Robin Williams: 2014 Rolling Stone Cover Story by David Browne
This story was originally published in Issue 1217 on September 11th, 2014.
Kid Rock expected a wild ride with Robin Williams that December week in 2007, and he wasn’t disappointed. Williams, the son of a Navy man, had already been to Afghanistan twice to boost troop morale for the USO; this time he was joined by Rock. The two had met a few months earlier, when Williams caught one of Rock’s shows and, backstage afterward, went off on a characteristically inspired buckshot improv of Rock’s most salacious lyrics. Their adventures continued: During one show in Iraq, Williams and Rock broke into an impromptu blues satire, and the two of them — along with Lance Armstrong and comic Lewis Black, who were also part of the tour — shared no-frills Army-bunk quarters. Although everyone was trying to sleep, Williams began riffing on anything in sight (and sound), including Armstrong’s farting.
When Williams and Rock had some time alone, though, Rock saw another, startlingly different side of his new friend — a man who was visibly distraught about his life. “He’d be up, up, up, and then sitting down with him, he’d cry and start talking about his personal life,” Rock recalls. “It’s something I never expected.” As Rock learned, Williams was heading toward a divorce with his second wife — “He was broke up about it” — and he also noticed Williams was going to the bathroom to pee “every 15 minutes” for what he later learned was a worsening heart condition. “I know comedians can be dark, but it was weird to be in fucking Afghanistan and have someone sit down and really open up like that,” Rock says. “When he got deep, he got deep.”
By then, Williams was nothing less than an institution, revered for his charitable causes and his hyperkinetic, pinball-machine-on-overdrive brain. “He was like a computer,” says Martin Short, who met Williams in 1979. “Spewing out names from some film he saw once in 1956. He was just a genius. I would be in awe.” Williams had a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (for his role in 1997’s Good Will Hunting) and a career that alternated between crowd-pleasers like Patch Adams and Mrs. Doubtfire, and gritty indies like One Hour Photo and Insomnia. He also had a reputation as one of the most generous in his field, from working tirelessly to help the homeless at Comic Relief benefits with his friends Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg to his regular donations to AIDS charities.
Over the course of his career, Williams talked openly about his struggles with drinking and drugs, the breakups of his first two marriages and other personal issues. “Oh, I don’t have inner peace,” he told RS in 1988. “I don’t think I’ll ever be the type that goes, ‘I am now at one with myself.’ Then you’re fucking dead, OK? You’re out of your body.” He routinely turned morbid thoughts like suicide into fodder for jokes. While shooting Mork & Mindy, he saw a rope dangling of the set and pretended to hang himself. “The series is called Mindy now,” he cracked. In a podcast with Marc Maron in 2010, he rattled of a bit about his conscience quizzing him on his suicidal thoughts: “What were you going to do, cut your wrist with a Waterpik?”
Yet Williams always left the impression he was in control, that he wouldn’t end up like so many artists before who had succumbed to their demons. His first priority was to entertain, to get the laugh, rather than dwell on himself. “He talked about drinking and a little about depression, but it was always light,” says Bob Zmuda, the Comic Relief organizer who had known Williams since the late Seventies. “It was always under control. So we all thought, ‘OK, well, I know Robin had some drinking problems, and he was mildly depressed. Who isn’t?’ You figured, ‘OK, he’s got a handle on it.’ Not so.”
The notion of light versus dark came to Williams early, in childhood. The son of a Ford Motor Company executive and a mother who had once earned a paycheck as a model and actress, Williams was born the couple’s only child in Chicago in 1951. “For my mother, everything is ‘wonderful and rosebuds,’” he said in 1991. “My father, on the other hand, was a little darker about the world: ‘It sucks! Get used to it!’” Attracting the attention of his mother, Laurie, a Mississippi-born Southern belle who “loved to party,” in his words, became especially important to Williams. “The first laugh is always the one that gets you hooked,” he once said, attributing his fast-paced wit to her. “And it’s usually from a mother or a father. For me, it was my mother. I was always trying to make her laugh.” Laurie would dispute her son’s claim that he was chubby as a child, but Williams maintained he was regularly bullied (“There were times when I was in tears and I didn’t want to go back to school. But I did”) and only began building self-confidence when he joined the wrestling team in high school.
