Robin Williams And The Dark Legacy Of An Era Of Brilliant Addicts

By John Lavitt 08/12/14

Our genius comedian Robin Williams died in an apparent suicide after two decades sober, and in the wake of relapses and treatment over the past eight years. 


Robin Williams came to notice as a brilliantly original performer in the 1970s, a time when alcoholism and drug addiction came to define an era of brilliant comic performers. Like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and so many other amazing performers of the time, Williams used drugs and alcohol in legendary quantities, calming down that manic stage presence; or, given his enormous use of cocaine, to help him keep up with his own awe-inspiring comedic powers. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Williams was addicted to both cocaine and heroin, with alcohol being a constant companion. 

As a hard-drinking cocaine-addict, Williams used the rush of the stimulant to power the lightning-fast improvisational genius of his comic bits. As he rose to fame as the manic Mork from Ork on the 1970s hit sitcom Mork & Mindy, Williams developed a hard-partying reputation for drug abuse and alcoholism. In the 'live fast, die young' era of the 1970s, developing such a reputation was not easy and with Williams, it was clearly well deserved.

What was he afraid of? "Everything. It's just a general all-round arggghhh. It's fearfulness and anxiety."

Williams continued to battle alcoholism and cocaine abuse in the early 1980s at the height of his first taste with celebrity. A frequent partier alongside John Belushi, Williams had been partying with the legendary Saturday Night Live comedian at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont hotel hours before Belushi overdosed on a lethal combination of heroin and cocaine in 1982. Coinciding with the birth of his son, Belushi’s overdose in 1982 was a strong wake-up call for Williams. He chose to embrace a path of recovery that lasted for over twenty years. When asked if Belushi’s death helped him find that path, Williams explained, "Was it a wake-up call? Oh yeah, on a huge level. The grand jury helped too."

Robin Williams in the press room at the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards.

Soon after, Williams experienced his first stint in rehab and received professional help. Williams said he once thought he could handle his problems with addiction on his own, but soon realized he would only kick his addiction to drugs with professional help. Williams admitted in a later interview: "You can't [deal with it on your own]. That's the bottom line. You really think you can, then you realize, I need help, and that's the word ... It's hard admitting it, then once you've done that, it's real easy."

Comedy is the best medicine, and Williams provided so much more than his own fair share of it. 

In 2006, however, on location in a small town in Alaska, Williams began drinking again. In a 2006 interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Williams came clean about his fall off the sobriety wagon. He explained to ABC’s Diane Sawyer that his stumble back into alcohol abuse was “very gradual,” and that addiction is a multi-leveled mind-body-and-spirit disease that knows no statute of limitations. Williams explained the deadly progression after a relapse when he said, “It waits. It lays in wait for the time when you think, ‘It’s fine now, I’m OK.’ Then, the next thing you know, it’s not OK.”

Robin Williams and his daughter Zelda Williams at the Hollywood Film Festival's 10th Annual Hollywood Awards Gala.

In an interview with The Guardian, Williams went into greater detail about how the progression from the first drink exploded into full-blown alcoholism: "I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid. It was that thing of working so much, and going 'fuck, maybe that will help.' And it was the worst thing in the world." 

Although friends and talking heads came up with a number of reasons why Robin Williams relapsed after such a long period of sobriety, he denied any of their loving explanations. Theories ranged from the depression brought on by the death of former Julliard roommate Christopher Reeve in 2004, to the problems that led to the break-up of his second marriage in 2008—all of the explanations were off base according to the performer. Williams explained to The Guardian, “It's more selfish than that. It's just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn't." What was he afraid of? "Everything. It's just a general all-round arggghhh. It's fearfulness and anxiety."

Although he avoided falling back into the drugs because his fear that cocaine and heroin would simply kill him, it took only a week of drinking before he knew he was in trouble. Williams explained the harsh moment of clarity: "For that first week you lie to yourself, and tell yourself you can stop, and then your body kicks back and says, no, stop later. And then it took about three years, and finally you do stop." After an intervention by family and friends, Williams ended up back in rehab and back on the path of recovery. 

In 2009, Williams had heart surgery to replace his aortic valve. Although drug and alcohol addiction are known to cause heart problems, Williams had a family history of heart disease. Doctors believe his heart problems most likely were not related to his past substance abuse. Soon after his recovery, Williams announced a 20-date tour for his comedy show Weapons of Self-Destruction, which he said drew from “a relapse, three years of heavy drinking, going to rehab in wine country to keep my options open, coming out of that, divorce, and open heart surgery.”

Robin Williams and his former wife Marsha Garces in 2002.

For a while, everything seemed to be back on track with both his career and a happy marriage to his third wife, graphic designer Susan Schneider, in 2011. In early July of 2014, however, Williams reportedly checked back into rehab again. According to People magazine, Williams denied falling off the wagon again and claimed that the treatment was only a precautionary measure. Since this last incident came just two months after CBS cancelled his new sitcom The Crazy Ones after only a single season, some suggest his problems began with the failure of the show. In terms of his downslide into deep clinical depression, the cancellation of the series that also starred Sarah Michelle Gellar could have been a trigger that led to the ringing of the final bell. 

Robin Williams was the brightest bulb of a comedic generation marred by addiction and tragedy. Diagnosed bipolar, with all of the challenges that such a mental disorder brings with it, it is very sad but not completely surprising that Robin Williams was overcome by the darkness of his depression. It is a shock though.

Comedy is the best medicine, and Williams provided so much more than his own fair share of it. Perhaps that is why we are all so rocked by his sudden, tragic death—his lightness, and flash-quick wit, his high-energy hilarity, his pure comic genius was such a balm to so many of us with addictions; you wonder why someone who provided so many of us with relief and distraction and laughter-till-it-hurt, was unable to be as generous with himself as he was with all of us. Rest in peace.

John Lavitt is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about Lance Dodes.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.