Robin Williams had such a cheerfully irreverent attitude towards his life, it’s impossible not to think he’d find his own death funny, too.
“Reality is just a crutch for people who can’t cope with drugs,” he once said, possibly the most famous of his many classic one-liners.
As always with Williams, 63, who was found dead in his California home Monday of an apparent suicide, there was a shard of truth in every joke. A clown with a dark side, he found reality tougher to deal with than he let on.
He’d struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for many years, cocaine in the 1970s and ’80s and booze in more recent years.
“Cocaine is God’s way of saying you’re making too much money,” he quipped — and he knew it.
Williams had worked hard at staying sober for at least 20 years but he’d reportedly fallen off the wagon recently and had returned to rehab last month. Police said Williams died of suspected suicide through asphyxia in his home in Tiburon, in northern California.
The Chicago-born comic genius had a quicksilver wit that masked a lifelong battle with depression. He was the epitome of the clown who laughed on the outside but cried on the inside.
Known first as a standup comedian, then in the 1970s and early ’80s as a TV phenomenon (Mork & Mindy) and in recent decades as an all-purpose movie star (he won an Oscar for a dramatic performance as a therapist in Good Will Hunting), Williams was always the funniest and smartest guy in any room.
He could turn any encounter into a memorably mirthful occasion. At the Sundance Film Festival in January 2002, when Williams showed up to promote One Hour Photo, the first of what he called his “Dark Trilogy” of villainous screen turns (the others were Death to Smoochy and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia), he did an impromptu half-hour standup routine before the screening in the Eccles Theatre.
He had people rolling in the aisles with jokes about increased airline security following the 9/11 terror attacks of a few months earlier. He said new instructions to air travellers would be that in the event of an on-board terrorist assault, baseball bats would descend from the ceiling instead of oxygen masks for passengers to take action.
Nothing was sacred with Williams: God, sex, race, drugs were all comedy fodder for him. But he always delivered his zingers with an infectious smile, often with the affected accent of a multitude of foreign countries, real or imagined.
An interview with him, and I had the pleasure of many over the years, was like being invited to a superstar comedy show for an audience of one. You never got the feeling that he put himself on a pedestal. He just loved to entertain people.
He once told me that he knew he took too many roles in lowbrow comedies, fluff like Patch Adams and Mrs. Doubtfire or trash like Flubber, that weren’t going to win him any more Oscars. But he was OK with that as long as people laughed.
“I do them because kids have a great time. There’s a value to that. If I’m a De Niro to a 9-year-old, that’s OK. That’s a great thing.”
He laughed uproariously in 2006 during an L.A. interview when I told him that the Russian cabbie who drove me to the hotel for our meeting professed never to have heard of him. The cabbie claimed he was too busy driving to watch TV or movies, but he was among the few people on earth who’d never heard of Robin Williams.
“That’s wonderful!” Williams said, when I told him the story.
He began an impression of the cabbie, muttering oaths in mock Russian. He ended the riff in accented English: “Why go see Moscow on the Hudson? Why go see movie about Russians?”
Williams was dressed that day in loud plaid pants, topped by a T-shirt bearing a picture of a monkey, its rear end raised high and the slogan: “Human-Animal Hybrid.”
But in the same interview, his smile turned downwards for a few moments as he complained about the demands people made on him.
“People think they know you,” he said, grimacing slightly.
“They expect you to be literally like you are on TV or in the movies, bouncing off the walls. A woman in an airport once said to me, ‘Be zany!’ The weird thing is now with all these cellphones with cameras, they’ll say, ‘May I take a picture of you?’ and you’ll say, ‘Fine.’
“And then they’ll say, ‘C’mon, smile!’ And I go, ‘I am smiling ...’ At that point you want to go, ‘Back off!’ Because they want something else. Do something goofy!”
The last time I saw him was a couple of years ago in Toronto, when I literally ran into him in front of the Windsor Arms Hotel. He was in town for a charity event, one of many good causes he supported, and he was just waiting for a taxi to take him to Pearson airport.
He wasn’t attracting any attention to himself, just smiling that boyish grin that he almost invariably sported. He seemed happy, content with the world on a sunny Sunday morning.
Who knows what terrible mood drove him to his apparent act of despair this week?
“Comedy is acting out optimism,” he famously said.
His optimism and acting ability failed him at the end. His sudden death casts doubt on the outcome of several movies he had in the works, including a planned Mrs. Doubtfire sequel.
But Robin Williams leaves the world a better place, one that will forever ring from the memory of the large amount of laughter he brought to it.