Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Posted: 08/16/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
The world is a much sadder place without Robin Williams in it.
The beloved comedian and actor's iconic stream-of-consciousness ramblings were silenced forever this week when he hanged himself with a belt in a bedroom in his San Francisco Bay Area home.
Williams' 25-year-old daughter, Zelda, put the profound sense of loss into perspective in this statement: "Dad was, is and always will be one of the kindest, most generous souls I've ever known, and while there are few things I know for certain right now, one of them is that not just my world, but the entire world is forever a little darker, less colourful and less full of laughter in his absence."
The only positive aspect to his shocking suicide is it has shined a spotlight on the misunderstood illness of depression and sparked a wider discussion about mental illness and the cruel stigma attached to it.
At the time of his death, Williams was being treated for "severe" depression. It is a commonly held belief comedians are more prone to this debilitating illness, frequently using jokes to conceal their inner turmoil.
While that theory may lack scientific proof, it is painfully evident the world has lost too many comic geniuses to suicide and drug abuse. Here's a look at five famously funny people who were taken from us far too soon:
5) The shining light: Chris Farley (Feb. 15, 1964 -- Dec. 18, 1997)
The hidden darkness: Famed for his high-energy comedic style, Chris Farley once said he "dreamed of being John Belushi." In the end, he got his wish. Farley joined the Saturday Night Live cast in 1990 and for five years had viewers splitting a gut playing out-of-control characters, including an obese man auditioning for Chippendales, an over-the-top motivational speaker who was "living in a van down by the river," and a bratwurst-chomping Chicago football fan who constantly bellowed "da Bears!" He had a distinctive, self-deprecating brand of physical comedy and was known for being grossly overweight and sweating profusely. He was also well-known in the offices of SNL for his pranks, often involving close friend and co-star David Spade. "Me, him and Adam Sandler were walking to dinner, during SNL, and this cute girl was getting in a cab, and we commented how pretty she was," Spade told Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year. "So Chris ran over and climbed in the cab with her, and said, 'Hey, you goin' downtown? Let's share a cab!' and she started yelling at him and kicking him. And he finally came back, and we said, 'Chris, if they don't know who you are, you are just a crazy fat guy trying to climb in a cab with them.' And then we all laughed. It was very funny to us." As his fame grew, so did his appetites for food, alcohol and drugs. He was reportedly in and out of rehab up to 17 times, but nothing worked. On Dec. 18, 1997, he was found dead by his younger brother, John, in his Chicago apartment after a four-day drinking-and-drug binge. He was 33, the same age his hero Belushi was when he died of an "accidental" overdose.
4) The shining light: Mitch Hedberg (Feb. 24, 1968 -- March 29, 2005)
The hidden darkness: Known as the king of the one-liners, Hedberg stood out for his unconventional, abrupt delivery, featuring short jokes that were typically odd observations on everyday situations. He was said to suffer from stage fright, possibly explaining why he performed wearing sunglasses, with his head tilted down, hair in his face, eyes frequently closed. He was edgy, but clean. Audience members were known to shout out punchlines before he could finish telling the jokes. Once dubbed "the next Seinfeld" by Time magazine, he got his big break in 1996 on The Late Show with David Letterman. One of our favourite Hedberg observations: "I saw a commercial on late-night TV that said, 'Forget everything you know about slipcovers.' So I did. It was a load off my mind. Then the commercial tried to sell slipcovers, but I didn't know what the hell they were." The website BuzzFeed recently ranked hundreds of Hedberg's one-liners. Here's No. 1: "I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too." On March 29, 2005, he was found dead in a New Jersey hotel room. He was 37. A medical examiner's report listed the cause of death as "multiple drug toxicity" involving cocaine and heroin.