Williams had an entire floor of their mansion to himself, often spending time alone with his massive collection of toy soldiers, making up voices for many of them. He later said he was mostly raised by his African-American maid, Susie. “It struck me as a lonely childhood,” says comic David Steinberg, who met Williams nearly 40 years ago. “There’s a kind of loneliness to all comedians, because you have to be in your own mind all the time. But there was just a certain sort of solitude in him that I didn’t see in a lot of people.”
When Robert Williams retired from Ford in 1967, the family moved to Tiburon, a well-to-do town in the Bay Area, where Williams finished high school. While at college in California, Williams took an acting class that showed him the joys of improv, and with his parents’ support of a showbiz career, he moved to New York in 1973 to enroll at the Juilliard School alongside classmates like Christopher Reeve and William Hurt. Reeve, who went on to become one of Williams’ closest friends, would later say that at first Williams “wasn’t comfortable in New York — he was a California kid who wore karate clothes and a beret and was out of sync with people.” Halfway through his BFA program, in February 1976, Williams left the school, returned home (he later said a woman drew him back), and in no time landed his first serious acting role, in Harold Pinter’s intense play The Lover, about a couple who alternate between reality and sexual fantasy. Williams was so broke, director Cynthia “Kiki” Wallis had to give him $100 for his wardrobe. Still, he excelled in the part while also hinting at his future, more unbridled career path. “He had gotten used to getting a laugh and one night he didn’t,” says Wallis. “So then he did a Tarzan thing with his voice, and he got the laugh. I told him after, ‘You got the laugh, but you broke the show rule.’”
Williams never let loose like that again during the show’s monthlong run, but comedy and improvisation were already taking hold, and he began doing stand-up in San Francisco. “The woman I was living with had left me, and I had to do something to break my depression,” he later said. He moved to Los Angeles in 1977 and landed work on two short-lived series, one starring Richard Pryor and the other an ill-fated revival of the Sixties variety show Laugh-In. But what became clear early on was that he didn’t need an ensemble: That same year, he was featured in a stand-up special hosted by Steinberg on the then fledgling HBO. “He left the stage, got into the audience, started to talk to the audience, made material out of whatever that conversation was,” Steinberg recalls. “He had a Shakespearean bit about Mr. Cunnilingus. It was brilliant.”
While Williams began developing his act in clubs like the Comedy Store and the Improv (“Sometimes doing great, sometimes bombing, but always diferent,” says co-manager Larry Brezner), he soon got a girlfriend, fellow comic Elayne Boosler. “I had never been so pursued,” she says. “Even though he had an apartment, which I never saw in all that time, he came to my place every night.” He called her “Punk” or “Punkie.” When she asked him if that’s what he called all his girlfriends, he said, “Just the last 14.”
One of a Kind
The club apprenticeship didn’t last long. When Happy Days executive producer Garry Marshall had the idea (via his son) to have an alien guest star in 1978, Williams auditioned and got the part, famously standing on his head during the meeting. Williams slipped into the role of Mork — an interplanetary visitor who observes and absorbs human foibles with a childlike naiveté — so charmingly that he was offered his own series as the character. Initially, his managers were reluctant to have their rising star in a TV show. “I said, ‘Garry, we really think this guy has a film career,’ because in those days, TV and movies were two separate careers,” says Brezner. “We felt it would be a mistake to put him on television at that point. But Garry said, in his inimitable accent, ‘Look, we’re just doing Robin. He’s gonna wear his clothing. It will be him.’ I said, ‘That could be interesting and he could be commenting on the human condition from an alien planet.’” (“This is television, Larry,” Marshall replied. “We’re not doing Greek theater.”)
Cavorting on the Mork & Mindy set in his trademark look at the time — baggy pants and rainbow suspenders — Williams made the most of the sitcom’s silly premise, largely improvising the scripts. (Some would have sections that simply read, “Robin does his thing.”) The series was an instant sensation when it debuted in the fall of 1978, and for its second season, Williams’ salary jumped from $15,000 to $40,000 per episode. “He couldn’t get enough,” says Short. “He loved it. He seemed really happy and filled with excitement about everything from the money to the acclaim to the opportunity.” His stand-up took off, too: In a typical set, he could leap from movie references (“Help me, help me!” from The Fly) to an impersonation of Jimmy Carter to an imitation of Albert Einstein visiting Three Mile Island after its nuclear accident (“Vot are you doingk with my formula? Dis is vot happens?”).
