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PODCAST EPISODE 30 – The Life and Tortured Death of Robin Williams

Robin McLaurin Williams, born July 21, 1951 – was an American actor and comedian. Chicago-born, Williams started as a stand-up comedian in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. He is credited with leading San Francisco’s comedy renaissance. After rising to fame as an alien called Mork in the TV sci-fi sitcom series Mork & Mindy, Williams established a career in both stand-up comedy and feature film acting. He was known for his improvisational skills.

After his first starring film role in Popeye (1980), Williams starred or co-starred in various films that achieved both critical acclaim and financial success, including Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Aladdin (1992), The Birdcage (1996), and Good Will Hunting (1997). He also starred in widely acclaimed films such as The World According to Garp (1982), Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Awakenings (1990), The Fisher King (1991), One Hour Photo (2002), and World’s Greatest Dad (2009), as well as box office, hits such as Hook (1991), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Jumanji (1995), and Night at the Museum (2006).

Williams won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as psychologist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. He also received two Emmy Awards, seven Golden Globe Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and four Grammy Awards throughout his career.

Early years

Williams was born at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago, Illinois on July 21, 1951. His father, Robert Fitzgerald Williams, was a senior executive in Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln-Mercury Division. His mother, Laurie McLaurin, was a former model from Jackson, Mississippi. Her great-grandfather was Mississippi senator and governor Anselm J. McLaurin.Williams had two elder half-brothers named Robert (also known as Todd) and McLaurin. He had English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, German, and French ancestry.

While his mother was a practitioner of Christian Science, Williams was raised in the Episcopal Church, to which his father belonged. Williams wrote a list: “Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian.” During a television interview on Inside the Actors Studio in 2001, Williams credited his mother as being an important early influence for his sense of humor. He also said that he tried to make her laugh to gain attention.

Stand-up comedy

Williams performed stand-up comedy at a USO show on December 20, 2007.

After his family moved to Marin County, Williams began his career doing stand-up comedy shows in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1970s. His first performance took place at the Holy City Zoo, a comedy club in San Francisco, where he worked his way up from tending bar to getting on stage. In the 1960s, San Francisco was a center for a rock music renaissance, hippies, drugs, and a sexual revolution, and in the 1970s, Williams helped lead its “comedy renaissance,” writes critic Gerald Nachman.  Williams says he found out about “drugs and happiness” during that period, adding that he saw “the best brains of my time turned to mud.”

He moved to Los Angeles and continued doing stand-up shows at various clubs, including the Comedy Club, in 1977, where TV producer George Schlatter saw him. Schlatter, realizing that Williams would become an important force in show business, asked him to appear on a revival of his Laugh-In show. The show aired in late 1977 and became his debut TV appearance. Williams also performed a show at the LA Improv that same year for Home Box Office.While the Laugh-In revival failed, it led Williams into a career in television, during which period he continued doing stand-up at comedy clubs, such as the Roxy, to help him keep his improvisational skills sharp.

Live on Broadway (2002), broke many long-held records for a comedy show. In some cases, tickets were sold out within thirty minutes of going on sale. In 1986, Williams released A Night at the Met.

After a six-year break, in August 2008, Williams announced a new 26-city tour titled “Weapons of Self-Destruction”. He said that this was his last chance to make jokes at the expense of the Bush administration, but by the time the show was staged, only a few minutes covered that subject. The tour started at the end of September 2009 and concluded in New York on December 3, and was the subject of an HBO special on December 8, 2009.

Hardships in performing stand-up

Williams said that partly due to the stress of performing stand-up he started using drugs and alcohol early in his career. He further said that he never drank or took drugs while on stage but occasionally performed when hungover from the previous day. During the period he was using cocaine, he said that it made him paranoid when performing on stage.

Williams once described the life of stand-up comedians:

“It’s a brutal field, man. They burn out. It takes its toll. Plus, the lifestyle—partying, drinking, drugs. If you’re on the road, it’s even more brutal. You gotta come back down to mellow your ass out, and then performing takes you back up. They flame out because it comes and goes. Suddenly they’re hot, and then somebody else is hot. Sometimes they get very bitter. Sometimes they just give up. Sometimes they have a revival thing and they come back again. Sometimes they snap. The pressure kicks in. You become obsessed and then you lose that focus that you need”.

Some, such as the critic Vincent Canby, was concerned that his monologues were so intense that it seemed as though at any minute his “creative process could reverse into a complete meltdown”. His biographer Emily Herbert described his “intense, utterly manic style of stand-up [which sometimes] defies analysis … [going] beyond energetic, beyond frenetic .. [and sometimes] dangerous … because of what it said about the creator’s own mental state.”

In March 2009, he was hospitalized due to heart problems. He postponed his one-man tour for surgery to replace his aortic valve. The surgery was completed on March 13, 2009, at the Cleveland Clinic.

In mid–2014, Williams admitted himself into the Hazelden Foundation Addiction Treatment Center in Lindstrom, Minnesota for treatment for alcoholism.

His publicist Mara Buxbaum commented that he was suffering from severe depression prior to his death. His wife Susan Schneider stated that in the period before his death, Williams had been sober, but was diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s disease, which was information he was “not yet ready to share publicly.” An autopsy revealed that Williams had diffuse Lewy body dementia, which had been diagnosed as Parkinson’s. This may have contributed to his depression.

In an essay published in the journal Neurology two years after his death, Susan Schneider revealed that the pathology of Lewy body disease in Williams was described by several doctors as among the worst pathologies they had seen. 

She described the early symptoms of his disease as beginning in October 2013. It included a sudden and prolonged spike in fear and anxiety, constipation, urinary difficulty, heartburn, sleeplessness and insomnia, a poor sense of smell, stress, and a slight tremor in his left hand. Eventually, she said, he suffered from paranoia, delusions, severe insomnia, memory loss, and high cortisol levels, indicating stress. According to Schneider, “Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it … He kept saying, ‘I just want to reboot my brain.’

On August 11, 2014, Williams died by suicide at his home in Paradise Cay, California.[4] In the initial report released on August 12, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office deputy coroner stated Williams had hanged himself with a belt and died from asphyxiation. His body was cremated at Montes Chapel of the Hills in San Anselmo and his ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay on August 21.

The final autopsy report, released in November 2014, affirmed that Williams had committed suicide as initially described; neither alcohol nor illegal drugs were involved, while all prescription drugs present in his body were at “therapeutic” levels. The report also noted that Williams had been suffering “a recent increase in paranoia”. An examination of his brain tissue revealed the presence of “diffuse Lewy body dementia.” Describing the disease as “the terrorist inside my husband’s brain”, his wife Susan Schneider stated, “however you look at it—the presence of Lewy bodies took his life,” referring to his previous diagnosis of Parkinson’s.

The Lewy Body Dementia Association (LBDA) clarified the distinction between the term used in the autopsy report, diffuse Lewy body dementia—which is more commonly called diffuse Lewy body disease and refers to the underlying disease process—and the umbrella term, Lewy body dementia—which encompasses both Parkinson’s disease dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB). 

According to Dennis Dickson, the LBDA spokesperson, “The report confirms he experienced depression, anxiety and paranoia, which may occur in either Parkinson’s disease or dementia with Lewy bodies”, adding that, in Parkinson’s, “Lewy bodies are generally limited in distribution, but in DLB, the Lewy bodies are spread widely throughout the brain, as was the case with Robin Williams.”

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