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When a Film Star Dies

08/19/2014 12:28 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2014
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The untimely death of Robin Williams by asphyxiation on August 11, 2014, completely blindsided the world. As the tragic news of his passing broke -- sending television newsroom underlings scrambling to the archives for video clips, and editors to their consoles to cut the montages -- we took to the social channels to express our sorrow and find out what really happened.

I was scooped by my daughter, taking her phone call at the exact moment that I stepped off a homebound train. My response was typical: WHAT? NO WAY! As this is also the age of the celebrity death hoax, I had to conduct my own investigation. So I did what anyone would do in my situation: I punched up Facebook on my smartphone.

There it was. All the credible news sources heard from, a cascade of images alongside the headlines, click here to read more. Numb with shock, I studied the early returns, punctuated with real-time responses from my Facebook friends. I had no idea the man was in such pain. Addiction sucks. Depression sucks. Suicide really sucks.

The Robin Williams Legacy

Robin Williams infused genuine pathos into complex characters. He could split your gut with laughter in one movie, then cross the comic chasm and mercilessly tug on your heartstrings in the next. Williams was both a worthy hero and a convincing villain. Glance at his filmography and you will realize that he amassed one of the finer bodies of work in contemporary cinema.

As much as I enjoyed Williams' humor, I was far more impressed by his serious, more nuanced performances. The day after his death, I screened One Hour Photo, one of his lesser-known pictures, but one that puts him out there with stunning malevolence. His character, Sy Parrish, is a lonely photo lab technician at a sterile, big-box retailer. Outwardly cordial, Sy is as disturbed and distressed as can be. The crescendo of his obsession over one customer family in particular -- fueled by the unearthing of dirty secrets from photo finishing -- arrives at a chilling climax that is not an easy watch.

For his fans, the inner torment that Williams brings to this role is a far cry from the frenetic standup routines, Mork's "Nanu nanu," or Mrs. Doubtfire's hyper-jovial "Hellloooooo!" through a whipped-cream facial. Sy is a bundle of raw nerves, completely exposed, and utterly vulnerable. As I watched Williams do this work, I concluded that he had a huge pool from which he could siphon the pain. He was, after all, a Julliard-trained actor (you think dramatic talent like this grows on trees?) and here he was, at his thespian best.

As the story of Robin Williams' final days continues to develop, I am reading the online tributes, watching the videos, and wondering what must have been going through his mind in that closet. It was disclosed that his divorces took a huge toll on his finances. Those who saw him last described him as noticeably melancholic and withdrawn. We also learned that he was in the early stages of Parkinson's disease. Unlike his acting colleague, Michael J. Fox, this was not a battle that he wished to wage in front of an adoring public.

Williams, as I have gathered, was not a recluse. He was accessible and available, honoring his many professional obligations. A ubiquitous interview guest, he was gracious and delightful on set, yukking it up with the stagehands, and segueing right into shtick after the cameras stopped rolling. When he hit his stride, you would be wise to just take a step back and let him go.

But it is when you absorb the extended footage of Williams in the philanthropic setting, that the crater of hurt widens. Whether he was leveraging his immense talent to aid the needy and medically underserved for Comic Relief, or bringing a cancer-stricken child to squeals of laughter while taping a commercial for St. Jude Children's Research, Williams showed his authenticity and humanity. This was a guy with a big heart who fully understood what his celebrity had delivered and knew how to give back.

The Grief Response in the Digital Era

Grief does not make too many people's Top 10 Lists of Emotions. I have never seen anyone wearing an "I love to grieve" T-shirt. Yet we know that grief is healthy, an essential piece of the process of loss. These days, in knee-jerk fashion, we take our outpourings of grief online, be it for a loved one, a close friend, a pet, or a celeb. Social media is the receptacle.

The premature, tragic death of a notable person jolts us out of our daily routines and shapes the perspective we have of our own mortality. I never thought of Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, or James Gandolfini as immortal. I didn't know these men. I was just their appreciative fan, hoping to see more of their work. But great talent can lead to great indulgence. Their shocking deaths drive home the fragility of the human condition and highlight the ultimate risk one takes when opting to chase the dragon.

Compare and contrast the sea of sentiment for Williams to the passing of the great Laruen Bacall, whose death the very next day at the ripe old age of 89, was merely a sentimental reflection of a stellar screen career and a life well-lived. To be sure, Bacall was not without her demons, but her sendoff on social media was almost an afterthought, lost in the fallout from Williams' apparent suicide. In the Facebook stream, I noted several allusions to celebrity deaths occurring in threes; so who's next?

In the wake of such sad news, the media diverts our attention to the underlying causes. They parade in the medical experts, who posit their ideas on the other side of the split screen in an attempt to help us sort it all out. What can we extrapolate from the death of an iconic film star?

Williams' history of addiction is well documented. That he suffered from depression is not a revelation. Unfortunately, the statistics bring to bear that debilitating depression is on the rise. Factor in the impending Parkinson's, a condition that would have certainly exacerbated the depressive symptoms, and Williams, evidently, saw the writing on the wall.

The Valentino Effect

Back in the day, the death of a famous movie star or other dignitary was reported by newspaper and through the scratchy transmission of an authoritative voice on radio waves. Confirmation of the news took time. The spread was slow. The details did not become as readily available as they do today. Television, of course, changed everything. Still, there was no communal outlet through which people could vent their sorrow and share their feelings. They talked amongst themselves. Today, our grief goes viral quickly on multiple platforms.

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When the legendary Italian silent film actor Rudolph Valentino died from complications of peritonitis on August 23, 1926 at 31 years old, there was an outpouring of grief the likes of which rivaled only the death of a revered world leader. The despondency was so pervasive that scores of grief-stricken fans took their own lives. An estimated 100,000 people lined the streets of New York City for his funeral, accounts of which had many mourners fighting a barricade of law enforcement officials just to throw themselves on Valentino's casket. Decades later, his memory is kept alive through film festivals, biopics, and in the naming of an annual award for acting.

Had Valentino died in the Digital Era, we would have likely seen several interviews with gastroenterologists and pulmonologists, from which we would learn how to identify an attack of appendicitis, live with stomach ulcers, and treat pleurisy -- conditions that all contributed to his death.

Parting Thoughts

Robin Williams was a brilliant comic, a wizard on stage with an impeccable sense of timing, capable of making lightning-fast adjustments in his vocabulary and cadence. He was also a gifted dramatic actor who could reel us in with his solemnity. His uniqueness was the stamp on every role.

In the end, Williams authored no note. He denied us access, clearing only a small peephole into his troubled psyche. Perhaps he anticipated the vortex of grief that would precipitate from his demise, but he was too far gone to care. We will never really know. The man, whose smile was truly an umbrella, just could not take another rainy day.

The demons won. I hate it when that happens.