His rapid-fire improv influenced a generation of comedians, but his was a singular talent. “You can’t look at any modern comic and say, ‘That’s the descendant of Robin Williams,’ because it’s not possible to be a Robin Williams rip-off,” says Judd Apatow. “He was doing something so unique that no one could even attempt their version of it. He raised the bar for what it’s possible to do, and made an enormous amount of us want to be comedians. He looked like he was having so much fun.”
Nights at Studio 54, Mork dolls, a national catchphrase in Mork’s “Nanu, nanu” line — Williams’ life was transformed. “We’d be driving somewhere, and he’d say, ‘I’ve gotta take off here,’” recalls novelist Armistead Maupin, a fellow San Franciscan who became a friend. “Teenagers would be chasing him across parking lots. He’d run and there would be this screaming band of ‘Nanu-nanu’ people coming after him.” In 1980, Williams flew to Toronto — seemingly on the spur of the moment, since he had only the clothes he was wearing — to join Short in an improv group. Staying at Short’s house, he spent three hours one day watching local kids play hockey in the street. “He was too famous to go out and say, ‘Can I play too?’” Short recalls. “But he loved watching them. He was so deeply sweet and like an innocent boy.”
As Maupin observed, Williams’ fame had its benefits too. One night, the two went to a party at the house of Harry Nilsson, who’d written the music for Robert Altman’s film version of Popeye, Williams’ first feature-film role. Introduced to Williams by producer George Martin, George Harrison threw his arms around Williams and said, “Oh, man, I love your work.” Williams, who regularly called people “captain,” could only say, “Oh, thank you, Captain.” Later, Williams walked out onto a balcony with Maupin, pointed to the room and said, “That’s a fucking Beatle in there!” For Maupin, the moment was revealing of his friend’s new status: “We all grow up adoring someone,” says Maupin, “and now we’d arrived at a point where that someone was Robin.”
In the years before “mork & Mindy,” Williams’ party-animal side was under control. Boosler never saw him drunk, and, she says, “Drugs were not a part of those earliest days. If we had money for drugs, we would have bought furniture.” But now Williams had access to anything he wanted and took full advantage of Seventies debauchery. “I was like, ‘So what was going on at fucking Mork & Mindy?’” Kid Rock says he once asked Williams. “He was like, ‘Oh, mountains of cocaine!’ I was like, ‘I fucking knew it!’ As someone who has enjoyed a little blow now and then, I’m like, ‘Holy fuck’ — I’ve never been to work on that shit.”
During the making of his Top 10 comedy album Reality … What a Concept in 1979, Williams went on a weeklong coke binge. Later, visiting Colorado to film exterior shots for Mork & Mindy, he stopped by the dressing room of a local band at a club, grabbed a vial of coke from a dealer, and gleefully passed it around the room, giving everyone — and presumably himself — a bump. “I did cocaine so I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody,” he admitted to RS in 1988. “For me it was like a sedative, a way of pulling back from people and from a world that I was afraid of.”
Even before his drug use, Williams’ penchant for excess was causing problems: Jay Leno, then a young comic himself, was so concerned about rumors that Williams was cheating on Boosler that he sat the couple down one night and confronted Williams. “I’m just looking for some balance, man,” Williams said, to which Leno answered — to Boosler’s delight — “Yeah, but you’re using your dick as a fulcrum.”
One night in March 1982, Williams’ wild life slapped him hard. Hearing that John Belushi wanted to see him, he’d stopped by Belushi’s bungalow at the Chateau Marmont. When Belushi didn’t actually seem up for a visit, Williams left; a few hours later, Belushi was dead from an overdose, and Williams had to testify to a grand jury later that year. “In the end I was only there for five or 10 minutes,” he told RS later. “I saw him and split. He didn’t want me there, really. He obviously had other things he was doing. I do think I was set up in some way to go over there. … You could say it would have been a great bust if it had happened.” Says Zmuda, “This was a murder scene. This was heavy-fuckin’-duty shit. That certainly did wake him up.” Williams gave up drugs; when Maupin offered him a joint soon after, he turned it down.
