How Robin Wil­liams un­rav­elled

Fans were stunned when news broke of Robin Wil­liams’ shock sui­cide in 2014. In this ex­tract from a much-talked-about new bi­og­ra­phy, fam­ily and friends re­veal the panic, pain and heartache of the beloved co­me­dian’s trau­matic fi­nal months

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WHY? It was a ques­tion that crossed Robin Wil­liams’ mind more of­ten now that he’d put in roughly 35 years as a pro­fes­sional en­ter­tainer and more than 60 as a hu­man be­ing. What did he still get out of do­ing what he was do­ing, and why did he feel the com­pul­sion to keep do­ing it?

He’d al­ready en­joyed nearly all of the ac­com­plish­ments that he could hope for in his field, tasted the rich­est suc­cesses, won most of the ma­jor awards. By 2013 the work was less abun­dant than it used to be and nowhere near as lu­cra­tive. He’d seemed poised for a pro­fes­sional resur­gence when he’d been cast in The Crazy Ones, a new TV com­edy show, but when the first episode aired it was met with luke­warm re­views.

“Wil­liams seems ex­hausted,” wrote one critic. “So is this show.” A month later Robin be­gan to ex­pe­ri­ence a se­ries of phys­i­cal ail­ments, vary­ing in their sever­ity and seem­ingly un­con­nected to one an­other. He had stom­ach cramps, in­di­ges­tion and con­sti­pa­tion. He had trou­ble see­ing, he had trou­ble uri­nat­ing, he had trou­ble sleep­ing.

The tremors in his left arm had re­turned, his voice had di­min­ished, his pos­ture was stooped and at times he sim­ply seemed to freeze where he stood.

His third wife, Su­san Sch­nei­der, whom he’d mar­ried in 2011, was used to see­ing him ex­pe­ri­ence a cer­tain amount of ner­vous­ness, but now his anx­i­ety lev­els seemed off the chart.

“It was like this end­less pa­rade of symp­toms, and not all of them would raise their head at once,” she says. “It was like play­ing whack-a-mole. Which symp­tom is it this month? I thought, is my hus­band a hypochon­driac? We’re chas­ing it and there are no an­swers, and by now we’d tried ev­ery­thing.”

Fel­low co­me­dian Billy Crys­tal says Robin be­gan to re­veal some of his dis­com­fort, but only up to a point. “He wasn’t feel­ing well, but he didn’t let on to me all that was go­ing on,” Billy says. “As he’d say to me, ‘I’m a lit­tle crispy.’ I didn’t know what was hap­pen­ing, ex­cept he wasn’t happy.”

Later that year Billy and his wife, Jan­ice, in­vited Robin out to see a movie with them in Los An­ge­les and were taken aback by how thin and frail their friend looked.

Over din­ner af­ter­wards Robin seemed quiet, Billy re­calls. “On oc­ca­sion he’d just reach out and hold my shoul­der and look at me like he wanted to say some­thing.”

When the friends said good­bye at the end of the night, Robin burst out with un­ex­pected af­fec­tion. “He hugged me good­bye, and Jan­ice, and he started cry­ing,” Billy re­veals. “I said, ‘What’s the mat­ter?’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m just so happy to see you. It’s been too long. You know I love you’.”

He says on their car ride home he and Jan­ice re­ceived a string of calls from Robin, sound­ing ten­ta­tive and ex­press­ing his ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the cou­ple.

“Ev­ery­thing’s fine, I just love you so much, bye,” went one call. Five min­utes later the phone rang again: “Did I get too sappy? Let’s see each other soon.”

EARLY in 2014 Robin was in Van­cou­ver, Canada, film­ing Night at the Mu­seum: Se­cret of the Tomb, the third film in the fam­ily com­edy fran­chise. Al­though it was the first big­bud­get fea­ture he’d worked on in some time it was a project that many peo­ple close to him had hoped he wouldn’t take – it was clear to them he needed to push the pause but­ton on his ca­reer un­til his mys­tery ill­ness was brought un­der con­trol. How­ever, Robin was de­ter­mined to keep work­ing through the pain.

“It’s like he didn’t worry about any­thing when he worked all the time,” says Cheri Minns, who worked as his makeup artist on this movie. “He oper­ated on work­ing. That was the true love of his life. Above his chil­dren, above ev­ery­thing. If he wasn’t work­ing, he was a shell of him­self. And when he worked, it was like a light­bulb was turned on.”

