Interviewing Robin Williams: Like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree

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williams-stand-upEveryone was shocked at Robin Williams’ death.

No one expected it. No one had any idea he was depressed enough to take his own life.

We spent time wondering what pushed him to that final step, and last week another puzzle piece fell into place with his wife’s announcement that Robin had been diagnosed with Parkinson ’s disease and was dealing with all that entails.

Everyone here at Creaky Joints is intimately familiar with life changing diseases, either because they have one, or know a person who does.

While it does not answer the ultimate question why, it does give us a way to understand.

I was lucky enough to meet Robin several times over the course of two decades and talk to him.

I met him along with most of the TV watching world when he debuted as Mork on “Happy Days” and then starred on his own show with co-star Pam Dawber, “Mork and Mindy.”

Months before I met him face to face, other reporters described how one interviewed the manic Mr. Williams. When your time started you turned on your tape recorder. You turned it off 20 minutes later and hoped you had enough there to write a coherent story.

I once described interviewing Robin as trying to nail Jell-O to a tree. He was slippery. You’d ask a question and the answer might involve five characters, descriptions so deliciously naughty you could never print them, and keen insight into what it was to be him.
Once, he made me laugh out loud, and I laugh loud. He stopped mid-sentence, mimed smoking a cigarette and asked me, “Was it good for you too?”

Oh, it was. Every time we spoke.

He came out of comedy mode from time to time. Once, he talked about being a father. He told a group of movie critics that he wasn’t in character when he was with his children. He was “Dad.” As an example, he told us he never called his children to come in as Popeye.

I liked that moment, that he was simply “Daddy.” There was a glimpse of the man.

He spoke as an actor twice, once for “Mrs. Doubtfire” and once the last time I talked to him, for “One Hour Photo.”

Each time he talked about becoming the character. Both involved changing his exterior, putting on a different persona. One movie had comedic elements, one was purely creepy. He enjoyed both.

My favorite role of his by far is the damaged professor Parry in “The Fisher King.” That is one of my top three favorite movies and to this day I will say he was robbed of an Academy Award.

I also really liked “What Dreams May Come,” which deals with depression and suicide, even if it wasn’t his character who suffered.

Every other time it was that chameleon comedian who showed up. You could watch ideas skip like stones over water – but at Mach 5. I don’t think we will see anyone who could work that fast again.

And, while we understand how awful it is to be told that the life you knew is over, how terrible it is when our own body starts betraying us, we each have to find our own way though the doubts and fears that follow.

I don’t know now, or ever will, what caused Robin Williams to take that irrevocable step, but sadly, I do understand.

One Comment

  1. Depression is also a disease, and must be treated as such. There is still a stigma in our society about it. The brain is an organ that is very complicated, and can get ill. Diabetics need insulin, arthritis patients need medication, as do people with depression and or anxiety. It is a disease.
    After my dog died, I was depressed beyond belief. I went to a psychiatrist to get help. It was the only way I got through that bad time was with medication to numb the pain, for a while. My brain was traumatized. I could not sleep. People asked me how I was doing and I said: “Fine because I am taking these medications”! I told everyone, and was not shy about how depressed I was over the loss. I was not shy about the fact that I was on meds.
    I still struggle with anxiety, not depression, but I think it is important to talk about it, and treat it. Most people deal with life’s issues by drinking and drugs, and that makes things worse. People will say: “Go have a drink, you will feel better”. That is a temporary fix. It does not get to the route of the problem, nor does it treat it.
    Robin Williams was obviously feeling hopeless, but he was also suffering with two separate illnesses. One was an illness in his brain, and one was Parkinson’s, supposedly. People need to get help when they are feeling depressed and anxious, and not “snap out of it”. It is a disease of the brain. It an only be managed, not fixed. Having a chronic illness sucks for all of us here. People with arthritis are more vulnerable to depression and anxiety. It is okay and healthy to talk about it.

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