Heath and Philip and Robin

Robin_Williams-EsquireWe were gathering our things to leave an Improv 101 class at Upright Citizens Brigade when someone got on their phone and told us Heath Ledger had just been found dead in a New York City apartment.

Amy texted me one morning that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead, and that night I went to a rehearsal for Liliom and we all mourned this loss.

Last night at rehearsal for What Was Lost, with the same company, Somie showed us during a break that Robin Williams had been found dead.

These men were all great influences and inspirations for me, and I will forever link the deep loss of each of them with the creative endeavor I was pursuing at the time. It’s hard not to measure your work against that of others, especially those you admire, and it’s only useful to the degree that it pushes you to work harder. For Ledger and Hoffman, as immensely talented as they both were, I felt that with enough work and dedication to the craft I could perhaps follow the path they’d forged.

But Robin Williams? No way.

The idea of Genius originated as a spirit that grabs you and works through you; it’s not so much your accomplishment as it is the ability to let this spirit do what it came to do. There are few better examples of this than Robin Williams. He was a man possessed by many, and all he had to do was throw open the door and let them out and we were all entertained. For decades, we were entertained. For my entire life, I was entertained.

I watched Mork and Mindy in reruns as a child. I loved Popeye, glorious mess that it was. I watched Good Morning Vietnam over and over, listened to that soundtrack over and over with its Adrian Cronauer interstitials. I didn’t get half the jokes (“It’s hot! Damn hot! So hot I saw these little dudes in orange robes burst into flames!”) and I didn’t care because who was this madman? I ached as a preteen to go to Hook‘s Neverland. Dead Poet’s Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, of course. Then I saw Good Will Hunting, and I saw it again, and I saw it again in the theatre, and though I’d been a fan of movies since childhood I started to think of them differently. It wasn’t until years later that I realized this was one of the bumpers I pinballed off of towards a career as a performer. I saw What Dreams May Come in college and it wrecked me. I was dazed; I drove to the Smokies by myself to think.

Robin Williams was always there, and then he wasn’t.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that an artist has to suffer to be great, but in light of these three talents and their struggles it’s hard to see otherwise. I have no personal experience with addiction and depression. They don’t run in my family. But I have read a great deal about them and listened to many stories about them and I feel I’ve come to have a basic understanding of how they can function. Just like Genius, it’s as if this thing grabs you and won’t let go. Unlike Genius, if you let it do its work through you, there will be no You any more. It’s apparently a struggle that never goes away. Philip Seymour Hoffman knew very early that he was an addict. He was clean for most of his adult life, then he wasn’t, and then he died. That is what is tragic about these losses for me. They fought a fight not of their choosing, valiantly, and lost. But what a fight. And what gifts they gave us along the way.

I cannot recommend enough that you listen to Marc Maron’s interview with Robin Williams on the WTF podcast. He’s reposted it after four years and it’s just great: http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/remembering_robin_williams

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