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Robin Williams: comedy and tragedy [Commentary]

Robin Williams made me cry. Like his mentor, the late Jonathan Winters, Williams, who committed suicide Monday, made me laugh so intensely tears would come to my eyes.

Williams' death made headlines and led TV newscasts. His comedic genius diverted us from stories about terrorism and other sadness in the world. That's what comedy does. It makes us forget our troubles -- national, international and personal -- and for a moment, embrace happiness.

Williams, who seemed full of joy on the outside, was apparently tormented on the inside. He suffered from clinical depression. An estimated 19 million Americans suffer from depression, according to the Mayo Clinic website. He may have tried to conquer it in the '70s and '80s by self-medicating with cocaine, but the drug, while creating an intense high, is often followed quickly by "intense depression," according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World.

Many people misunderstand clinical depression. They think because someone has wealth and fame, or circumstances better than others, they should be happy, or at least content.

Robin Williams wasn't normal. While he made others laugh -- and in his serious roles conveyed profound and timeless virtues -- he was deeply troubled. Ironically, his part in "Good Will Hunting," for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, was that of a psychologist.

President Obama referred to Williams' numerous and diverse film roles: "Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny ... and everything in between. But he was one of a kind." Indeed.

Rolling Stone magazine reported; "Last month, Williams checked himself into a rehab facility to 'fine-tune and focus on his continued commitment, of which he remains extremely proud,' his rep said at the time."

I asked Dave Berg, the former co-producer of "The Tonight Show," for his greatest memory of Williams, who appeared on the show many times with Jay Leno. He sent this email:

"I once brought my two young children to "The Tonight Show" to meet Robin. They had watched the video of "Hook" many times, and were mesmerized by his performance as Peter Pan in the 1991 film. When Robin came out of his dressing room, and saw my 3-year-old son David and my 7-year-old daughter Melissa, he immediately crouched down, so he could be eye level with them. David asked Robin how he was able to fly in the film. Without missing a beat, Robin answered: 'A little magic and very tight pants.' Both the kids and the adults laughed, but for different reasons because Robin was playing to both audiences. That's true comedic genius."

Psychiatrist Keith Ablow, appearing on Fox News, said "95 percent" of people with clinical depression are treatable. WhetherRobin Williams was among the 5 percent who aren't, or there were other factors, we may never know.

In one of his most profound roles, that of poetry teacher John Keating in the 1989 film "Dead Poets Society," Williams told his students: "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."

It's sad to see someone who could make so many people laugh suffer from depression. Worse, his death and the loss of his talent add to the general gloominess that hangs over much of the world.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at tcaeditors@tribune.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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