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
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.
THIS IS AN EDITED EXTRACT FROM ROBIN, BY DAVE ITZKOFF, PUBLISHED BY SIDGWICK & JACKSON. R409 FROM TAKEALOT.COM. PRICE CORRECT AT TIME OF GOING TO PRINT AND SUBJECT TO CHANGE WITHOUT NOTICE.