Williams’ film career just before and after Mork & Mindy’s 1982 cancellation was equally bumpy. Two of his first roles, in The World According to Garp and Moscow on the Hudson, were largely dramatic, downplaying his manic side (Williams even took Russian lessons for the latter), but neither connected with Mork primed audiences. (Williams was particularly proud of both and asked Maupin if he thought he’d receive an Oscar nomination for Moscow on the Hudson.) Then, he finally found a role that captured both his vivacity and his gentle side, as Air Force disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam. Between Williams’ lack of box-office success and the still-raw wounds of Vietnam, the movie wasn’t a guaranteed hit. “At that time, he had never had a successful film, and there were those that sort of said, ‘He doesn’t translate to the big screen,’” says director Barry Levinson. Williams himself seemed unaccustomed to performing without an audience: Worried that he wasn’t funny in one scene, he offered to pay for a reshoot. “I said, ‘Robin, it’s not something we have to worry about,’” Levinson says. “ ‘Believe me, it’s amazingly funny.’ He was literally surprised. He went, ‘Really? You think so?’”
The success of Good Morning, Vietnam — which resulted in Williams’ first Oscar nomination, for Best Actor — re-energized his career. On the road, he continued to be a major draw (“His standup was like watching a jazz musician like Sonny Rollins,” says producer and manager Peter Asher, another friend, “absorbing the comic genius of Lenny Bruce, but doing it with this freewheeling speed that blew us all away”) and, until the late 1990s, starred in a slew of lauded and often hugely popular movies in a variety of roles: Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, The Fisher King, Mrs. Doubtfire, the voice of the Genie in Aladdin. Critics began to complain that he was making too much family-entertainment fare, but audiences disagreed; the critically dismissed Patch Adams grossed an astonishing $135 million in 1998. By then, Williams was reportedly making as much as $20 million a movie.
In the late 1980s, as his career began reaching dizzying new highs, Williams’ life arrived at its first major crisis, with his separation and divorce from his first wife, Valerie Velardi. The two had met in San Francisco, where she was a waitress, and had married in 1978, before Mork & Mindy. “I can’t think of a better person to have kept him grounded and thriving during those early years of success,” says Boosler, whose relationship with Williams ended right before he married Velardi. “When you’re that famous and you’re making money for so many people, no one says ‘no’ to you, yet it’s what you need more than anything else.” Williams and Velardi had their troubles, though, presumably having to do with his alleged philandering; in 1982, Velardi admitted to RS, “I left three or four times for a period of a month or a month and a half.”
The couple separated, and were divorced in 1988, and soon, Williams had a new partner — Marsha Garces, who had been the nanny for his and Velardi’s son, Zachary. Williams always maintained that he and Velardi had already broken up by the time he and Garces became involved, but the tabloid gossip around the story upset Williams like nothing else before. He called Garces “a gentle, great soul,” and the two became production partners, steering movies like Patch Adams and Mrs. Doubtfire.
From his earliest days as a standup and actor, Williams always needed an audience, or “feedback,” as a member of his circle says. “If there were two giggly teenagers down at the end of the street who couldn’t get past the barricade,” says Maupin of the filming of The Night Listener, “Robin would walk down there and charm them for three minutes and change their lives.” Mass success didn’t lessen that need to put on a show, as Zmuda witnessed when he visited Williams at his San Francisco office to discuss a project. Zmuda was ushered into a conference room with only Williams. “It was so uncomfortable,” Zmuda recalls. “He broke out in a sweat, because there wasn’t an audience there. He couldn’t put fuckin’ words together.”
When Garces walked in to take part in the meeting, Williams sprang into action. “He hit the switch and starts performing,” Zmuda says. “He’s jumping off the walls. He’s doing this just for you. You’re laughing your ass of, and your eyes are tearing.” Williams only stopped when Garces clapped her hands together like a teacher and said, “Robin, stop it!” Williams, Zmuda remembers, “put his head down and his hands together like a little kid who was scolded. This was more than just a guy being funny. It’s what he needs to do. If he’s not doing it, he gets uncomfortable.”
