Editor’s Note: Next Avenue Editorial Director Sue Campbell wrote this personal essay in 2014, on the day the world learned that Robin Williams took his own life.
Robin Williams’ sad and shocking apparent suicide, at age 63, hits hard and, for me, close to home.
“He had been battling severe depression of late,” Mara Buxbaum, his rep said in a statement to the press. “This is a tragic and sudden loss.”
As his family and fans mourn, I remember Williams’ kindness to my own family when my father battled addiction and depression.
It’s a strange connection.
A Coach’s Influence
When Williams was in high school at Detroit Country Day School, my dad, John Campbell, was his wrestling coach. As a kid, Williams was scrawny but strong, “squirrelly” and also very smart, my dad would recount.
Years after Williams graduated and went on to fame, moving from goofy Mork and Mindy on TV to serious roles in Hollywood films, he paid tribute to my father in an Inside The Actor’s Studio television segment.
Williams said during the show that he had based his role as Professor Keating in Dead Poets Society partly on my very idealistic and liberal father.
It’s not surprising that Williams looked to his own private school experience and pulled from it to play a teacher in a strict, conservative environment who encouraged students to seize the day, find themselves and go against the grain.
When The Actor’s Studio segment aired, the two reconnected. It was a tough time for my father. He’d been fired from his job, left his family and hit bottom. Williams didn’t judge his former teacher. He got him tickets to a comedy show he was performing in Detroit and met my dad afterward to reminisce.
That meeting, and the accolades from Williams, became a highlight of my father’s life — a validation of sorts for his career and his 15 glorious minutes of fame.
Decency and Kindness
Williams of course had his own self-confessed addictions, to cocaine and booze. He once told Diane Sawyer in an interview that his addiction wasn’t caused by anything, that it was “just there,” and he described it as “laying in wait” — one of the best summations I’ve heard for a disease that robs people of who they really are and are meant to be.
Williams worked hard to control his demons, entering rehab in 2006 when he fell off the wagon after 20 years sober, and joining a program for maintaining long-term sobriety at Minnesota’s Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center just last month.
Now, it seems, Williams also had depression. The vicious dance of addiction and depression is well-known as a potentially lethal combination.
It’s wrenching to see a much-loved, funny, talented actor succumb. Beyond his talent, Robin Williams was a generous and caring person — he lent that helping hand when my dad needed it most.
For Williams’ decency and kindness, I’m forever grateful.
And I’m heeding the plea made by his wife, Susan Schneider: “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”
Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets Society’