When Robin Williams passed away in 2014, the news naturally devastated movie fans all over the world. And when the comedy icon’s cause of death became public, speculation naturally arose as to what could have compelled him to take his own life. Ultimately, though, Williams’ widow, artist Susan Schneider, revealed a secret that her spouse had hidden from the public. Williams had in fact been in terrible distress – and his final days had been absolutely harrowing.
Williams was of course famous for a manic energy that left his stand-up performances seemingly teetering on chaos. He had a great talent for improvisation, too, which served him well after being cast as Mork in Happy Days – a part for which the star mostly ad-libbed his lines. And thanks to Williams’ sterling performance as the extraterrestrial, he subsequently landed a leading role in beloved sitcom Mork & Mindy. This step into primetime launched the comedian to even greater fame; in 1979 Williams even earned his own Time cover.
Even as Williams’ star rose, however, he continued with stand-up – leading to a trio of specials on HBO in which he showcased his unique style. The funnyman emerged as a familiar face on talk shows, too, becoming a mainstay on Late Night with David Letterman. And Williams diversified yet again at the tail end of the ’70s by trying his hand at movies.
That said, the first big-screen roles that Williams took on were in films that largely underwhelmed at the box office, such as Popeye and Club Paradise. Then the star earned a part that seemed tailor-made: that of DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam. After all, the film needed Cronauer to bring energy, laughs and a sardonic attitude. And Williams delivered all of these qualities in spades. Here, too, he also ended up improvising many of his lines.
And Good Morning, Vietnam proved not only that Williams could act, but also that he was capable of tackling scenes with nuance. Such was the comic’s skill, in fact, that he earned himself an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. But, of course, this was far from his last such honor. Yes, Williams appeared in the Oscars’ Best Actor category on two further occasions for his performances in Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King. In 1998 he also landed the Best Supporting Actor award for Good Will Hunting.
During the same period in which Williams was racking up plaudits, however, he was also delighting children in family films. Thanks to his turns in Jumanji, Mrs Doubtfire and Hook, he may also have won over some older fans, too. But arguably one of Williams’ most famous performances doesn’t actually see him appear in front of the cameras. The part in question, of course, is that of the animated Genie in Disney’s Aladdin.
And it’s worth bearing in mind that Williams chose to portray the Genie in an era when famous actors didn’t usually take voice roles. It’s been said, then, that his performance paved the way for voice acting to become a more appreciated profession. Plus, of course, Williams may have been a contributing factor to Aladdin’s astounding success, as the movie earned more than $500 million at the worldwide box office. At the very least, the comedian subsequently picked up a Golden Globe for his efforts.
Then, in the decades following Aladdin, Williams continued to take on a combination of voice roles, family-friendly parts and serious dramatic endeavors. No-one had any reason to believe that he wouldn’t keep entertaining movie-going audiences for years to come, in fact. In August 2014, however, tragic news emerged: Williams had passed away in his home.
Reports came, too, that the actor had died by suicide. He had been just 63 years old. And Williams’ widow, Schneider, went on to release a statement in which she paid touching tribute to her late spouse. “This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings,” she said.
“I am utterly heartbroken,” Schneider continued. “On behalf of Robin’s family, we are asking for privacy during our time of profound grief. As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”
Williams’ daughter Zelda also shared a statement – one that touched upon the manner of his death. “While I’ll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay, there’s minor comfort in knowing our grief and loss, in some small way, is shared with millions,” she wrote.
Such was Williams’ fame that Barack Obama even commented on his passing. “Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien, but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit,” the then U.S. president said.
“[Williams] gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most – from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets,” the president’s statement continued. “The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”
As the press reported on the news, however, concerns arose about certain details that were now in the public domain. “The media has come a long way over the past few years in terms of sensitively reporting suicide, which is why we are concerned to see that there have been a large number of articles detailing unnecessary information about the nature of Robin Williams’ death,” Sophie Borromeo, the then director of communications at U.K. mental health charity Samaritans, commented in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“Research shows that inappropriate portrayal of suicide in the media can lead to imitative behavior amongst vulnerable people. And this risk is heightened when a celebrity has died in this way,” the statement went on. “We issued a briefing to the media yesterday reminding them of these risks and specifically asking them to avoid reporting explicit details of the suicide method.”