Starting around the time of the birth of his and Garces’ first child, Zelda, in 1989 (followed by Cody in 1991), Williams became obsessed with bike riding after it became too physically difcult for him to run. By the time of his passing, he’d accumulated more than 50 bicycles, routinely perusing the Marin County bike stores and snapping up five-figure-priced new bikes. (When one store was closed for an afternoon break, Williams waited patiently for more than an hour, killing time by popping into the hair salon next door and entertaining the women there.) His obsession with biking led to a close friendship with Lance Armstrong; the two rode together, and Williams visited several Tour de France contests and bought Armstrong a watch after each race he’d won. (One, a Rolex GMT, was engraved, RIDE ON, DAWG.) “I never asked him,” says Armstrong of Williams’ fascination with biking. “But a lot of people view a bike ride as an escape, a safe place to get away from it all. He would joke, ‘Oh, Marsha got mad at me because I bought another bike,’ and he’d say, ‘Well, I could be into Ferraris, honey.’”
Williams first appeared on the cover of RS in 1979, during his Mork & Mindy heyday, then in 1988 after his breakthrough role in Good Morning, Vietnam and in 1991 for Awakenings.
During a bike tour in Tuscany with another friend, technology investor and former Electronic Arts executive Bing Gordon, Williams’ bike skills were on full display. “He liked to get to the max as opposed to the chitchat bike trips,” Gordon says. “Fifteen minutes in, we go, ‘Where’s Robin?’ and the bike guide, who is 20 years younger than Robin, goes, ‘I don’t know — he went off.’ We didn’t see Robin for the rest of the day. He had that kind of internal energy machine that set its own pace.” For Maupin, Williams’ interest in biking was clear: “It was perfect for him, because he could ride through town and people would see him and say, ‘Hey, Robin!’ And he’d say, ‘Hey!’ And keep riding. It would allow him both conviviality and privacy. It was a great way to handle celebrity. You didn’t have to divorce yourself from the world, but you didn’t have to stand in the corner and be trapped.”
Even as Williams’ cycling passion was growing, his next major crisis was about to slam him. It had begun innocently enough, when he was on the set of a dark indie comedy, The Big White, in Alaska in 2003. He had begun stretching out as an actor; the year before, he had starred as a disturbed photo developer in One Hour Photo, as a serial killer in Insomnia alongside Al Pacino and as a depraved children’s TV star in the sinister comedy Death to Smoochy. Those films, especially One Hour Photo, featured some of his bravest, most daring work, and Williams worked hard to play down his jokey side. “He was so addicted to entertaining people and making them laugh that he needed to be funny between takes to get that out of his system, so when he went into character, he could be completely free of that urge,” says One Hour Photo director Mark Romanek. “In the early takes, his performance was suffused with a sort of glow he got from having just made people laugh moments before. It gave the performance an odd emotional patina, and we’d often use those early takes.”
Still, those films weren’t the hits the likes of Mrs. Doubtfire had been, and Williams began to grow concerned over his career. At a store in Alaska, he slipped in, bought a small bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and drank it as soon as he walked out. “Within a week, I was buying so many bottles I sounded like a wind chime walking down the street,” he told Parade later. His drinking became so bad that he got wasted during a Thanksgiving dinner, and only after a family intervention did he enter an Oregon rehab facility in 2006, where Armstrong once visited him. “When he went in, I had no idea,” says Armstrong, who had been with Williams at Cannes just a few months before. There had been no visible signs of stress. “He was an incredible hider. It was defer, deflect and go back to that place of making people laugh.”
Williams’ filmography runs the gamut from blockbuster family fare like Mrs. Doubtfire to frightening portrayals of disturbed characters like Sy, the stalker, in One Hour Photo. Nominated four times for an Academy Award, he won in 1998 for Good Will Hunting.
More and more, the pattern revealed itself: For friends or strangers, Williams was quick to launch into one of his crazy improv routines, almost as a way not to talk about himself and the inner demons that had returned. “He talked with us about the addiction issues, but not about the depression issues,” says Gordon, who spent many vacations with Williams and his family. “That stayed private. He was always upbeat.” But Gordon would catch glimpses: On a boating trip with friends, Williams arrived after a particularly hectic stretch of work and seemed spent. “He shows up and he’s lights out,” Gordon says. “He was sitting there with a thousand-yard stare.” Then one of the boatmates mentioned a German phrase, and Williams turned his head, looked across the room and suddenly began riffing. “He was making up words on the fly and talking about what the German Love Boat would be like.”
