Like many this morning I have woken up to the news that Robin Williams has died, apparently a suicide after a long battle with depression. Whether you liked his comedy and acting or not, there is no denying that Williams was phenomenally successful and, by the metrics of most of us, should have been happy, whatever that means, and yet he fought his demons every day. I do not want to talk about depression too much, for others do it better than I, but I do believe that it and other issues of mental rather than physical health are still brushed under the carpet in this day and age, as if something invisible, by virtue of its invisibility, does not exist. If Williams’ death opens up more of a debate about these issues and greater understanding of them, then that might be something good to come out of a dark time.
I found his comedy and can’t-sit-still personality rather difficult to watch, but I think it needs to be pointed out that he was also a particularly fine actor, and when one talks of comics turned actors, there are precious few of those around. While many will think of Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting (which, lest we forget, was written by its stars Affleck and Damon), the two Williams roles I remember most are the ones which play against type. For a start there is his performance as the homeless Parry in Terry Gilliam’s typically sprawling and epic The Fisher King – he received an Oscar Nomination for Best Actor for this and rightly so.
My favourite Williams role by a mile, however, is in the far less known One Hour Photo. It is not as big a film (in any sense) as The Fisher King, but I admire actors who take the decision to play against type, better still when they are able to pull it off so convincingly. What Williams achieves in this role as the shy, introverted, obsessive worker is to remind us that, actually, he was not just a comedian, he was also a superb actor. Seeing Williams play this role just makes me even more uneasy about the character he plays. Can you name any other comedians who play roles in films which are not just parodies of themselves? It is a very short list.
We know that composers have battled depression too, had what used to be called “the artistic temperament”, but is now more readily understood as depression of one sort or another. Schubert, Tchaikovsky (who once stood in the middle of a lake in winter awaiting death), and my spiritual colleague Gurney all experienced it and many others too. It is terribly sad that some people get to the stage that they feel it is all for nothing, but, at least in Williams’ case, a significant corpus of work will remain as testament to his talent. For his family and friends, though, nothing will lessen their confusion, sadness and impotence on a day like today. I feel for them.