Leonard Pitts Jr

Leonard Pitts Jr.: Robin Williams made us laugh and he was hurting to death

Maybe this is trite, maybe it is appropriate, maybe somehow, it is both, but the staggering news that comedian Robin Williams has died — apparently of suicide — brings to mind lyrics from a pop song Smokey Robinson made famous.

“Smiling in the public eye, but in my lonely room I cry the tears of a clown.”

One is wary of trivializing the announcement out of Northern California that left so many of us wordless and bereft Monday evening. One is hesitant to get too far ahead of the known facts — Williams apparently killed himself by asphyxiation after having suffered a bout of depression. And, yes, one is loath to reduce the ache and complexity of what happened to the candied rhymes of a pop confection.

Yet, that old song, in this lost moment, seems to ring with something that feels very much like truth as we grapple to understand why Robin Williams took his own life.

“Now, if there’s a smile on my face,” sang Robinson,“it’s only there trying to fool the public ”

And “Don’t let my glad expression give you the wrong impression. Really, I’m sad ”

Tears of a Clown, it was called. And it haunts this moment like a ghost.

Robin Williams was our clown — one of the greatest of the past 40 years. To watch him work, to watch him when he was really, truly on, was to be exhilarated in the same way one would be in watching someone skip across a high wire without a net. Williams did not just improv, he invented on the fly with a frenetic energy and sly subversion that recalled his mentor, the great Jonathan Winters — and no one else.

You had to run to keep up. You had to learn to listen fast. Williams, a hyperkinetic waif with a naughty, impish grin, always seemed to be operating at a level inaccessible to mere mortals. But we mere mortals surely took him to our heart.

We watched him on television and movies, good bad and indifferent, watched him as the silly alien on Mork and Mindy, as the cross-dressing dad on Mrs. Doubtfire, as the rules-flouting deejay in Good Morning, Vietnam, as the voice of the madcap genie in Disney’s Aladdin. We watched him when he turned serious, too, when he played the aching husband of a murder victim on a powerful episode of Homicide, watched him win the Oscar for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting.

For the better part of 40 years, we watched this singular talent. We knew he had struggled with alcohol and drug dependency; he was always open about that. But he had found sobriety, hadn’t he? Found happiness, hadn’t he? Besides, don’t they all — or at least most of them — have those stories of overcoming the ravages of alcohol or drugs or infertility or infidelity or eating disorders or bad childhoods, or whatever? It’s all part of the narrative, isn’t it: big star overcomes tragedy, emerges stronger on the other side.

We watched, but maybe we didn’t see. Williams’ laughter, someone said Monday night, was about pushing the darkness back for another day.

“Smiling in the public eye, but in my lonely room, I cry ”

Celebrities are supposed to live on a rarefied plane above the one where the rest of us moil and toil. When you have the material things everybody is supposed to want, when you are known, when you are loved, that’s supposed to be game over, right? He who dies with the most toys, says the bumper sticker, wins.

Actually, he who dies with the most toys, dies. And for all the time we spend obsessing over the things we are supposed to want, life has this way of teaching that none of them has the power to confer contentment, or fill that gaping hole inside.

Apparently, Williams never found anything that did.

And it will be difficult for awhile to listen to that old song from the Bard of Motown without thinking of Mork from Ork, bouncing off Johnny Carson’s couch, zapping a Disney fable with pure electricity, making you laugh till it hurts. This death — and more specifically, the manner of it — is a somber reminder of the opacity of celebrity, the way it makes us look at a person on that rarefied plane and believe we’re actually seeing what we’re seeing. But sometimes, we are seeing something else and don’t even know it.

“Don’t let my glad expression give you the wrong impression ”

Robin Williams made us laugh so hard. And he was hurting to death right in front of our eyes.

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