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On the night of August 10, 2014, Robin Williams and his wife, Susan Schneider, now sleeping in separate beds to get better rest after a difficult time, said good night for the last time. The next morning, an assistant, Rebecca Erwin Spencer, found Robin Williams sitting up, a belt around his neck.

When famous artists and celebrities die, particularly in a violent manner, it is always jarring since fans and even non fans feel they know the artist. With the shocking news of Robin Williams’ suicide, however, it seems to go deeper, much like the murder of John Lennon. He left behind a wife, three grown children, friends, many awards, and an extraordinary career. The inner sadness of a very famous comedian was hidden until the news broke.

What had caused this? Robin Williams had struggled with depression, alcohol and cocaine addiction, and some addicts prefer suicide to the dread of facing life sober. Robin Williams had been sober for twenty years, however, before relapsing and going back into rehab in 2006. The medical examiner found no traces of drugs or alcohol in his drug screen.
Robin Williams first showed symptoms of paranoia and confusion in the fall of 2013. An early diagnosis that he seemed to have Parkinson’s disease answered some questions. Evidently, according to his widow, “Robin wasn’t buying it,” and asked if he had Alzheimer’s or was going schizophrenic, suggesting he was hallucinating. After an autopsy, doctors discovered Williams had a disease called Lewy Body Dementia. It can cause memory loss, like Alzheimer’s, and terrifying hallucinations. No drugs can treat it effectively.
The last photos of Robin Williams show a frail man with a haunted look in his eyes.

In 2016, Susan Schneider Williams wrote a poignant essay for Neurology magazine called “The Terrorist Inside My Husband’s Brain.” She covers her husband’s terrifying final year of life when Robin Williams suffered from panic attacks, tremors, memory loss, and most significantly, extreme anxiety and paranoia. His last film was Night at the Museum 3 where he played the small role of Theodore Roosevelt, but Williams had problems remembering even one line.
“In early May, the movie wrapped and he came home from Vancouver—like a 747 airplane coming in with no landing gear. I have since learned that people with LBD who are highly intelligent may appear to be okay for longer initially, but then, it is as though the dam suddenly breaks and they cannot hold it back anymore. In Robin's case, on top of being a genius, he was a Julliard-trained actor. I will never know the true depth of his suffering, nor just how hard he was fighting. But from where I stood, I saw the bravest man in the world playing the hardest role of his life.
Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it. Can you imagine the pain he felt as he experienced himself disintegrating? And not from something he would ever know the name of, or understand? Neither he, nor anyone could stop it—no amount of intelligence or love could hold it back.

Powerless and frozen, I stood in the darkness of not knowing what was happening to my husband. Was it a single source, a single terrorist, or was this a combo pack of disease raining down on him?
He kept saying, ‘I just want to reboot my brain’” (Qtd. In Neurology, 2016).
The reboot never happened.

His widow, Susan Schneider Williams, asked that people remember the man and his comedic gift. Friends, fans, and anyone who ever saw Robin Williams on stage, television, or film, will certainly remember his comic gift and his dramatic work, as well.

I never met Robin Williams but saw his work in San Francisco before he reached national fame with Mork and Mindy, playing the lovable but unpredictable alien, Mork. He appeared in a Wild West adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, and it was apparent Robin Williams with his resonance and articulation had excellent training at the Julliard School, though he left before graduation. John Houseman said that Williams gave “the best audition he ever saw.” The young Robin Williams was handsome in a ragamuffin way, suitable for a modern play or a Dickens film.

Robin Williams began playing comedy clubs around San Francisco, including the Holy City Zoo on Clement Street. With his aggressive energy, quick wit, and ability to create comedy as though being fueled by some unseen deity of laughter, Robin Williams was a dynamic, almost anarchistic force on stage.
After taking a class in improvisation, I went to the Open Theatre Café one night to watch new comics doing routines and skits. One exercise featured creating movies based on audience suggestions. When Robin Williams walked into the club, the delighted MC invited him up on stage. Williams had just done a spot on a revival of Laugh In, and he was attracting attention after appearing at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Evidently, many agents wanted to sign him but they weren’t sure how to exploit his talent for improvisation learned from another great improv artist, Jonathan Winters.
 Williams joined the comedians and being clever, I shouted out a suggestion: “Do an Existential western.”
 Williams frowned.
“What’s a thinking man doing in a shitty club like this?”
Then Robin Williams walked to the bar and ordered books by Existential writers instead of drinks.
“I’ll take a Camus on the rocks.”
Other performers followed his lead.
“I’d like a scotch and Sartre.”

