Entertainer Robin Williams took his own life Monday, police say.
No one ever will know precisely why, but his fans have a grim, broad idea.
Perhaps the peerless improvisational comedian no longer found anything funny.
Maybe the brilliant dramatic actor finally succumbed to the crippling depression and bipolar disorder that drove him to bouts of drug and alcohol abuse.
Much of the world is sad that Williams left us. But we should be happy for what he left behind – an entertaining legacy of laughter and poignancy.
If you could earn royalties each time someone used the word “legendary” or “beloved,” you would become a billionaire based solely on the tributes written about Williams since Monday.
Williams studied acting at the prestigious Juilliard School and honed his skills in stand-up comedy. But his breakout role came on TV as Mork, an awkward, inquisitive outer-space alien – first on Happy Days, then on the spinoff Mork and Mindy. A nationwide audience finally glimpsed the workings of Williams’ supercomputer of a comedic mind.
There are countless examples of Williams’ prolific comedy improvisation, but we’ll stick to just one – the 1992 Disney animated feature Aladdin, in which he played the frenetic Genie of the Lamp. Given only the general direction of the plot, Williams improvised almost 16 hours of material for the 90-minute movie. He made up so much of his performance on the spot that the movie’s script was rejected for an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay.
Williams made more than 80 movies. Four of them have yet to be released. While many actors fear being typecast, it never seemed to be a problem in Williams’ eclectic film career.
He was an irreverent Air Force DJ in 1987’s Good Morning Vietnam. He was a troubled homeless ex-professor in the 1991 romantic fantasy The Fisher King. He took a thrilling, dark turn as a homicidal crime writer in 2002’s Insomnia. He was an idealistic, inspiring English teacher in 1989’s Dead Poets Society. He was Popeye, Peter Pan and the King of the Moon.
Williams delivered the dramatic performance that won an Oscar in 1997’s Good Will Hunting. He played a therapist who helped Matt Damon’s title character conquer his inner demons.
How ironic that Williams wrestled with real-life demons of his own.
Amid his victories as an entertainer, Williams fought both winning and losing battles with substance abuse. Addicted to alcohol and cocaine, he cleaned up before his eldest son, Zachary, was born in 1983. He stayed sober for 20 years before relapsing on the Alaska set of the forgettable film flop The Big White.
Williams rediscovered sobriety in 2006 and clung to it with varying levels of success for the few remaining years of his life. As recently as last month, he checked himself into Minnesota’s Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center to help prevent further relapses.
The stark jolt of Williams’ passing exposes a sensitive reality we’re not always prepared to expect from the celebrities we admire.
What we see of the rich and famous is entirely within the rigidly controlled public eye. But when the spotlights are turned off and the paparazzi slink away, celebrities suffer the same frailties as so many others. That includes addiction. Crippling depression. Loneliness. Financial problems. Williams’ death shows how much we have yet to understand about mental illness.
Robin Williams stood shakily astride comedy and tragedy. As one saying goes, comedy merely is tragedy deferred.
The gifted man who made us both laugh and cry has left fans in tears.