad was not prone to outward emotion. Williams remembers seeing his father’s reaction to Jonathan Winters on The Tonight Show. “My dad was a sweet man but not an easy laugh. My dad lost it, and I went, ‘Who is this guy who made the great white father laugh?’” Humor was also a way to gain attention from his mother, a more receptive audience, he revealed.
He had discovered the joy of performing and the joy that comedy could bring to an audience. Williams’ early stand-up routines were frenetic as if he was trying to keep himself under control while at the same time giving his brain and body free rein to take the joke as far as possible. His breakout television role of Mork required the studio to enlist the work of an extra camera operator, as well as the three already employed, to ensure Williams’ antics would always be captured.
To Williams, comedy was equally as addictive as drugs and alcohol
Williams had publicly addressed his struggle with alcohol and cocaine many times over the years, but comedy, the desire to get the laugh, land the joke, was also a type of addiction for the performer.
Drugs and alcohol became a need he couldn’t satisfy, not to elevate his zaniness on stage but for opposite reasons. “Cocaine was a place to hide,” Williams told People in 1988. “Most people get hyper on coke. It slowed me down.” When his first wife, Valerie, was pregnant with their son Zachary, he quit cocaine and alcohol. The death of his friend John Belushi from an overdose had also gave him the courage to kick his addictions. “His death scared a whole group of show-business people. It caused a big exodus from drugs,” he said. “And for me, there was a baby coming. I knew I couldn’t be a father and live that kind of life.”
Though he relapsed with alcohol and returned to rehab in 2006, he never touched cocaine again. Instead, he sought fulfillment in his roles. “It’s like he didn’t worry about anything when he worked all the time,” recalls his makeup artist Cheri Minns in the biography, Robin, by Dave Itzkoff. “He operated on working. That was the true love of his life. Above his children, above everything. If he wasn’t working, he was a shell of himself. And when he worked, it was like a light bulb was turned on.”
According to his third wife, Susan Schneider, Williams was a “stimulus junkie” and always anxious about his work. “The line of work he was inbred anxiety and self-centered concerns. He would always say, ‘You’re only as good as your last performance,’” Schneider said.
His children were also a source of joy to Williams, though he carried guilt for splitting his family due to his three marriages. In Robin, his children revealed they tried to help him free himself of the guilt, that there was nothing to apologize for. “He couldn’t hear it. He could never hear it. And he wasn’t able to accept it,” Zachary said. “He was firm in his conviction that he was letting us down. And that was sad because we all loved him so much and just wanted him to be happy.”
Towards the end of his life, Williams claimed he didn't 'know how to be funny' anymore
By late 2013 Williams was experiencing symptoms he did not know the cause of. He had become paranoid, could no longer remember his lines, experienced insomnia, and an impaired sense of smell, Schneider chronicled in a 2016 editorial she wrote for the journal Neurology. Extreme anxiety, tremors and difficulty reasoning soon followed.
While filming Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb in Vancouver in early 2014, Williams struggled to keep his as-yet-undiagnosed symptoms under control, with little effect. “He was sobbing in my arms at the end of every day. It was horrible. Horrible,” said Minns, who suggested he return to stand-up in order to regain his confidence. “He just cried and said, ‘I can’t Cheri. I don’t know how anymore. I don’t know how to be funny.”
In May, Williams was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder. Doctors said they had drugs that could control his tremors and that he would likely live another decade.
An impending loss of cognitive control was devasting to Williams. His brain, the high-functioning tool he had relied on to produce the words and movements that had entertained so many, and kept him in steady employment for so long, would no longer function as it once had.
Williams was suffering from severe depression and took his own life
On August 11, 2014, Williams was found dead in his California home. A release from the County Sheriff’s office following an autopsy revealed he had hanged himself. No alcohol or illegal drugs were found in his system. His publicist said prior to his death he was suffering from severe depression.
During the autopsy, it was discovered Williams was experiencing the symptoms of Lewy body dementia. Like Parkinson’s, proteins clump in the brain in Lewy body dementia. Unlike Parkinson’s, Lewy bodies form in the largest part of the brain first, triggering early cognitive deterioration. “Robin was losing his mind and was aware of it,” Schneider wrote in her editorial. “Can you imagine the pain he felt as he experienced himself disintegrating?”
Crystal, one of his closest friends, tried to put himself in Williams’ shoes at the end. “Think of it this way: The speed at which the comedy came is the speed at which the terrors came,” he said in Robin. “And all that they described that can happen with this psychosis, if that’s the right word – the hallucinations, the images, the terror – coming at the speed his comedy came at, maybe even faster, I can’t imagine living like that.”