But the Night at the Mu­seum se­quel was a night­mare, she adds.

“He shouldn’t have done that movie. That’s how I feel about it.”

By the time he reached Van­cou­ver his weight loss was se­vere and his mo­tor im­pair­ments were grow­ing harder to dis­guise. Even his once prodi­gious mem­ory was re­belling against him; he was hav­ing dif­fi­culty re­mem­ber­ing his lines.

“He wasn’t in good shape,” Cheri says. “He was sob­bing in my arms at the end of ev­ery day. It was hor­ri­ble.”

Even­tu­ally she called Robin’s man­agers and told them he was hurtling to­wards break­ing point.

“I said to his peo­ple, ‘I’m a make-up artist – I don’t have this ca­pac­ity to deal with what’s hap­pen­ing to him’, ” she re­calls. “He’d come to me and con­fide in me, but I was afraid I was go­ing to say the wrong thing. At night I was on my com­puter, look­ing up ‘How to talk to a para­noid’, so that I wouldn’t say the wrong thing. I wanted to be sup­port­ive.” Su­san had re­mained in Cal­i­for­nia while Robin worked on the movie but she was in fre­quent con­tact with him, talk­ing him through his es­ca­lat­ing in­se­cu­ri­ties. Un­der the su­per­vi­sion of his doc­tor he started tak­ing dif­fer­ent an­tipsy­chotic med­i­ca­tions but each pre­scrip­tion seemed to al­le­vi­ate only some symp­toms while mak­ing oth­ers worse.

When Robin re­turned home in early May, Su­san says, he was “like a 747 air­plane com­ing in with no land­ing gear”.

“Robin was los­ing his mind and he was aware of it,” she says.

He des­per­ately wanted a “re­boot for his brain”, Su­san says, but he was stuck in a loop­ing para­noia that would spin around and around in his mind. Ev­ery time it seemed as if he’d been talked

‘It was like this end­less pa­rade of symp­toms. I thought, is my hus­band a hypochon­driac?'

(From pre­vi­ous page) down from the lat­est ob­ses­sion he re­turned to it all over again, fresh in his mind, as if he were en­coun­ter­ing it for the first time.

A few days after he came back from Van­cou­ver, Robin stirred from a fit­ful evening of sleep, gripped by the cer­tainty that some grave harm was go­ing to be­fall his friend Mort Sahl. He kept want­ing to drive over to his fel­low co­me­dian’s apart­ment to check on him and make sure he was safe, while Su­san had to re­peat­edly per­suade him that his friend wasn’t in any dan­ger.

They went over it, again and again and again, all night, un­til they both fi­nally fell asleep at 3.30am.

Later that month Robin was fi­nally given an ex­pla­na­tion for the tan­gled lat­tice of sick­nesses that had been plagu­ing him. He was di­ag­nosed with Parkin­son’s dis­ease, a de­gen­er­a­tive dis­or­der that at­tacks the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem, im­pair­ing mo­tor func­tions and cog­ni­tion, even­tu­ally lead­ing to death.

For Robin it was the re­al­i­sa­tion of one of his most deeply felt and life­long fears: to be told he had an ill­ness that would rob him of his fac­ul­ties, even­tu­ally leav­ing him a de­pleted husk of a hu­man be­ing.

De­spite the en­cour­age­ment he was of­fered, that Parkin­son’s pa­tients are of­ten able to keep their symp­toms in check once they find med­i­ca­tion they re­spond to, Su­san says Robin seemed un­con­vinced.

He shared the news of his di­ag­no­sis with his chil­dren, Zak (35) – from his first mar­riage to Va­lerie Ver­ladi – and Zelda (29) and Cody (27) from his sec­ond mar­riage to Mar­sha Garces. And he also told his clos­est friends.

Billy re­calls how Robin re­vealed the dev­as­tat­ing news to him. “His num­ber comes up on my phone and he says, ‘Hey, Bill.’ His voice was high-pitched. ‘I’ve just been di­ag­nosed with Parkin­son’s.’ I never heard him afraid like that be­fore,” Billy says. “This was the bold­est co­me­dian I ever met – the bold­est artist I ever met. But this was just a scared man.”

