Searching For Robin

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The older you get, the more you’re forced to get used to the concept of death. It’s both heartbreaking and sobering after a while, all of the family members, friends, pets and acquaintances you lose as time passes. Celebrity deaths can affect you too, though in a much less direct way. Maybe you didn’t know them personally, but they were a part of your life in their own small way. You hear the bad news, you feel a bit shocked and saddened, then you post about it on Facebook and Twitter. (R.I.P. *Fill in the blank*!!) But it’s not a HUGE deal, is it? Life goes on. I personally haven’t been all that affected or shocked by a celebrity death since Michael Jackson, and that was only because he was such an icon of my childhood. But then, as I sat at work yesterday while Metro Detroit experienced a flooding of almost Biblical proportions, I heard the sad news about Robin Williams.

First off, I should say that Robin Williams was not my favorite actor, nor was he my favorite comedian. He was sublimely talented in both of these things, but there were actors I liked better and as far as comedy goes, I preferred an intellectual wordsmith like George Carlin. I first became aware of Robin (as many others did) from the TV show “Mork & Mindy,” and to a certain extent he was always Mork to me. There was so much of him in that role, from the constant improvisations, the manic delivery of his lines, the myriad voices he would use… many of these things became trademarks of his standup act, which was nothing else if not impressive. He vibrated with nervous energy, channeling characters and bouncing around the stage like his feet were on fire. It was almost exhausting to watch him perform, and there was never any doubt that he was giving everything he had when he was onstage. I admired his “all or nothing” approach, and somewhat envied his fearlessness. I assumed he must be pretty secure with himself to put it all out there like he did. Little did I know.

That was one thing that always struck me about Robin; he was a consummate performer and entertainer 100% of the time. It didn’t matter if he was on The Tonight Show or doing an interview promoting his latest film with an anchor at a local TV station. He was always “Robin Williams”. He didn’t just do an interview, he put on a performance for the interviewer, no matter how anonymous they were, just like he would for somebody like Johnny Carson. Their laughter was obviously important to him. It made no difference whether it was one person or a stadium filled with people. He always brought his “A” game, and I’m sure the approval he received was a big part of what fueled him.

I completely related to him in that regard. I learned at a very early age that laughter was an excellent tool for making friends, which was an important realization for an insecure kid like me. I remember having Show and Tell when I was in kindergarten, and one day I couldn’t think of anything cool to bring with me. I had this plush tiger hand puppet, and I grabbed it on a whim for lack of any other ideas. It turned out to be an early defining moment in my life. The kindergarten teacher asked me if I wanted to demonstrate the puppet, so I went into the playhouse that was in the classroom and put on an impromptu puppet show for the other kids. It was a total blast. The kids were laughing and interacting with the puppet, and when I came out afterward they were applauding and saying to me, “That was good!I never forgot that. That feeling of approval and acceptance washed over me and it was like an epiphany; People will like me better if I’m funny.

Robin was undeniably funny, but I didn’t realize there was more to him as a performer until I was watching cable in the early 80s and saw a movie called “The World According to Garp”. It was a terrific dramatic role and Williams played it completely straight and convincingly, especially considering some of the bizarre elements of the story. There were no trademark silly voices or comic asides, like I’d see in many (if not most) of his later movies. I may have been expecting Mork from Ork, but I got anything but. It proved to me that he had true acting talent without needing to go over the top. I felt much the same way when I saw “Awakenings,” in which Williams deftly played a painfully shy doctor in a performance that brought me to tears more than once. I was further impressed when I saw “One Hour Photo,” a rather obscure film that brought a lonely, tortured character named Sy to vivid, uncomfortable reality. He had those opposing sides to his personality… the funny side and the darker side underneath the surface. His best roles played to both sides, like in “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Death to Smoochy”. But there was also his dazzling tour de force turn as the Genie in Disney’s “Aladdin,” a role he mostly ad-libbed. He even won an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting,” but I can’t speak on that movie since I’ve never seen it. I guess I need to get on that.

Through it all, there was a blurry line that separated the man from the performer. He had a very animated, entertaining public persona, but what was he REALLY like? He couldn’t have been that way all the time, could he? Well, no, of course he couldn’t. It seems to me the front he put on in public was something he must have felt was expected of him. People expect me to be funny, so I’d better be funny. We didn’t get to see the private side of him. We didn’t see him battling substance abuse or the serious depression he suffered from most of his life. His family and close friends must have seen that darker side of him, but to his fans he was funny and happy-go-lucky all the time. I realize now that his insecurities probably played a large part in that.

Can I relate? Absolutely. One time, I was on a first date with a woman that I was really interested in and I wanted it to go well. I’m always cripplingly insecure in situations like that, so to compensate for it I went into “performer” mode. It really seemed to do the trick, at least at first. All through dinner she was laughing and smiling, which is always good on a first date. But then she did something that I never forgot. She laid her hand over mine and asked, “Are you always this funny?” I wasn’t expecting that question, so I fumbled for an appropriate response. “Just so you know,” she continued, “I don’t expect you to be ‘on’ all the time.”  For a few seconds, I felt totally exposed. I felt that my gregarious facade had been shattered and she could see me for exactly who I was inside; the chubby, goofy-looking kid that felt he needed to be funny in order for anyone to like him. The kid who honestly believed that if he wasn’t constantly “on,” then nobody would even bother with him at all. The laughter and approval from others had always validated me. Without it, I felt completely useless.

