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I finally tapped out on the Robin Williams news cycle last night after finding myself watching an interview with Todd Bridges, the often troubled former child actor and Gary Coleman’s older brother on Diff’rent Strokes. Bridges seemed to be the only public figure (outside of some Fox News dufus) critical of Williams in death, calling his choice of suicide selfish and inconsiderate.* (Cut to Gary Coleman and Conrad Bain from beyond the grave giving a “whatchoo talkin’ ’bout Willis?” glare and look unseen since Bea Arthur came braless to the set of Maude, respectively.) In the interview Bridges takes a tepid shot at excusing himself – “bad timing” – and concludes with “one more thing .. what about all those comedians who made fun of me when I was having my problems?” Kinda makes one figure that Todd may no longer be on the A-list for celebrity handlers. But this was it, as far as anybody offering anything close to a bad word about Robin Williams. Amid the avalanche of positive sentiment, San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle put it well. LaSalle met Williams at a comedy festival in 1987 and observed: “Offstage he seemed subdued, slightly wistful, very gentle with people, very aware of the capacity of his celebrity to do damage, and very determined not to hurt anybody.” 

So it would seem that Williams carried the weight of celebrity with exceptional grace and went out of his way to help anybody in need. He tread lightly and considerately with ordinary folk, lent his talents repeatedly to armed services overseas, and donated generously of his time and money. He had extensive professional success and while not at the peak of his fame, was notably famous. And his life was not without love; he seemed to have it on both a personal and public level. Yet none of this was enough to keep him in the game. If he had financial problems he certainly wasn’t without the capacity to make money, and on a scale beyond most others’ reach. There was the apparent diagnosis of early Parkinson’s tempting some to conclude that this was it, but this seems more a safety check for those needing one. Many are afflicted but keep going. The pervasive sentiment among those who knew the man was that, whatever his demons, he struggled with them often and over the course of many years. Something not far from the surface seemed to suggest the embodiment of a raw nerve, exposed and vulnerable to all of life’s damaging reverberations.

We can try and spin this bullshit about a great, benevolent force present in the universe. It may even be true. But it ain’t the only force out there. The real miracle is that so many seem able to push on without voluntary exit, existing on that initially bestowed bit of unconditional love. The world is growing increasingly unquiet with words and information flying about our heads like shrapnel. A good deal of this chatter is compulsively positive and takes the form of impulsively generated, self-promoting, uptempo bullshit. Don’t do Twitter or Facebook? Avoid the Internet and all other sources of rapidly disseminated information entirely? Good for you but it’s getting harder and harder to duck. Williams first gained notoriety in the late seventies through what were then the typical channels: network TV, film, and print media. News typically broke first on the radio or via “special reports” on television complete with apology and promise to return you to your “regularly scheduled program.” When I found out that he’d died last week it was in the manner that I now receive most breaking news, on my phone via a text message from a friend. This friend had been informed through Twitter and the information was just minutes old. Still fascinated with this new technology, I immediately checked major news sources online – Drudge, CNN, etc – to see if they were reporting it. None were. Then, as soon as I could hit “refresh” they all had it. It exploded.

Robin Williams’ line of work was one pursued by those most in need of constant, positive affirmation. This isn’t my observation but his own, as relayed to Marc Maron in a 2010 interview. That same affirmation is available to the masses now, albeit in a slightly scaled-down form. There were various Facebook postings on my account last week from people who went to my high school — the same as his — seeming to ascribe some sort of celebrity grief connection to this fact. “You know you’re from Marin if ..” and then a picture of Williams in his varsity letter jacket. Wordsworth knew not how good he had it when he wrote that “the world is too much with us.” Is any of this, though, enough to explain one man’s suicide, depression, or the apparent rise in both among those formerly described as possessing the world in oyster form? Probably not. The idea that someone in Williams’ position might feel too alone to be helped is an anomaly to some, and maybe most. And yet, for whatever reason, this appears to have been the case. If, like Todd Bridges, we choose to hang in there, we might do well in remaining connected to the fragility of this choice. While it may be easier to field an opinion these days, most answers remain elusive.

*Note: there have been a few more critical responses to Williams’ suicide since, including Henry Rollins and some octogenarian English film critic.   

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