It wasn’t supposed to end like this. Robin Williams died Monday in what law enforcement determined was a suicide by hanging. It does not appear the actor left a note or indicated to his wife he planned to take his life.
Understandably, the coverage of Williams’ death has focused on his mental health. While using Williams’ death as a news peg for cautionary reports about untreated clinical depression is well-intentioned, it might be ill-advised, since no details about Williams’ medical condition have been made public. A statement from a publicist is not a medical diagnosis, yet countless articles about his death present a diagnosis of clinical depression (or in some cases, bipolar disorder) as a matter of fact. An examination of numerous interviews with Williams through the years did not find any instances of the actor admitting he suffered from chronic clinical depression. In fact, he once emphatically denied it while still speaking candidly about his struggles with alcohol and cocaine abuse and his time in psychotherapy.
Williams will always be remembered for his frenetic comedic demeanor as much as his ability to turn it off. His facility with improvisation may have contributed to an impression that he suffered from long-term mental illness -- how could someone move so fluidly from one persona to another? Williams brought the same earnest intensity to his serious roles as he did to the wild ones, and his commitment won him popular appeal and critical praise. But very recently, Williams’ audience had begun to turn on him.
Williams’ CBS sitcom “The Crazy Ones,” initially hailed as something of a TV comeback for the actor who got his start as the groundbreaking character Mork from Ork, was canceled after a single season and a lukewarm response. And his most recent movie to hit theaters, “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn,” was a critical and commercial disaster. To add insult to injury, Williams’ performance was singled out in multiple reviews as one of the weakest elements of the movie.
How much does any of that matter? To a performer whose identity is tied to his ability to connect with a wide audience, maybe a lot. None of us knows: We can’t say for certain the public and critical response to Williams’ recent work had anything to do with the tragedy of his suicide. But we can’t for certain say it didn’t, either.
Depression is a disease of the brain, but it thrives on external pain and chaos. And depressive episodes, while shorter in duration than chronic depression, can be intense. The only depression Williams acknowledged publicly appears to be the episodic kind. In a 1986 Newsweek interview, he said he took up performing in comedy clubs to “break [his] depression” after the woman with whom he had been living left him. And he admitted he was going through a rough patch at the time of the interview because his marriage was breaking up.
It’s unclear if that article is the same one to which Williams referred in a 2006 appearance on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” “I volunteered to be on the cover of -- I think it was Newsweek -- for their issue on medication,” he said. “And when the guy said do you ever get depressed I said, ‘Yeah, sometimes I get sad’ … and then they immediately branded me manic depressive.”
"I was like, 'Um that's clinical. I'm not that,” he told Terry Gross, the show’s host. “Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.” When Gross asked a clarifying question about whether Williams has experience clinical depression, he emphatically denied it.
“No clinical depression. No. I get bummed like a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, whoa.”
Williams appeared to have had some money concerns at the the end of his life. In an interview with Parade to promote the “The Crazy Ones,” he admitted a steady paycheck was a motive for taking the sitcom job.
“The idea of having a steady job is appealing. I have two [other] choices: go on the road doing stand-up, or do small, independent movies working almost for scale,” Williams said. “The movies are good, but a lot of times they don’t even have distribution. There are bills to pay. My life has downsized.”
The downsizing appears to have been in part due to two divorces, which he said took “enough” but not all of his money. “Divorce is expensive,” he said.
Unnamed insiders told Fox News Williams “was in a funk” before his death, and he was experiencing survivor’s guilt at having outlived close friends like Christopher Reeve, John Belushi and Andy Kaufman. “The [show] gave him the discipline to show up, to stay strong and keep working,” a source told Fox.
Williams had experienced career setbacks before and had acknowledged he occasionally took on projects (like “Patch Adams”) for financial rather than creative reasons. But he always bounced back, and the outpouring of grief and tributes following his death can be seen as evidence he never lost the respect of his audience or his peers. Whatever career slump he was enduring at the time of his death may have only been temporary, until his next great performance. Now we’ll never know.