Robin Williams and the Weight of Being Famous

As you've no doubt heard by now, Robin Williams reportedly committed suicide yesterday at his home in California. It's a horrible tragedy whenever someone's life has become so painful that they decide that death is preferable to life. I couldn't help but think of a brief interaction I had with Williams about twenty years ago, one that now seems even more poignant.

It was in a small bookstore in San Francisco, where I was living at the time. I was browsing with my then-girlfriend, when I spotted Williams at the other end of the store, maybe twenty feet away. I went up to my girlfriend and whispered, "Hey, look who's over there." She turned to look, and the movement of her head must have caught his eye, because he glanced up, to find us both staring at him. At that point a look of profound sadness came over his face, and I felt horribly guilty—here he was, just trying to enjoy a moment as a human being and not a Famous Person, and we stole the moment from him by gawking.

It was one of the first times I thought seriously about what it must be like to be famous, and I've thought about it from time to time since. Fame often comes with great wealth, which I'm sure can be nice. But how would it change you to be in a position where strangers recognized you literally everywhere you went, probably with staring and pointing, and often came up to tell you what they thought of your work? If you couldn't go to the grocery store or the gas station or the coffee shop or for a walk in the park without being recognized and noticed and assessed? If it was me, I think I'd end up never leaving the house. Most of us don't think about how nice it is to be anonymous most of the time.

If you were afflicted with depression, being famous could make it even worse. Not only would you have to deal with the constant attention of strangers, but especially for a comedian like Williams, they'd expect you to be funny and happy and dynamic when they interrupted you.

It turns out that in 1981, there was an episode of Mork and Mindy in which Mork gets visited by "Robin Williams," who explains to him that being famous can be a real drag. Here's how the Atlantic Wire describes it:

Yes, celebrities get money and attention, but they also get harassed and attacked and everyone who comes in contact with them makes unreasonable demands on their time and energy. The underlying message of the characters' conversation is that Robin Williams, Comedian, can't say no to anyone. He becomes a cautionary tale that if you can't learn to say no, then "there will be no more pieces for yourself."

As a melancholy "Robin Williams" sadly puts it, maybe some time alone is "the last thing I want."

In the final scene, Mork (as he does every week) reports back to Orson, a disembodied voice on his homeworld, to tell him what he just learned about the culture of Earth. He explains to Orson that "being a star is a 24-hour job and you can't leave your face at the office… some of them can't take it." Then in a sad coda, he lists the names of those Earthlings who were destroyed by the pressures of fame: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon. The episode aired just two months after Lennon was shot and killed by a deranged fan. If it was written today, there would be a quite a few more famous names to add to it.

I have no idea whether the strain of being famous contributed to Williams' depression, and frankly, it's not really any of our business. But there's an implicit bargain the public makes with the famous: We give you riches and adulation, the diffuse love of strangers, and in return you become public property. We're allowed to photograph you everywhere you go, demand to know the details of your private life, gloat over your struggles, and make a claim on your every moment.

I'm not saying that we should spend our time pitying movie stars, and lie in bed at night fretting over whether Channing Tatum or Jennifer Lawrence are truly happy. They chose their life, and in most ways I'm sure it's a wonderful one. But I've never understood the thirst so many people have for fame. It's one thing if the profession that you find fulfilling (like acting) is one in which you put not just your work but yourself in front of the public, and success necessarily means fame. But so many people seem eager to go on reality shows or do all kinds of other things to get famous, as though having strangers know your name and your face is an end in itself, even if you're nothing but an object of ridicule. Even if they like you, it seems like a nightmare—it's a wonder more celebrities aren't driven to despair by it.

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