After Robin’s death a sur­gi­cal pathol­ogy re­port showed he’d in fact been suf­fer­ing from Lewy body de­men­tia, aka dif­fuse Lewy body dis­ease (DLBD). Peo­ple with the con­di­tion fre­quently present with Parkin­so­nian mo­tor symp­toms as well as other neu­ropsy­chi­atric man­i­fes­ta­tions such as de­pres­sion and some­times hal­lu­ci­na­tions. They of­ten un­dergo huge per­son­al­ity changes and their men­tal acu­ity can flicker on and off like a light switch.

Be­cause of the over­lap­ping symp­toms, pa­tients are some­times mis­di­ag­nosed with other con­di­tions, in­clud­ing Parkin­son’s dis­ease – trag­i­cally this was the case with Robin and it would cause him ma­jor un­hap­pi­ness in his fi­nal months.

AT HOME Su­san saw Robin’s con­di­tion con­tinue to worsen. When they tried to sleep at night he’d thrash around the bed, or more of­ten he’d be awake and want­ing to talk about what­ever new delu­sion his mind had con­jured up.

Robin tried many treat­ments to re­gain the up­per hand over the dis­ease. He con­tin­ued to see a ther­a­pist, work out with a phys­i­cal trainer and ride his bike. He even found a spe­cial­ist at Stan­ford Univer­sity who taught him self-hyp­no­sis. But each of these strate­gies could do only so much.

In the mean­time, Robin started sleep­ing in a sep­a­rate bed­room from Su­san.

In June he checked him­self into the Dan An­der­son Re­newal Cen­tre in Cen­tre City, Min­nesota, an ad­dic­tion treat­ment fa­cil­ity sim­i­lar to the one in Ore­gon where he’d been treated for his slide back into al­co­holism in 2006.

Pub­licly, his press rep­re­sen­ta­tives said he was “sim­ply tak­ing the op­por­tu­nity to fine­tune and fo­cus on his con­tin­ued com­mit­ment, of which he re­mains ex­tremely proud”.

In fact, this re­hab stay was Robin and Su­san’s un­der­stand­ably in­el­e­gant fix for a prob­lem that had no so­lu­tion. At the very least it kept Robin clois­tered on a cam­pus where he could re­ceive close su­per­vi­sion, and where he could med­i­tate, do yoga and fo­cus on fur­ther 12step work that, it was hoped, would help him man­age his ill­ness.

But other friends felt he had no rea­son to stay at a clinic for drug and al­co­hol re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion when he was suf­fer­ing from an un­re­lated phys­i­cal dis­or­der.

“Some­body who’s that de­pressed, and on med­i­ca­tion for a med­i­cal con­di­tion, and the med­i­ca­tion can cause de­pres­sion, you just don’t tell them to work the 12 steps,” says Cyndi McHale, a pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant who’d worked closely with Robin over the years.

“He needed much more.” Late in July, soon after his re­turn from the re­hab cen­tre, Su­san was tak­ing a shower when she saw Robin at the bath­room sink, star­ing in­tensely at his re­flec­tion in the mir­ror. Look­ing more care­fully at him, she no­ticed he had a deep cut on his head, which he oc­ca­sion­ally wiped at with a hand towel that had be­come soaked with blood.

She re­alised Robin had banged his head on the wooden bath­room door and be­gan to scream at him, “Robin, what did you do? What hap­pened?” He an­swered, “I mis­cal­cu­lated.” “He was an­gry be­cause by now he was so mad at him­self for what his body was do­ing, for what his mind was do­ing,” Su­san later ex­plained. “He would some­times now start stand­ing and be­ing in trance-like states and frozen. He’d just done that with me and he was so upset, he was so upset.”

On the night of 10 Au­gust, a Sun­day, Robin and Su­san were home to­gether when he be­gan to fix­ate on some of the de­signer wrist watches he owned and grew fear­ful they were in dan­ger of be­ing stolen. He took sev­eral of them and stuffed them in a sock, and, at around 7pm, drove over to the home of his as­sis­tant Re­becca Spencer and her hus­band, Dan, about 4km away, to give them the watches for safe­keep­ing.

After he came home Su­san started get­ting ready for bed. He af­fec­tion­ately of­fered her a foot mas­sage, but on this night she said she was okay and thanked him any­way.

“As we al­ways did, we said to each other, ‘Good­night, my love’,” Su­san re­calls. Robin went in and out of their bed­room sev­eral times, rum­maged through its closet, and even­tu­ally left with an iPad to do some read­ing, which Su­san in­ter­preted as a good sign – it had been months since she’d seen him read or even watch TV.