Of course, she wasn’t trying to make me feel bad. In fact, she made a really good point. You can’t be “on” all the time. I have to wonder how difficult that was for someone like Robin. Even with all the fame and accolades he had, after the stage lights were shut off and the applause died down, he still had to live with himself. When you’re lying in bed at night, alone with your thoughts, there’s nowhere to hide. Did the depression he felt inside hinder him, or had it created him? Every morning you have to look at yourself in the bathroom mirror. If you don’t like what you see, you’ll never be truly happy. Fame won’t change that. Money won’t, either. And as much as Robin probably hated to admit it, neither will the approval of others. I think he used his humor as both a weapon and a shield. Nobody wanted to know how sad he was, so why bother them with it? It’s easier to just make them laugh…

My sense of humor was the only thing that got me through those first two miserable years of junior high school. I remember what a rough time that was for me. Adolescence was not treating me kindly, and my bulky glasses, disheveled hair and ill-fitting clothes made me an easy target for bullies. It’s an age where appearance is EVERYTHING, so if I looked like a dorky teacher’s pet and mama’s boy, that must be exactly what I was. Those who actually took the time to talk to me figured out in a hurry that I was not at all what I appeared to be, but most didn’t bother. One particular bully, a kid I’ll call “Sean,” would give me a hard time every single day. I wasn’t a specific target… in fact, this kid had a nasty disposition and was pretty much rotten to everybody. In hindsight, I realize this boy was the way he was for a reason. Who knows what was going on in his life? I’m sure other people were treating him just as cruelly as he treated others, and that was his way of dealing with it. But what did I know back then? I just thought, “That guy is a dick.” I tried ignoring him, but as all bullied kids know, that simply doesn’t work. Neither does “laughing it off,” but parents who don’t actually remember being a teenager like to throw out that useless advice all the time.

Well, one day I was sitting in class talking to a friend of mine. I don’t even remember what the conversation was about, but in the middle of it I glanced over and saw Sean eavesdropping, and for once he wasn’t hurling insults. Instead, he was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down his face. I remember feeling a bit taken aback, because I’d never seen that side of him, but I was also relieved that he wasn’t trying to humiliate me. Things changed that day. We didn’t become friends or anything, but he stopped picking on me after that. Why? All because I had made him laugh, albeit unintentionally. I think that leaving me alone was the closest thing he could get to saying “thank you”. But I’m glad I made him laugh, because I’ll bet that kid didn’t have much to be happy about.

It’s a true gift to be able to bring happiness to people, to make them laugh, and Robin experienced it on a much grander scale than I’ll ever know. Didn’t he realize the power he had? Didn’t he know that entertaining millions upon millions of people these past few decades actually meant something to the world? I suppose it’s easy for people to NOT understand, to think that he had it all and just threw it away. It’s easy to call him selfish when you don’t realize the secret anguish he must have felt. I’m sure people told him to “snap out of it,” and to be grateful for what he had in his life. I’m not going to sit here and claim that I understand, but I think I have an inkling of at least some of what he went through.

He had wanted to be an entertainer and he did it, experiencing success beyond anything he probably ever dreamed of. He had a wife and children who loved him. He had all the material things he could ever want. He had his Golden Globes and his Oscar. He had the admiration of the very industry he had coveted. In the end, it wasn’t enough. A remarkable life ended with a belt wrapped around his neck, alone in his multimillion dollar home with the inner demons he was sadly never able to conquer. Why? Did he believe that nobody really loved him? Did he think, despite everything he had accomplished, that he wasn’t “good” enough? He didn’t leave behind a suicide letter, so we’ll likely never know. But his death should serve as a wake up call to the world; Depression is a serious disorder that should be treated as such. It’s true that you can’t save people from themselves, but you can be there for them. You can make sure they know at least one person loves them, one person cares. That’s all you can really do, but it’s also the best thing you can do.

You were loved, Robin. And if nothing else, I hope you know that now. Thanks for the laughs and the memories.

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2 Responses to “Searching For Robin”

  1. Cheryl Eggleston Says:

    Very well written Jeremy. You have great writing skills. You should write more often. Something just fir your own fun. You have a talent.

  2. Loss of serotonin and dopamine causes depression. Where do you think the name “dope” comes from ??? Your body cannot make it anymore once you hit your late 40s and 50s, and 60s …OR when detoxing….(as your body is used to getting it so efficiently from drugs and/or alcohol). I know from my own melt down and suicide wishes after withdrawal from opiates. I have been on suboxone for ten years (which gives me the dopamine that I need…albeit in an artificial manner….saved my LIFE)….This prescribed med gives me the feeling of happiness and content that my body no longer makes on its own. ***The world must raise consciousness about what really causes this disease…..LACK OF DOPAMINE AND SERATONIN….FYI: ALL disease processes are caused by either too much or too little of something…and this is as simple as it gets people……do your homework…..and also MAKE NOTE: Men in their 50s and 60s who take heart [meds/blood pressure meds] and anti-depressants most often suffer from ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION…which for some men….like Robin Williams….is just too depressing and embarrassing to deal with…..unable to make love to his young wife !!!!!! RIP

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