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Understanding the quiet man behind the manic genius

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Lynne D. Schwabe Lynne D. Schwabe
Lynne D. Schwabe is the director of development for the National Youth Science Foundation. She can be reached at schwabestatejournal@gmail.com.

I met Robin Williams 32 years ago at a bar in Italy. He must have been about 31 and had lived almost half of his life, although we didn't know it at the time.I was sitting at the bar with my ex-husband. When a gentleman sat down beside us, I glanced over briefly. It took about 10 seconds to compute: it was Robin Williams. He wasn't nearly as famous then, and in fact, I don't think the Italians knew who he was. But my hair was standing on end; I was so excited. As gracefully as possible, I turned toward him, told him how much I admired his work, and asked if we could buy him a drink. We chatted for about 30 minutes during which time he was probably thinking, “Just my luck to get stuck with two retailers from West Virginia,” and I was thinking, “OMG, we can be pen pals!”

Williams had just found out that his first wife was pregnant, so we invited him to celebrate and have dinner with us (he was by himself), but he said he was looking forward to having time alone. So he escaped from the retailers' clutches, and we didn't become new best friends.

Today, all these years later, I remember him clearly and the aura of sadness that seemed to envelope him. In normal conversation, which we had, he was not the manic comedian that he was when performing; he was measured, thoughtful, very smart and quiet. He made a lasting impression on me, even after only 30 inconsequential minutes.

Many years later, coincidentally also in Italy, I was reading Kay Jamison's “The Unquiet Mind,” and I immediately thought about Robin Williams. Jamison describes manic genius so well and the “unquiet mind,” which is exactly what Williams radiated when performing.

There is no question that he was brilliant. No question that he had that uncontrolled, go-anywhere comedic talent, much like Richard Pryor, also one of the most brilliant comedians I ever saw (and also as tortured). Even in those early days, it was obvious that there was a fragility about Williams, despite his robust, stocky appearance.

Dick Cavett (who also suffers from depression) recalled a moment years ago in a small club. Williams came off stage after bringing a cheering audience to its feet.

“Isn't it funny how I can bring great happiness to all these people,” he said. “But not to myself.”

The sad truth is that Williams will not be the last brilliant performer to succumb to depression and take his life. And, while we are mourning Williams' death, we realize how many “regular” people suffer from the same demons. The non-actor has an advantage because it's harder to hide the symptoms. The actor can act … as Williams did for so many years until he lost whatever balance he had between living his life and his incredible talent. And we lost what someone called a “bundle of sunshine.”

Undoubtedly, thousands, hearing of William's death, asked how he could do it when he had everything: fame, wealth, adulation, family, love and plenty of work. No combination of those adds up to insurance.

What a huge tragedy.

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