3) The shining light: Richard Jeni (April 14, 1957 -- March 10, 2007)
The hidden darkness: Jeni was known as a comic's comic. As much as he was adored by fans, he was even more respected by his rivals. Said longtime SNL star Jon Lovitz: "He was one of the top-five comedians of our generation, easily." He started telling jokes for a living because, well, nothing else worked out. He was reportedly let go from five different public relations firms, and his life changed when he tried his hand at an open-mic comedy night in Brooklyn in 1982. He was a regular on the Tonight Show, first appearing in the mid-1980s, then logging more return appearances than any other comedian in the business. There were also hit specials on HBO and Showtime and the odd film appearance, including opposite Jim Carrey in the 1994 hit The Mask. On March 10, 2007, Jeni and his girlfriend, TV personality Amy Murphy, were discussing plans for the day in the bedroom of his West Hollywood home. Murphy went to cook breakfast and, minutes later, heard the sound of a gunshot. She found Jeni with a handgun between his feet and a self-inflicted wound to the head. He died on a gurney at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. News reports state his family later revealed the comic had been diagnosed with "severe clinical depression coupled with fits of psychotic paranoia." A coroner's report noted he had a history of schizophrenia and had been taking antidepressants. He was memorialized at a private wake, where his jokes were printed on cards placed on each seat: "We're all on the Hindenburg, no sense fighting over the window seat."
2) The shining light: Freddie Prinze (June 22, 1954 -- Jan. 29, 1977)
The hidden darkness: Back in the mid-1970s, they didn't come much bigger than Prinze, born Frederick Karl Pruetzel. His TV sitcom, Chico and the Man, the first series set in a Mexican-American neighbourhood, was red hot, and his face graced the covers of People and Rolling Stone. After appearing on The Tonight Show in 1973, he became one of the first young comedians invited for a sit-down chat with Johnny Carson. The price of fame was heavy for a kid who changed his name to prove he was the "Prince of Comedy." He became addicted to drugs, specifically Quaaludes and cocaine, and was arrested in November 1976 for driving under the influence. Weeks later, online reports state, his wife, Kathy, filed for divorce on the grounds his drug use threatened their infant son, Freddie Prinze Jr., who went on to become a well-known actor in his own right.
His life unravelled quickly. His depression worsened and he mentioned thoughts of suicide to his friends. On Jan. 28, 1977, the 22-year-old actor-comic put a pistol to his head and, with his frantic manager looking on, pulled the trigger. He was rushed to hospital with a massive head wound and died the next day when his family turned off life support. He left a suicide note, but a civil case later ruled his death to be accidental.
1) The shining light: John Belushi (Jan. 24, 1949 -- March 5, 1982)
The hidden darkness: When you think of performers who left us too early, John Belushi is one of the first names that comes to mind. He shot to superstar status as one of the original cast members on the groundbreaking SNL, where we loved the brash, burly buffoon as a killer bee, a sword-wielding samurai and a cone-headed alien named Kuldroth. On the big screen, he will be remembered as the gross but lovable frat brother Bluto -- "Toga, toga, toga!" -- Blutarsky in the blockbuster comedy Animal House. In 1980, along with co-star Dan Aykroyd, he starred as "Joliet" Jake Blues in The Blues Brothers, in which two brothers are on "a mission from God" to save an orphanage. It was on the set of SNL stories began to emerge of his rampant drug use. On March 5, 1982, Belushi was found dead in his room at the Chateau Marmont, a popular celebrity hotel in Los Angeles. He was 33. A coroner's report gave the cause of death as a lethal injection of cocaine and heroin, a deadly mixture known as a "speedball." In a cruel irony, Robin Williams partied with Belushi on the day of his death. "The Belushi tragedy was frightening," Williams later recalled. "His death scared a whole group of show-business people. It caused a big exodus from drugs. And for me, there was the baby coming. I knew I couldn't be a father and live that sort of life."
So, good night, Robin, and farewell to all the comic geniuses on our list. We will remember you not for the sadness of your deaths, but for the joy you brought to our lives.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 D2
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