Comic with a dark side

In an interview he gave four years ago, Robin Williams revealed a side of himself few knew.

Speaking to comedian Mark Maron, Williams talked about how worried he was when thoughts of suicide came into his head.

This had happened a few years previously, when he was struggling with an alcohol addiction and was "sitting naked in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniels".

"There was one moment when I thought, 'F*** life'," he said.

As was the Williams way, the telling of the incident in the podcast inevitably became a monologue, an extended comedic bit. His conscience become a separate person and it scolded him for being too rich, too comfortable and too cowardly to do the deed.

"What are you going to do? Do you want to buy a gun? Cut your wrist with a Waterpik? That's erosion, why are you thinking about that?" said Williams, as Maron - and listeners everywhere - went weak with laughter, even as they felt his despair.

"Who is that on the bed there?" asked his conscience, and he replied that he did not know.

"Well, don't discuss this (thought of suicide) with her, she might tweet it," said his conscience, giving the punchline.

On Monday, Williams was found dead of asphyxiation in his home in California, aged 63. A representative said he had been battling depression and suicide is suspected.

In the United States, he had first gained national attention in the late 1970s by playing a zany alien Mork in the sitcom Mork & Mindy. The show was built around his quick-witted comedic style, one that featured extemporaneous musings, delivered with a flat, staccato rhythm that did not pause for nor emphasise punchlines.

Here in Singapore, we missed out on his post-Mork career as a stand-up comic, during which he appeared live and on television specials. We would have to wait till 1987 before he came by again, in the drama-comedy Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). This was followed by parts in a string of hit movies, such as Dead Poets Society (1989) and Good Will Hunting (1997).

Unlike comics who find one successful formula movie and stick with the format (the list runs the gamut from Chevy Chase to Eddie Murphy), Williams went for parts that stretched his capabilities as a serious actor, in films such as The Fisher King (1991), in which he played a man who suffered hallucinations after witnessing his wife being gunned down, and One Hour Photo (2002), in which he was a sociopath obsessed with a family.

Williams was best known for his broader, more slapstick turns, as Mork and as Mrs Doubtfire in the comedy of the same name (1993) and as the voice of the Genie in the animated film Aladdin (1992).

The public seemed to give Williams his greatest support when he stuck to his rapid-fire, riffing mode; when he ventured outside, such as in the critically acclaimed but financially disastrous dark comedy World's Greatest Dad (2009), about a poetry teacher who covers up his son's death with a fake suicide note, they shunned him.

His last movie here opened in June.

In The Angriest Man In Brooklyn, Williams played Henry Altmann, an unlikeable, curmudgeonly man who races around New York making amends when told he has 90 minutes to live.

Williams' star had dimmed in recent times, and the film was not his finest moment as a comedian or actor, but as his audience, we never wrote him off.

He seemed as intense and wired as ever, and it looked as if he had all the time in the world.

This article was first published on August 13, 2014. 
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