TEARS OF A CLOWN: Robin Williams’ Untimely Death

Written by Steve Pauwels on August 12, 2014

The familiar figure of the “sad clown” has been doing cultural duty for centuries. No denying, it’s a genuinely bordering-on-shopworn cliche. But when a reference point works, it works; so why not allude to it?

Which is what I can’t help but do upon reflection on the shocking death — reportedly by self-asphyxiation — of much-awarded, A-list comedian/dramatic actor Robin Williams. It’s reported the peerless, sixty-three year old funnyman, plagued by years of on-again/off-again addiction struggles, was lately staring down severe depression following a June stint in rehab. 

Tears of the clown – real life, this time.

USA Today reports: “The coroner suspects the death was ‘a suicide due to asphyxia, but a comprehensive investigation must be completed before a final determination is made.’ A forensic examination is currently scheduled for Tuesday”. 

Williams crashed onto the national scene as the trip-hammer-tongued, alien wise-cracker Mork from Ork on NBC’s Mork and Mindy (1978-82). From that auspicious launch, a career flowered in which the Chicago native excelled in improvisational comedy (a brutally challenging and particularly unforgiving entertainment genre), film comedies and a distinguished corpus of more serious efforts. 

However one felt about Robin Williams’ work, he was undeniably sui generis. Serious or side-splitting, live action, layered in make-up or supplying the voice for an animated creation, he was always, instantly identifiable, compulsively watchable, tough to overlook. 

I confess, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) all the way through, but inevitably found simply hypnotic the clips of Williams as wartime disc-jockey Adrian Cronauer riffing in front of the microphone. 

Jumanji (1995)? One of those repeatedly aired-on-Saturday-afternoons kids’ flicks that became a staple of my boys’ youth — and which, I’ll admit, I’ve viewed and howled at more times than I can guess. (Significant chunks of that film, by the way, were filmed in Keene, NH, a couple hours down the road from my house.) 

I distinctly recall flying cross-country back in the mid-90’s, staring at the flights’ screening of Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)–for me, a silent screening since I hadn’t felt like paying the headphone fee. I further remember my reaction: belly-laughs at Robin Williams’ madcap antics in what was to become his signature comedic performance. Even sans dialogue, music, sound effects — he was flatly riotous. It goes without saying, when eventually I caught the film complete with soundtrack? Even more hysterical.  

Interestingly, the single-father soliloquy Williams’ character unfurls before a stern family court judge in Doubtfire‘s final reel, during which he avows a nearly fanatical love for his children, remains for me one of filmdom’s  truly mesmerizing moments — even though it’s not the least bit humorous. Point of fact, the scene is irresistibly heartbreaking  — which, of course, highlights what were Williams’ signal dramatic chops. 

Those more sombre skills have been put on ample display often and compellingly in, among many others, movies like Dead Poets Society (1989), Awakenings (1990), Good Will Hunting (1997; for which he garnered the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and The Butler (2013). He even effectively managed twin outings as menacing psychotics, both of them in 2002 (Insomnia and One Hour Photo). 

Want a treat? Dig up his memorable one-off as a husband grieving the vicious murder of his wife in a second-season episode of NBC’s cop show Homicide:Life on the Streets (“Bop Gun”, 1994). It’s a little known, thespian gem and one reason I got hooked on that series in the first place. It’ll produce nary a snicker — even so, here I am thinking about it, recommending it twenty years on. 

Sad_ClownIronically — maybe predictably — Williams’ hero, mentor and fellow ad-libbing jokester Jonathan Winters, who passed away a little over a year ago, similarly grappled with psychological issues. One can’t help wondering if the imaginative mastery of these two laugh-generating geniuses wasn’t tied up inextricably with an exquisite emotional sensitivity that also cracked the door for their personal anguish. In one candid moment, Williams himself conceded his hyper-kinetically hilarious schtick was his way of “expunging” his “demons”. 

Despite all that, it seems most of those familiar with the thrice-married father of three speak highly of him. He was apparently a caring man, involved extensively with assorted charitable and philanthropic works, including as a vocal supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  Williams, furthermore, was a fixture among our armed forces, “circl[ing] the globe for our troops and families”. Over the years, he showed up “in Afghanistan, Iraq and, in one of his most memorable appearances, in Kuwait.” 

Robin Williams was beloved by multitudes and will be missed by just as many. 

Which underscores, if I’m not being too crass to so immediately reiterate it, the uncommon selfishness of suicide. If it’s confirmed that Robin Williams did, indeed, end his own life, that means, on some level at least, he electively cut off family, many friends and colleagues and throngs of  fans who’ll now experience an even more grievous, unavoidable pang whenever he comes to their minds. In whatever manner self-inflicted death plays out, there’s always deplorable fall out for the survivors; a wake of heart wreckage left behind.

Just a smattering of examples:

“I am completely and totally devastated.” — Mork & Mindy co-star Pam Dawber.

“I am overwhelmed with grief.” — actor-comedian Chevy Chase, in a statement.

“I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams.” – actor-comedian Steve Martin

“I am absolutely heartbroken.” – actress Glenn Close

“I can’t take the Robin Williams news. I’ve never cried over someone I’ve never met but I can’t stop” – Miley Cyrus

“[T]he hole he left is one that only he, personally, could fill.” Rob Thomas

Suicide is never the route to go.  

And it’s a deeply regrettable end for this legendary talent. 

Image: http://a2.moovidadb.com/movies/60039
Lower Image: http://tarakalam.blogspot.com/2008_12_01_archive.html

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.