After experiencing shortness of breath in the midst of his Weapons of Self Destruction stand-up tour in 2009, Williams was taken to a Miami hospital before being flown to the Cleveland Clinic. There, he underwent three and a half hours of surgery to replace his aortic valve and fix an irregular heartbeat. Williams was left with a large scar running down his chest — and, naturally, fodder for hilarious new material: “I have a cow valve, which is great, and the grazing’s been fun. And I give a good quart of cream, too.” The reaction was typical. “That was a big impact,” says Armstrong. “Of course, him being him, he turned it into a fucking comedy routine.” (When Armstrong admitted to doping in 2013, tabloids claimed that Williams felt “stabbed in the back.” While he distanced himself from Armstrong, he declined to speak publicly about the matter — and Armstrong says the two didn’t talk about it: “Never had the discussion. We were close enough friends that if he had a real problem, he would call and say, ‘I’ve had a real problem with this.’ ’’)
For once, the pressure of being Robin Williams was beginning to seep out. Visiting the Tour de France in 2009, he jumped onto the American-team bus right before the race began. “Everyone was nervous, so you could cut the tension with a knife,” says cyclist Levi Leipheimer. “It’s not a light mood. And he came on and for the next 30 minutes he was holding court nonstop.” The jokes — about Armstrong and the French, he recalls — came fast and furious, but afterward, Leipheimer wasn’t the first to wonder how difficult it was for Williams. “He was so good at making everyone laugh,” he says. “But to be that guy, to be funny and to always be on, must have been exhausting. He could turn it on superfast. But maybe it was tiring.”
In 2011, williams seemed on the verge of a new beginning. That July, his 60th birthday party was attended by Crystal (one of the few comics who could hold his own onstage alongside Williams), Maupin and other friends. Another guest was his girlfriend, Susan Schneider, a San Francisco painter he’d run into at an Apple Store in early 2009, after the end of his marriage to Garces. “How’s that camouflage working?” she quipped when they met, referring to his pants, and Williams retorted, “Pretty good, because you noticed.” It turned out they were both sober, and Schneider, who was 14 years younger than Williams, helped nurse him back to health after his heart surgery. Three months after Williams’ birthday party, they wed. “There seemed to be a great deal of happiness there,” Maupin says, “and I felt so good for him.”
At the same time, though, Williams was facing another crisis, this time career related. At the peak of his fame, he would have leading parts in two or three films a year; in 2010, there were no films released at all. His terrific role as a father who exploits his son’s death for his own celebrity, in World’s Greatest Dad, largely went unnoticed. With his movie career shaky, Williams turned to television for the first time since Mork & Mindy. The Crazy Ones, developed by David E. Kelley, would be built around the character of adman Simon Roberts. “When you get to a certain place, the material is tougher to get,” says his co-manager David Steinberg (not the comic). “They make movies for younger people. So there were fewer and fewer great scripts and fewer great roles. Robin was nervous about the idea of returning to TV, but we were drawn to the idea that the character and Robin had some similarities. They were both acclaimed geniuses in their chosen fields. Both didn’t really know if they still had it. Robin found that notion intriguing.” The money — reportedly almost $200,000 an episode — would also help Williams with his two alimony payments, a phrase he once joked was derived from “all the money.”
During the casting for The Crazy Ones, Williams met one of his future co-stars, James Wolk (a.k.a. Bob Benson on Mad Men). “When I pointed to the room where we’d be auditioning, he gave me the smile of ‘Where do I go?’” Wolk recalls. “I said, ‘I think they’re waiting for you.’” That sense of self-deprecation now haunts some of Williams’ friends. “It never, ever went to his head,” says Zmuda. “And now we know why. Underneath it, he always thought that he wasn’t worthy enough. It was almost like a big secret that they’re going to find out one day: ‘They’re gonna find out I’m really not that good and not that talented. Man, have I fooled everybody.’”
