As a star heads towards its demise, it begins to spew out elements that are themselves the building blocks of stars and life. Quite literally, its death brings with it the beginnings of new life.
In my experience, people are not that different. They, too, often have a way of mellowing in their latter years and nourishing those around them, even just in the quiet ways they continue to live their lives.
It’s yet another part of what makes the recent death of actor and comedian Robin Williams just so sad. If you were learning about Williams for the first time the last few days, you’d think he died on top of his game, one of the few real giants in the media industry.
But in point of fact Williams had been in a slump for over a decade, his roles generally cartoonish and rarely finding resonance. Last year he returned to television to headline The Crazy Ones, David E. Kelley’s CBS comedy about an ad agency. It had the highest debut audience of any show this fall, some 19 million people. Eight months later, it was down to 5.3 million, and the show was cancelled.
As with so many of his recent roles, Williams couldn’t quite seem to relax into the character. He was always with the mania and the hammy and the silly voices. You almost had to avert your eyes in order to watch.
But maybe what seemed like the hack-y reuse of decades-old schtick was actually Williams fighting to re-find his footing and his voice. Just in the last eight years he had fallen off the wagon, gone to rehab, lost his older brother, divorced from his wife, had heart surgery, gotten remarried, and most recently went briefly back to a treatment center. If his performances seemed largely unmoored of late, well, so was his life.
But that’s the case for so many people as they begin to make their way out of middle age. We rarely talk about it, but that shift is seismic, tectonic.
Who knows when or how Williams would have found his way past it if he hadn’t died, or what he would have been like in his latter years. Perhaps we would have witnessed once again that childlike wonder that so marked his performance on Mork and Mindy, or been awed by the bleak depths he uncovered in films like Insomnia or One Hour Photo.
Perhaps he would have just become a retired elder statesman of the industry, the comedian Steven Spielberg called to come and help him laugh while he was filming Schindler’s List, the movie star who co-hosted so many Comic Relief benefits to raise money for the homeless; not performing so much any more but still reminding us of the important things: “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”
We’ll never know now. All we can say is, even if he couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, he clearly never stopped fighting to find a way to get there.
May he rest in peace.