But as more came out about Williams’ death, it seemed that something other than depression may have motivated his suicide. It was revealed, for instance, that the comedian had been given a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in the months before he had taken his own life. In addition, a former work colleague asserted, the star had experienced terrible episodes of memory loss.
Revelations about Williams’ decline came to light in 2018 upon the release of Dave Itzkoff’s biography Robin. In particular, Cheri Minns – a make-up artist for Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb – gave her thoughts on how the actor had seemingly struggled to cope on the set on what would be one of his final films.
“[Williams] was sobbing in my arms at the end of every day. It was horrible. Horrible,” Minns said, according to the book. “I said to his people, ‘I’m a make-up artist. I don’t have the capacity to deal with what’s happening to him.’” In addition, Itzkoff’s work claimed, Williams had experienced a panic attack while filming that had led to him being handed anti-psychotic drugs.
But perhaps most harrowing of all was Minns’ account of an episode that left Williams in tears. The make-up professional explained that she had urged the comedian to go back to being a stand-up; when Williams’ response came, though, it was devastating. According to Minns, “He just cried and said, ‘I can’t, Cheri. I don’t know how anymore. I don’t know how to be funny.’”
And Itzkoff’s book also took in some sobering reflection on Williams’ plight from his friend Billy Crystal. Crystal said of his fellow star, “I put myself in his place. Think of it this way: the speed at which the comedy came is the speed at which the terrors came. And all that they described that can happen with this psychosis, if that’s the right word – the hallucinations, the images, the terror – coming at the speed his comedy came at, maybe even faster… I can’t imagine living like that.”
Perhaps, though, these were symptoms of a condition that the actor never knew he had. Following Williams’ death, the autopsy he received indicated that he had also been in the throes of Lewy body dementia (LBD) prior to his passing – which may have explained his behavioural issues and problems with his memory.
And Williams’ widow has suggested that LBD’s effects may have been a factor in the comedian taking his own life. “It was not depression that killed Robin,” Schneider told People magazine in November 2015. “Depression was one of… let’s call it 50 symptoms, and it was a small one… this disease was faster than us and bigger than us.”
“I’ve spent this last year trying to find out what killed Robin, to understand what we were fighting,” Schneider went on. “This was a very unique case, and I pray to God that it will shed some light on Lewy bodies for the millions of people and their loved ones who are suffering with [them].”
Schneider opened up further about her late husband’s condition in a 2016 article for the journal Neurology. And in the piece, she described the results of Williams’ autopsy. “Once the coroner’s report was reviewed, a doctor was able to point out to me that there was a high concentration of Lewy bodies within [Williams’] amygdala,” Schneider wrote.
Lewy bodies – as the name suggests – were initially acknowledged in the early 20th century by Dr. Friedrich Heinrich Lewy and are only visible to the naked eye after being magnified. And in essence, these masses are essentially clusters of protein that form inside nerve cells; they also often manifest in both Parkinson’s disease patients and those with dementia.
Yet Schneider only realized the extent of her spouse’s battle against the condition after the autopsy had taken place. “Not until the coroner’s report three months after his death would I learn that it was diffuse LBD that took [Williams],” she explained in the Neurology article. “All four of the doctors I met with afterwards and who had reviewed his records indicated [that] his was one of the worst pathologies they had seen.”
The symptoms that Williams apparently displayed indicated at least some form of deterioration. “He hated that he could not find the words he wanted in conversations. He would thrash at night and still had terrible insomnia,” Schneider continued. “At times, he would find himself stuck in a frozen stance – unable to move and frustrated when he came out of it.”
