Robin Williams: The Last Clown
Robin Williams made me laugh. He had a quick mind. Unlike most comedians I have interviewed, Williams was “on” more often than he was “off.” Most comedians suffer from depression. I don’t exactly know why. Rodney Dangerfield suffered from it until he turned 75 and found the right antidepressant that lessened his pain. You would never mistake Steve Martin for that “wild and crazy guy” he created; hanging with Steve can be like reading a book alone. Jim Carrey was pretty serious when we talked. Ray Romano even more so. Lucille Ball never cracked a smile. Bette Midler, too. Lily Tomlin took what she had to say very seriously. But Robin Williams? He could twist serious into funny in an instant. He could make you laugh at the most offbeat things. The brains he would have liked to pick were Einstein’s and Stephen Hawking’s. If he could have chosen another profession, it would have been “quantum mechanics.” His favorite movie was Dr. Strangelove, though the film he watched over and over again was Les Enfants de Paradise. If he could commit one crime without being caught, it would have been “The destruction of all the nuclear secrets.”
When I asked him what made him cry? He said, “Just the insane violence all over the world, that makes me cry. And it’s unrelenting. I was performing in a club in New York and afterwards there was a guy sitting down with an Iranian, a Palestinian and an Israeli, and they all acknowledged that they want peace but they don’t know how to get to it. How do you create a Palestinian homeland when there’s a large amount of Palestinians who want to obliterate Israel? How do you stop this insane cycle that just keeps going on and on?” When I asked him how he dealt with such matters as a comedian, he said, “You try and find a way to address it. Some people are better at it than I am. I haven’t hit that one yet. I’m trying to find interesting things to talk about with it.”
When I asked him what he would like to invent, he came up with, “Cold fusion. That would be the big one.” This was the same guy who danced around the stage doing an entire hilarious routine with a silk scarf; who brought one to tears with his sidesplitting take on the history of golf. “Most animals have a defense mechanism,” he said to me. Making people laugh is mine. That’s my offense and defense.”
I interviewed Robin Williams for Playboy in 1992, for Rolling Stone in 2002, and for Autograph in 2009. The last time we spoke, I asked him what he would like to be known for? He answered, “The benevolent fool.”
And when I asked him his worst fear, he answered, “Losing your mind, your memory, your ability to think.”
I don’t know if Robin committed suicide or not, I only know that he was found dead early Monday morning, August 11, and that he had been depressed. Of all the people I’ve interviewed or spent time with, I can’t think of anyone less likely to take his own life than Robin Williams. He had the fastest mind, the most spontaneous way of thinking, and he was a genuinely nice guy. Perhaps, like Hemingway, he was losing his ability to think. That would surely have led to depression. But it’s just so hard to imagine he’s gone. He was such a bright light in such a darkening world.
Had he been a circus performer, he said he’d be “the last clown out of that little car.”
That’s how I see him right now, the news of his death still so raw. As the last clown following a long line of comedians squeezing out of a very small car.