Robin Williams Lived Intensely

The comedian existed in the id where most people dream of living but are too afraid.
Matt Sayles/AP

Robin Williams is dead at 63. The comedian carried insecurity and self-doubt with contagious intensity. He was so grandiose and wild that it would've irritated audiences to their cores had his eyes not betrayed an insatiable melancholy, imploring, please, I just want to be liked.

But that's the language of earnest grief, a eulogy. Williams wouldn't have taken himself so seriously. Or he would have taken himself so seriously it would have been impossible to confront. In a 2010 interview for The Guardian, Decca Aitkenhead asked Williams about what she calls the grief industry.

"In America they really do mythologize people when they die," he said, as if we were about to get Williams' earnest take on the complexities of American media, before he hung a hard right into Ronald Reagan's voice and manner, riffing in the shadows of the President's dementia: "Maybe he was kind of lovable, but you realized halfway through his administration he really didn't know where he was."

In a subsequent almost-serious moment, Williams approached the feeling of mourning a close friend with the passing of Christopher Reeve. What was it like, Aitkenhead asked, to grieve privately for a public figure?

"Well, it's a whole different game," Williams said—but then, for his own reasons, recounted a talk show he had seen where a man confessed to adultery in front of a predominantly female studio audience. "Idiot," Williams said. "Why don't you just go bobbing for piranha? These women are screaming 'You bastard!' But the idea of being on TV overrode everything. 'Ah'm on TV, y'all.' You're a schmuck, why would you do that? 'Ah'm on tee-vee, ah'm gonna be fay-mous.' Yeah, for all of five minutes, big time."

Williams met serious questions with humor that may have seemed evasive on its face, but in fact painlessly elevated manufactured grief to the point of actual darkness. He was recurrently, proactively conscious of his fraught need for fame. Amid the 1994 Mrs. Doubtfire publicity he said, "You have an internal critic, an internal drive that says, 'Okay, you can do more. Maybe that's what keeps you going. Maybe that's a demon. Some people say it's a muse. No, it's not a muse! It's a demon!"

But, you know, he said it in a funny voice.

In one two-year period, Williams made eight movies. "At one point the joke was, 'There's a movie out without you in it?" Williams said. "You have this idea that you'd better keep working otherwise people will forget. And that was dangerous. And then you realize, no, actually if you take a break people might be more interested in you."

People didn't forget.

Williams took it slowly, stopped drinking for 20 years. Until one day in Alaska. "I was in a small town where it's not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking. I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid. It was that thing of working so much, and going. fuck, maybe that will help. And it was the worst thing in the world. You feel warm and kind of wonderful. And then the next thing you know, it's a problem, and you're isolated."

But near the end Williams said he was "not afraid to be unhappy," a virtue he called "the gift."

Is that manufactured sentimentality? I hope it doesn't read that way. It's real. The reaction among the deeply ironic writers of the Internet and the often numbingly trite Hollywood elite has so far been unmistakable in its earnestness and devastation. A rare moment. The Williams of endless gags and lols learned to live without irony—he made Old Dogs "just to pay the bills" and was unrepentant—and so have we tonight, if fleetingly. He took risks and said things most of us only think. For it, for taking the risks we all want to and bearing his weaknesses alongside his passion and poise, he is more than respected, he is loved. 

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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