In an interview just before the debut of The Crazy Ones, Williams talked about the smaller amount of money he’d earn from making indie films and the bills he had to pay, and he confirmed that he’d put his Napa Valley vineyard and house on the market, saying he “couldn’t afford it.” Co-manager Steinberg denies those concerns: “Those were not real at all. When someone would ask Robin why he was taking a job, he would make light of himself. He was an everyman, and that’s why everyone loved him. He made that offhanded remark and it was printed and we all felt badly that people would pick up on that and dog him with it.”
When The Crazy Ones was canceled in May, Steinberg says Williams “took it hard. The main thing that bothered him was the amount of people it would put out of work. Was he worried about the perception or the press trying to make it into a big deal? No.” Williams, as always, rarely discussed the show’s demise with friends. Less than two months after the show’s axing, he returned to rehab at Hazelden in Minnesota to “fine-tune” his sobriety. Around this time, Williams also learned he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the incurable nervous-system disorder that can lead to the diminishing of physical movement and slurred speech.
Within the past few months, Williams stopped by the Malibu home of his friend Peter Asher. “He was sad,” Asher says. “He was unhappy. He didn’t seem jolly at all. It wasn’t anything individually. It wasn’t the money. We were all worried about him.” Asher says it was “not a shock” when Williams went back into rehab this summer.
On August 10th, Williams stayed up late at his house in Tiburon. The next morning, after Schneider had left around 10:30, Williams’ assistant went to check on him in the separate bedroom. Just before noon on Monday morning, August 11th, the assistant found Williams’ cold, lifeless body, clothed and with a belt around his neck. He looked, according to the Marin County Sheriff’s Office during a particularly vivid press conference, “like he was sitting in a chair.” (The sheriff’s department said that the California Public Records Act forced them to release as many details as they had.) The death was ruled asphyxia due to hanging, with toxicology reports still pending. The sheriff’s department also revealed that a pocketknife had been found near his body and that his left wrist had superficial slash marks, indicating Williams may have tried to slit his wrists before he presumably hanged himself. He was 63.
As friends tried to make sense of the stunning and tragic news, Schneider went public with the Parkinson’s diagnosis three days later. The announcement lent a degree of clarity to the horrific events, yet there was still, in the words of comic Steinberg, “a mystery here.”
What drove Williams into the depths of depression this summer may never be fully known, but the ingredients for a tragically perfect storm were there: possible depression as an aftereffect of his heart surgery, worries about his career after his show tanked and, with that cancellation, the potentially crippling thought that he wasn’t able to make people laugh as much as he once had. For someone whose agile brain and physical prowess were so key to his identity, perhaps the thought of being robbed of both by Parkinson’s was too much to handle. “Robin had a calmness to him, sort of in contrast to how surreal and energetic he was onstage,” says Steinberg, who toured with Williams last year. “But that disappointment in himself — I could see how that would be something that would be very deep within him.”
In the last few weeks of his life, Williams was low-key. He reportedly stopped into an AA meeting in Mill Valley, California, in July, where a local TV cameraman who attended described Williams as “very low.” A week before his death, Williams spoke with Gordon about their families. “He certainly wasn’t exuberant, but it’s hard to tell by phone,” Gordon says. The two talked about their kids; Gordon had bought Williams a drone, and they made plans to fly their drones over San Francisco Bay. The evening of August 9th, he attended an art-gallery opening near his home, where nothing seemed amiss. The Crazy Ones was over, but he was set to appear on the screen several more times in the near future: the comedy A Merry Friggin’ Christmas, with Joel McHale; the third Night at the Museum movie (Secret of the Tomb); an indie called Boulevard; and Absolutely Anything, in which he would be the voice of Dennis the Dog. His managers were awaiting a script for a sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire, which could have been Williams’ next project.
For his co-workers on The Crazy Ones, one memory may always linger. During a late-night shoot, the cast and crew were stuck in some downtime. Someone pulled out a guitar, and Williams immediately launched into an improvised song. “It’s two in the morning, and he’s not 29, and he’s just going,” says Wolk. Everyone watched as Williams, the wild comic voice of his generation now trying to find his place in the world, screamed out the blues into the darkness of night.