She saw him leave the room at around 10.30pm and head to the sep­a­rate bed­room he slept in, which was down a long hall­way on the op­po­site side of their house.

When Su­san awoke the next morn­ing she no­ticed the door to Robin’s bed­room was still closed but she felt re­lieved that he was fi­nally get­ting some needed rest. Re­becca and Dan came over to the house. When Re­becca asked how the week­end had gone with Robin; Su­san op­ti­misti­cally an­swered, “I think he’s get­ting bet­ter.”

Su­san had been plan­ning to wait for him to wake up so that she could med­i­tate with him, but when he wasn’t awake by 10.30am she left the house to run some er­rands.

By 11am Re­becca and Dan were con­cerned that Robin still hadn’t come out of his room. Re­becca slipped a note un­der the door of his bed­room to ask if he was okay but re­ceived no re­sponse.

At 11.42am Re­becca texted Su­san to say she was go­ing to wake Robin up. She used a pa­per clip to force open the lock to the bed­room door but when she en­tered she made a hor­ri­fy­ing dis­cov­ery: Robin had hanged him­self with a belt and was dead.

SU­SAN said good­bye to Robin later that af­ter­noon. In a bed­room that had been fur­nished for ado­les­cent boys, out­fit­ted with a bunk bed, video game con­soles and school sup­plies, she stood be­side him and spoke to him.

“Robin,” she said, “I’m not mad at you. I don’t blame you at all. Not one bit. You fought so hard and you were so brave. With all my heart, I love you.”

She stroked his hair, looked over his face and gave his fore­head a fi­nal kiss. She and a sher­iff’s chap­lain prayed over his body be­fore it was strapped to a gur­ney and taken away.

No sui­cide note was found. A search of Robin’s cell­phone and iPad turned up no ev­i­dence that he’d been con­tem­plat­ing sui­cide. A tox­i­col­ogy re­port would later show that the only drugs in his sys­tem at the time of his death were Mir­taza­p­ine, an an­tide­pres­sant, and Sinemet, which treats the symp­toms of Parkin­son’s dis­ease.

Su­san was asked, in the course of the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion, if Robin had ever dis­cussed sui­cide with her and she said he hadn’t, not even after he’d been given his Parkin­son’s di­ag­no­sis.

When the deputy ex­am­ined Robin’s body he found what he de­scribed as sev­eral “su­per­fi­cial ver­ti­cal and hor­i­zon­tal cuts” on his left wrist that “had a scant amount of blood present”. There was also dried blood on a pock­etknife found in the bed­room, and on a wash­cloth left in the ad­join­ing bath­room.

Robin was gone. Beyond that in­escapable fact, noth­ing was cer­tain and noth­ing made sense.

But be­fore his fam­ily had time to mourn his pass­ing they had to tell the whole world that Robin Wil­liams was dead.

Among the most widely cir­cu­lated im­ages posted on so­cial me­dia that day was a bit­ter­sweet one of Aladdin em­brac­ing the Ge­nie (voiced by Robin), with the cap­tion, “Ge­nie, you’re free.” The pic­ture is from the fi­nal scene of that Dis­ney movie, when Aladdin has used his fi­nal wish to re­lease the Ge­nie from his servi­tude in the lamp and the mag­i­cal shapeshifter takes off into the sky.

His sui­cide seemed to cast ev­ery­thing he’d done pre­vi­ously in a newly fore­bod­ing light – the se­ri­ous roles were sud­denly more ur­gent and the comic roles were now ir­repara­bly tinged with melan­choly.

Amer­i­can film critic Bilge Ebiri summed it up best. “You start off as a kid see­ing Robin Wil­liams as a funny man,” he tweeted. “You come of age re­al­is­ing many of his roles are about keep­ing dark­ness at bay.”

Robin with his third wife, Su­san Sch­nei­der.

ABOVE: The co­me­dian con­fided some of his wor­ries to his close friend Billy Crys­tal. LEFT: With di­rec­tor Shawn Levy on the set of the third Night at the Mu­seum film.

Robin on the red car­pet at the Golden Globes in 2005 with his sec­ond wife, Mar­sha Garces (with glasses), his daugh­ter-in-law, Alex, and his three chil­dren, Zak, Cody and Zelda.


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