And Schneider also revealed exactly what had gone down on the Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb set. Williams’ widow said, “Robin had a panic attack… His doctor recommended an antipsychotic medication to help with the anxiety. [This] seemed to make things better in some ways but far worse in others.”
There may have been a reason why the drugs hadn’t entirely benefitted Williams, however. “Not until after he left us would I discover that antipsychotic medications often make things worse for people with LBD,” Schneider continued. “Also, Robin had a high sensitivity to medications, and sometimes his reactions were unpredictable. This is apparently a common theme in people with LBD.”
It appeared, too, that Williams’ memory had begun to fade at the time of shooting. “During the filming of the movie, Robin was having trouble remembering even one line for his scenes,” Schneider wrote. “Just three years prior, [however], he had played in a full five-month season of the Broadway production Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, often doing two shows a day with hundreds of lines – and not one mistake.”
But arguably the most heartbreaking moment of Schneider’s article came via her recollections of the very last day that she had spent with her husband. “As the second weekend in August approached, it seemed [that Williams’] delusional looping was calming down. Maybe the switch in medications was working. We did all the things we love on Saturday day and into the evening. It was perfect – like one long date,” the artist divulged.
Schneider continued, “When we retired for sleep, in our customary way, my husband said to me, ‘Goodnight, my love’ and waited for my familiar reply: ‘Goodnight, my love.’ His words still echo through my heart today.” And ever since Williams’ death, Schneider said, she had been on a “search for meaning.”
Nevertheless, Schneider was determined that one good thing should come out of her husband’s sudden passing: a better understanding of LBD. “Robin and I had begun our unplanned research on the brain through the door of blind experience,” she wrote. “During the final months we shared together, our sights were locked fast on identifying and vanquishing the terrorist within his brain.”
Then, after Williams had died, Schneider tried to find further answers about the condition her spouse had been living with. Of this time, the artist added, “[The medical professionals’] reactions were all the same: that Robin’s was one of the worst LBD pathologies they had seen and that there was nothing else anyone could have done.”
And Schneider ended her article by talking directly to the neurologists who would likely read it. “Hopefully from this sharing of our experience, you will be inspired to turn Robin’s suffering into something meaningful through your work and wisdom,” she said. “It is my belief that when healing comes out of Robin’s experience, he will not have battled and died in vain. You are uniquely positioned to help with this.”
In addition, there has been talk concerning whether Williams’ death can be called a “rational suicide” – that is, one driven by knowledge that quality of life will only diminish as time goes on. In an article published by Forbes in 2015, for example, medical reporter Jason Karlawish spoke of this gray area, writing, “Williams likely was not terminal, [and] his decision to end his life will stir debate over why doctor-assisted death is limited to persons who are terminal.”
And in January 2019 Bored Panda reposted an essay from an imgur user who suggested that the nature of Williams’ death should be used to discuss the pros and cons of physician-assisted suicide. “In most cases, the taking of your own life is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But suicidal euthanasia is its own animal,” the piece said. “With the issues in the West regarding our right to die, Williams is a sad reminder of our lack of rights in palliative care.”
Schneider herself has said that she doesn’t blame her husband at all for what he did. In a 2015 interview with ABC News, she answered in the affirmative when asked if Williams killed himself as a way of “taking back control.” “Believe me, I’ve thought about this,” Schneider added. “Of what was going on in his mind, what made him ultimately commit – you know, to do that act. And I think he was just saying, ‘No.’”
And in the same interview, Schneider also revealed that she’d seen her husband’s body after he died. “I got to see him… and I got to pray with him,” she said. “And I got to tell him, ‘I forgive you 50 billion percent with all my heart. You’re the bravest man I’ve ever known.’ You know, we were living a nightmare.”
So, Schneider’s hope is that other people may not have to live that same nightmare. And the artist is now the vice chair of the American Brain Foundation; she has also given speeches calling for more funding towards LBD research. “I believe that Robin’s death and his battle against these diseases holds a profound purpose. There was power in what he suffered,” she told the American Neurological Association Presidential Symposium in 2018. “I’m here to see that power transformed into something good.”