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Archives for August 2014

Comics and Their Darker Side

JonathanWintersA friend posted a link to Billy Crystal’s tribute to Robin Williams and it was a pleaure to watch. I never met Robin Williams, but I’m pretty sure I’d have liked him. I did get to hang with his mentor, Jonathan Winters, during the time he was shooting the Hefty Bag commercials back in the mid-70’s, and I photographed him several times on set. He was kind, patient, and very funny. He was also always “On”. A straight comment from the director would result in a five-minute comic riff which would have the (Hollywood-jaded) crew laughing out loud. He seemed to live to perform. I remember one afternoon after he’d finished his scenes and the crew was breaking the set down that he stood outside his make-up trailer and did a fifteen-minute monologue as a trash man recounting some of his interesting experiences. The crew actually stopped their tear-down and gathered around him to listen and laugh. I have never seen a group of industry professionals so mesmerized that they’d delay their day that way.

Winter’s humor seemed victimless, but he did have some anger and I got to see it when I asked him about one of my heroes, Bob Hope. (I tried to meet Hope on one of his tours of SE Asia but missed him…lots of guys who served still think of him fondly for bringing his shows over long after the country had soured on the war.) Winters went off on a diatribe about Hope which shocked me, basically accusing him of being a lech. I put it down to professional jealousy, but I doubt many of the troops I served with would fault old Ski-Nose for dallying with Ann Margaret, Joey Heatherton, or any of the beauty contest winners and Playmates he booked to tour with him.

Another day when we were alone I asked him about a story that was circulating around the agency that he’d spent time in an asylum. He said he’d had to get help a couple of times and that he was just glad it was there when he needed it. I think about that when I hear about gifted performers who kill themselves with drugs (John Belushi, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and certainly Robin Williams’ more overt suicide by hanging. Robin and Jonathan were friends who admired one another and Robin had also gotten help in the past. Why didn’t he this time?

We’ve made some progress in the treatment of the dark side of the human mind, including drug and alcohol dependence, depression and other forms of mental illness, but it’s obvious we have a lot of work yet to do. I hope, in a hundred years, people will consider this the stone age of mental health treatment.