Marijke Rowland

August 14, 2014

Rowland: An air of kindness elevated the affection for Williams

The death of actor and comedian Robin Williams has spurred an outpouring of collective grief. Why we cry when someone most of us never met dies – especially someone whose only job was to entertain us.

I was conducting an interview, one you can read a few pages ahead, when it popped up on my Twitter feed.

“Marin County Sheriff’s Office confirms Robin Williams has died.”

It was shocking, for so many reasons, compounded by the cause and made exponential by our sense of inexplicable loss. I forgot my next question and ended the conversation quickly afterward – luckily, I was at the end of my list, anyway. Then I sat and stared at the screen silently for several minutes as the reports flooded in, all filled with the same shaken disbelief.

This man who probably very few of us ever even met meant something deeply personal to so many. But I think we fully realized it only once he was gone. The reaction was instant. People talked about their favorite movies, shared their favorite memories, shared their favorite moments. Everything was a favorite; he was a favorite. We lost a favorite.

But why? Why this celebrity death above so many others? Perhaps it was the breadth of his work – from broad comedy to heartfelt dramas to kiddie fantasies and indie thinkers. His career spanned five decades, from his early work on TV and in comedy specials in the 1970s and ’80s to his burgeoning film stardom in the 1980s and ’90s to his full-blown icon (and Oscar-winner) status in the 1990s and 2000s. He meant something to so many generations.

Yet it’s not just the span of his work that made him different. It was that he was a man who always seemed like he was trying harder – and more successfully – than anyone else in the room to entertain us.

His unbridled energy and improvisational genius were legend. Whether he was Mork or Mrs. Doubtfire or Aladdin’s genie, we always could rely on him for a laugh. In fact, we could rely on him for uncontrolled belly laughs, the sort that roll over your body and cleanse whatever mood you might have been in, until all you felt was happiness.

The twisted irony, of course, is that Williams himself suffered from depression – among other demons. And that he took his own life makes his passing that much harder to comprehend.

While other celebrity deaths give us pause and make us reflect on their body of work – like screen icon Lauren Bacall’s just the day after Williams – few inspire the collective grief his did. There will be warm remembrances and glowing tributes to Bacall, as there should be. But while clearly sad and definitely missed, her passing was one at an age you might expect from reasons you might expect.

This is not to say grief is a competition or to be compared. But there was something singular about the outpouring that happened after Willams’ death.

We didn’t want to have to remember, not yet. We felt robbed. We felt terrible.

More than just the laughter, I think what set Williams apart was that he was the rare comedian, the rare celebrity, the rare human who seemed genuinely kind. There was a warmth to him, a generosity of spirit that could not be denied. No matter what he did, his work never veered toward the meanness or snark that marks so much of humor. He made everyone a fan – how could you not be?

His suicide is a reminder that no one, even those who make us smile the hardest, is immune for the crippling and deadly toll of depression and mental illness.

His purpose, it seemed, was to bring joy to the world. That he could not find his own was the great tragedy of his life.

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