Robin Williams then ordered a Kafka and suddenly turned into to a cockroach, running about the stage, shrieking in a munchkin voice. At one point, he left the stage and starting yelling, “Boy that sucks.” Williams was like a whirling dervish. It then came time to end the routine.
“No,” Williams said. “Let’s do five acts for the asshole who made that stupid suggestion.”
I found the insult amusing. A moment later, Robin Williams walked out the door and was gone. The old expression, “Who was that masked man?” came to mind. Shortly after his appearance at the Open Theatre Café, Robin Williams appeared on Happy Days as Mork, and the successful sitcom, Mork and Mindy, was launched.
The second time I saw Robin Williams perform was at a gala comedy event in Golden Gate Park just as The World According to Garp was opening. Robin Williams was now a film star in a serious drama.

The warm afternoon passed with many comedians performing, and then Michael Pritchard, a local popular comic, announced Robin Williams. Other comedians sat on the stage in a line to watch. Robin Williams suddenly appeared and delivered a brilliant manic set, moving about the stage doing impersonations like Jack Nicholson as Hamlet (“To be or fucking not to be”), and even more preposterous—Sylvester Stallone as the melancholy Dane (“To be or WHAT?”). At one moment, Robin Williams ripped his pants. He improvised on that, becoming a series of characters including a gay matador flashing his buttocks at a bull shouting, “Toro, Toro.” He became a Japanese tourist with a “wide angle lens” looking for a provocative subject, sometimes pointing the camera down his crotch shouting, “Focus, focus!” He then did bits on a seagull flying overhead. “Tell them we’re here.” When Pritchard came out and gave Williams a sweater to wear around his waist, Williams held up one sleeve and did penis jokes.
“Touch it, it inflates.”

Even when the jokes misfired, it was an amazing experience to witness this force of nature on stage. Sitting on the stage, the other comedians observed their “God,” as though they were twelve disciples watching Jesus working the crowd.
Because of Robin Williams’ success, critics declared that comedians had become “the new Beatles.”
The World According to Garp established Robin Williams as a dramatic actor and after being nominated for Good Morning, Vietnam and The Dead Poets Society, Williams won an Academy Award as the sensitive psychiatrist, Sean Maguire, in Good Will Hunting. The film features a stunning speech about understanding life and other human beings that Williams delivers to Matt Damon’s troubled math genius. It was Williams’ participation that got the film made, since the two leads and screenwriters, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, were relatively unknown at the time.
At the 1998 Academy Awards ceremony, there was a touching moment when Robin Williams won as best supporting actor. He was uncharacteristically speechless. As he put it, “I forgot English for a moment.”

Some of Robin Williams’ best dramatic work as an actor is currently unavailable, like his cameo in Kenneth Branagh’s thriller, Dead Again, where Williams plays a sinister disgraced psychiatrist turned grocery clerk. In a 1986 televised film of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, Robin Williams is haunting as a failed actor and salesman, Tommy Wilhelm—formerly Adler—who finds his life unraveling; his rich but miserly father hates him, his wife and children despise him, he’s lost his job, and at film’s end, his hapless character wanders into a Jewish funeral and wails bitterly for someone he doesn’t know.

Until that moment, there is controlled despair in Williams’ performance. Another role that showed Williams’ range was the grief-stricken widower in The Fisher King. He seems to be a homeless ranting bum at first glance but delivers poetic orations worthy of Shakespeare. Jeff Bridges is brilliant as Williams’ costar.
One of his best standup comedy performances is also hard to find. During the Iran-Contra scandal that plagued the second term of President Reagan, Williams performed for a gala event to entertain Princess Diana and Prince Charles. Williams exploded on the stage attacking the Reagan administration, picturing Ronald Reagan as the captain of the Titanic announcing, “Pool’s open.” Then he launched an attack on Apartheid, still vibrant in South Africa. Using a comic “hillbilly” accent, he noted: “There’s about one million blacks to every one thousand whites. Does the name Custer mean anything to you?”
Watch Robin Williams’ private moment in Good Morning, Vietnam; after entertaining troops on their way to battle, Adrian, the Army D.J., watches them leave, the truck wheels raising dust. Williams has a look of sadness and compassion for these soldiers, many of whom may soon die. It is a powerful moment for the actor when the comic persona of the character drops and we see an anxious human being.
It is interesting to watch the interviews Robin Williams gave. He is so young and remarkably subdued when talking to Ed Bradley on Sixty Minutes. Williams discusses his “fear” of one day drying up or just not being able to go on. He discusses his lonely childhood living in an empty mansion in Chicago with no neighbors and no playmates, only toy soldiers to keep him company. When on talk shows, there is the anticipated Williams routine of one comic bit after another, but then there is a side glance at the host as if Williams is seeking reassurance: “Was I funny? Am I okay?”

