Tuesday, 12 August 2014

THE DAY THE LAUGHTER DIED (A tribute to Robin Williams)

“A long, long time ago, I can still remember how the music used to make me smile”
     Don McLean, American Pie

I was still a kid in the year 1971, when Don McLean released his blockbuster song American Pie. It was a song that quickly rose to #1 on the American charts and stayed there for weeks. More than forty years later, it continues to play on the radio as a reminder of simpler times. McLean wrote the song in remembrance of three musicians who had died in a plane crash on February 3rd, 1959, the same year I was born.  The musicians were Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr., whose show name was The Big Bopper. Thanks to the refrain of McLean’s song, the day of their death would forever become known as ‘The Day the Music Died’.

It was my wife who brought in the paper this morning, now 55 years later, while I quickly made a lunch to bring to work. The first words I heard from her mouth were: “Oh my! He died.” As I turned to her, I only could wonder who was so important that the word ‘he’ should be enough. But then I saw the huge picture on the paper’s front page and I understood. ‘He’ was Robin Williams, who in my mind ranks right up there with Red Skelton as the greatest comedic geniuses of all time. I place these two above everyone else because both could do what no one else ever could – they could somehow have an entire audience both laughing and crying at the same time.

I once had the extreme pleasure of watching Red Skelton live at a show in Reno, when I was just 12-years old, oddly enough in 1971, the same year American Pie was released. Watching the master pantomime bring his characters like Clem Kadiddlehopper to life was magical, mostly because dear old Clem, the hapless hobo, somehow had everyone laughing and crying together.  No one else ever managed to make me do that until I saw Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire, and then as Patch Adams, and then as Jakob the Liar, and again and again in so many other roles that should have won him far more than the single Academy Award he was given. In my mind, for that talent, of making tears and laughter flow together, should have won him Best Actor every time.

Imagine my shock then at hearing not only that he now was dead, but that he had likely taken his own life; that he, arguably the funniest human of all time, whose wild hoots of laughter were, in themselves, enough to bring audiences to hysterics, had been battling severe, treatment-resistant depression. But then I remembered that, among Williams’ unparalleled talents was his ability to imitate others.

“I do voices,” he told the stern caseworker assigned to him in Mrs. Doubtfire, when she asked him to list his special skills. He then paraded before her an endless stream of vocal caricatures, from Porky Pig to Humphrey Bogart.  In short, he was great at pretending to be someone he wasn’t. And at the end of his life, perhaps his best imitation was pretending to be happy for so many who saw him, even fooling those closest to him over the depth of his despair.

I have long felt a special connection with Robin Williams. For one thing, he and I went to the same small college in Southern California — Claremont Men’s College — though he dropped out and ultimately enrolled at the Julliard School of the Performing Arts in New York. Had he stayed at Claremont, he would have been a senior the year I started there; I have often kidded that I was the reason he left.

Another thing that made me feel connected to him was his playing the main role in the movie Patch Adams, a true story about a physician who believed that doctors needed to be more human than professional with their patients. As a practicing doctor, I always said the same; pointing out that the word ‘humane’ itself means having or demonstrating compassion. Patch also believed in using humor with patients — that laughter is, indeed, the best medicine. In the movie, Patch the medical student repeatedly wanders into the children’s ward wearing a clown nose.  When I was a medical student, I didn’t have a clown nose. But I did have a black and white pet puppet pig I called Pomona, who I wore on my hand all through my pediatrics rotation. Even the nurses used to laugh watching me trying to hold onto charts with a puppet on one hand. I watched Patch Adams with tears in my eyes the entire time, even while laughing.

Now I find out that Williams and I have had two other things in common. One was his long-time battles with addiction. The other was his long-time struggles with depression. From my perspective, the two often go hand in hand. It was at the height of my own addiction, back in 2003, that I found myself standing on the rooftop of a 5-storey parking building at 3 o’clock one morning. My car was parked several blocks away. The only thing that kept me from jumping, ironically enough, was my fear of heights.

And so it is that I find myself sitting here in stunned disbelief at the passing of Robin Williams. My wife has repeatedly told me that my sense of humor is one of the reasons she married me. She didn’t realize, back then, the demons I had hiding behind it. Apparently, one of the greatest comedians the world has ever known has had these demons too.

And now he is gone.

To me, he will be irreplaceable.

To me, this is the day the laughter died.

But the man and the laughter he brought us should never be forgotten. What the rest of us MUST do is to take comfort in the legacy he has left us, whether we are watching one of his movies or reveling in one of the few stand-up shows we can find on YouTube...

And both laugh, and cry, as we do.

Kevin P White