For A Comic Like Robin Williams, Depression Can Wait 2 Steps Offstage
Robin Williams reportedly suffered from severe depression before his death. As the country copes with the shock of the comedian's apparent suicide, former TV talk show host Dick Cavett recalls his interview with Williams and his own struggles with depression.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A coroner in Marin County California said today that Robin Williams' death was a suicide by hanging. A toxicology report won't be ready for at least another few weeks. Williams was 63. He'd suffered for years from periodic bouts of substance abuse. The coroner said Williams had sought treatment for depression before his death. When Terry Gross interviewed Robin Williams on WHYY's Fresh Air in 2006, the subject of suicide came up as a joke. Terry asked him about depression and about his experience of psychotherapy. It's helpful, he said, if you're willing to change.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
ROBIN WILLIAMS: As the one therapist said, change is not a hobby, you know? And there's the one guy at the suicide hotline said life isn't for everybody.
WILLIAMS: That would be a rough one. Hey, hi - like, hey, how you doing? Well, you know.
SIEGEL: Dick Cavett also interviewed Robin Williams back when Williams was the star of "Mork And Mindy" and Cavett was a beacon of intelligent talk on television. In the years since, Cavett who now writes opinion pieces for the New York Times has discussed his own depression including bouts with suicidal thoughts, and earlier today, we spoke by phone. Dick Cavett says barely a month goes by that someone doesn't mention his interviews with Williams.
DICK CAVETT: He was in comic-manic mode all the way through. I was sorry in one way. We both had the same manager at the time, the legendary Jack Rollins. And Jack had said see if you can get Robin to talk for part of the show. And I didn't. I couldn't. He was up there and almost like a man saying help me. I can't come down. I'm sorry. He remained hilarious all the way through.
SIEGEL: And when you're talking to somebody who's on that comic-manic jag at the time, are you thinking boy, Robin may have a problem, or are you thinking, wow, this guy's just an incredibly gifted comedian?
CAVETT: I think without knowing it, you must think that because he was so high but so funny but I - the interesting thing was I knew that for Jack Rollins' sake and mine, I wanted people to see how appealing Robin was to talk to - how intelligent he was - how thoughtful he was - how kindly he was, talking as himself. And none of the people who watched the shows missed anything in Robin from their point of view because that wasn't there. But I was sorry didn't get it.
CAVETT: Also with Robin as with his hero and mentor Jonathan Winters - another man plagued with booze, neurosis, depression and genius who also had so many personalities going on in himself - had so much access to being able to switch from an old lady to a soldier to a right-winger to a left-winger to a child. This must be a price paid interiorly by that rich, rich combination of fireworks going on in your head.
SIEGEL: In that clip from the interview with Terry Gross that we heard - by the way, she asked Williams if he'd ever experienced clinical depression and he said no - and as I was thinking of that joke that he made about the suicide hotline, I realized that with somebody that funny I get a false sense of well-being - that his hyper awareness is a kind of inoculation. As if you can be that insightful and funny about things, then you can't be that vulnerable to them. Is it...
CAVETT: You would think so, and yet, depression is visible in a high-energy performer two steps off the stage into the wings. And that inoculation holds - nobody knows why this is - that you can go out and do a show when you could barely get out of bed or dress yourself that day.
SIEGEL: But to have that gift is to be able to deceive a lot of people around you - some people who might be the very ones who should be coming to your aid when the depression gets really black.
CAVETT: Yeah, that's a good observation because the world is full of cases of, he was laughing in the restaurant with friends the night before. Another thing I'm sure that people all over the place are saying - how could he do this to his children and his wife? Easy - they don't mean anything to you. You can't feel anything. It sounds awful to say, but it's one of the worst things about it.
SIEGEL: Obviously we were all surprised by this news. After it sunk in -after you'd - you know, you'd absorbed the fact of his death, did it - did the pieces come together for you? Did it make sense in terms of depression and suicide and Robin Williams?
CAVETT: I would always have thought that Robin was a prime candidate for it, and I don't know exactly why I say that because he was never seemingly depressed when I was around him. We would laugh on that show. You couldn't throw anything at him that he couldn't throw back funny. And you almost make the mistake of thinking, how can you be a great musician or a great comedian or a great actor and want to die? He did.
SIEGEL: Dick Cavett, thanks for talking with us about the very sad news of the death by apparent suicide of Robin Williams.
CAVETT: Hard to believe - thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.