He was always welcome on awards ceremonies or talk shows. The hosts had less to do and the ratings went up. While saluting Al Pacino, Williams recited some of Pacino’s famous lines: “‘You talkin’ to me’? Wait, that’s De Niro. Well, put De Niro in a dryer, you get Pacino.”
There is a touching moment from 2005 when Robin Williams accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe award. He again seems a bit bemused, and jokes about the award. Then he thanks his current wife for putting up with him, and gives a heartfelt tribute to his faithful assistant, Rebecca Erwin Spencer. He dedicates the award to fellow actor and roommate at the Julliard, the late Christopher Reeve and star of Superman, ending with a quote from Shakespeare: “Good night, sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” After Reeve had his accident that paralyzed him from the neck down, a mysterious Russian doctor showed up at the hospital demanding that “Mr. Reeve get a colonoscopy.” The shrieking Russian doctor was Robin Williams.
The improvised work of Robin Williams displays his special gift. There’s a wonderful sketch called “The Funeral” with a grieving Carol Burnett and Robin Williams as an annoying unexpected guest. For the second take, Williams improvised and Burnett kept a straight face as the sketch took on another dimension: “My condolences. I lost my hamster. I’ll never forget his little claws on the cage.” When interviewed for Inside the Actors Studio, Williams began by borrowing a scarf from a student actress in the front row and did a series of humorous sketches, much like his mentor, Jonathan Winters. His genie in Aladdin is entirely improvised so the script did not qualify for an Academy Award best screenplay nomination.

It is true that the comedy of Robin Williams isn’t for everyone. Some may find his manic energy disturbing, though Williams could be understated, as well. Occasionally, Williams comes close to bad taste, yet is often dead on in his observations. In one routine about the Catholic Church and pedophilia, he impersonates a boy saying with some indignation, “Hey, you can’t touch me, you’re not a priest!” One can hear the audience gasp followed by nervous laughter.
Robin Williams performed for many charities like Saint Jude and Comic Relief for the homeless, sharing the stage with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg. He regularly entertained US troops stationed abroad. On a recent tour, there was a comic moment when, during his routine, retreat was sounded and all the soldiers turned their backs to salute the flag.
“I won’t forget that,” Williams quipped. “The entire army saying, ‘Forget you’.”
Of course, the art of Robin Williams won’t be forgotten. After his death, the lights on Broadway were dimmed where in 2011, Robin Williams gave an acclaimed performance in the play, Bengal Tiger. In Dublin, the audience stood at the end of Dead Poets Society repeating the classic Walt Whitman line the boys deliver standing on their desks as their dismissed teacher, John Keating, leaves the class: “O Captain! My Captain!”

Robin Williams leaves behind an extraordinary range of work even with the mediocre films. The best comic films (The Birdcage, Good Morning, Vietnam, Moscow on the Hudson, Mrs. Doubtfire) and the effective dramas (Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting, Seize the Day) will have a lasting impact.
Since the publication of her article, Susan Schneider Williams now serves on the Board of Directors for the American Brain Foundation.
Remembering Robin Williams, perhaps Nathan Lane, his costar in The Birdcage, said it best: “What I will always remember about Robin, perhaps even more than his comic genius, extraordinary talent and astounding intellect, was his huge heart—his tremendous kindness, generosity, and compassion as an acting partner, colleague, and fellow traveler in a difficult world.”
Fare on, O Captain! My Captain!
Corrigan, Michael, condensed version, Idaho State Journal, summer, 2014
Works Cited:
Williams, Susan Schneider. “The Terrorist Inside My Husband’s Brain,” Neurology,
 September, 2016

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