Robin Williams battled drugs and depression for almost as long as he was famous. Although he maintained his sobriety for nearly 20 years, friends say he slipped into a dark place over the summer, following the cancellation of his CBS series “The Crazy Ones.” He checked into rehab in June, and on Aug. 11, at the age of 63, he hanged himself in his home in Tiburon, Calif. His wife, Susan Schneider, said that while Williams had stopped using drugs, he had been struggling with depression, and was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.
Although those who worked with the actor found him upbeat and cheerful, his pal, author Harlan Ellison, said he had noticed a change: “The last few years have been gray and oppressive in many ways for him,” the writer noted. “I think Robin wanted out for some time.”
In the days following Williams’ death, many in the industry have been grappling with the idea of how a man who seemed so joyful on the surface could take his own life. Williams’ suicide — along with the relatively recent deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Whitney Houston, Cory Monteith, Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson from accidental drug overdoses — prompts the question: Should Hollywood do more to help its own when it comes to those struggling with demons?
Maureen McCormick, who played Marcia on “The Brady Bunch” and has struggled with depression and drug addiction, believes the industry should take more responsibility. “I think we can do more dealing with this issue, making the subject more talked about and known,” she said. “How many people have we lost?” But she acknowledged there isn’t a simple answer, and said her own battles weren’t a result of her career as a child actor. “I come from a family that has a ton of mental illness,” said McCormick, who started to feel the early signs of depression at age 12. “It’s something that’s in your DNA.”
TV writer-producer Neal Baer, a physician and showrunner who worked with Williams on the 200th episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” concurred that more must be done, but maintained that first there must be a shift in attitudes. “There’s so much shame involved in these disorders; we have to take that shame out of it,” he said. “I support the perspective that it’s not a weakness of character that’s controllable through force of will. Depression and addiction are diseases that require support and empathy, and not punishment.”
Certainly depression is a problem that’s not unique to the entertainment industry — 39,518 suicides were reported in the United States in 2011, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The highest risk population, according to experts, are white men between the ages of 45 to 64, a demographic to which Williams belonged. “Some of the warning signs for suicide are a sense of thwarted belongingness, a feeling of disconnection, and not having those supports that give life meaning,” said Bill Schmitz, president of the American Assn. of Suicidology. “It wouldn’t surprise me if people in the industry, because of their status and position, aren’t as connected to friends.”
Dale Atkins, a New York psychologist, added that another part of the problem is that many in Hollywood have become desensitized to the dangers of substance abuse.
“We glorify drug use and alcohol use in the movies,” Atkins said. “It’s so much a part of our media culture. You hear about people having drug problems who check into rehab and come out. It’s almost like it’s part of what people do.”
The nomadic lifestyle of the actor, who leapfrogs from job to job, as well as the inevitable upswings and downswings in even the most successful career, could also act as a trigger for depression, experts said. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson (who attempted suicide in 2007), Jon Hamm, Ashley Judd and Brooke Shields have all come forward to admit their own struggles with the condition. CBS newsman Mike Wallace hosted a 1998 TV documentary in which he revealed his personal battles.
“When you’re in the public eye, it can sometimes be harder to get treatment,” said Lyn Morris, vice president of clinical operations at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services in Culver City, who saw the number of calls to the center double the day after Williams’ death. She noted that actors might worry about coming forward, thinking, “ ‘The next director will not want to work with me.’ There’s a stigma about illness and depression.”
Williams certainly experienced up-and-down extremes over the course of his career. A gutsy comedian who rocketed to stardom with 1978 TV series “Mork & Mindy,” and headlined nearly 50 films including 1987’s “Good Morning, Vietnam,” 1989’s “Dead Poet’s Society,” 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire” and 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” for which he won a supporting actor Oscar, Williams was long considered one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars. He was someone as adept at drama as comedy.
But over the past decade and a half, his career began to wane, with such misses as “Bicentennial Man” and “Old Dogs” — a trend he acknowledged with self-deprecating jokes in press interviews.
Explaining why he wanted to return to TV, Williams told Parade magazine last year, “The movies are good, but a lot of times they don’t even have distribution.” While he never had to worry about getting job offers, he no longer starred in high-profile projects like ’90s hits “The Birdcage” or “Jumanji.” Of the four completed films he left behind at the time of his death, three are small independent pictures. The other, “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” is big-budget, but Williams had only a small role, as Teddy Roosevelt.
“He had to keep working on projects that were unworthy of him, and were picked for him by people who saw him as a franchise that was constantly renewing,” Ellison said.
Williams didn’t make a secret of his battle with addiction, nor did he dwell on it. “He was not a person who had self-pity,” said Vincent Ward, who directed the actor in 1998’s “What Dreams May Come.” “He always struggled. That’s pretty much a given for so many comedians; their humor comes from a very dark place, and the only relief from how they feel is their sense of the absurd.”
The aspect of Williams’ persona that made him so successful — his hyperkinetic, improvisatory wit — also may have left him feeling isolated, said producer Doug Wick, who met Williams when the actor starred in 2006 family comedy “RV.” “When you worked with Robin, you realized it was a blessing and a curse to be operating on a higher frequency than the rest of the species,” Wick observed. “It could be a very lonely thing.”