After laughs, comedian leaves us with lesson


Celebrity is a calling. Fame is nuts. I think of this as I grieve the death of actor/comedian Robin Williams.

A celebrity is someone whose vocation (calling) is to help us celebrate. Specifically, to celebrate being human. To portray to us and for us the height and the depth of the human experience. To tell the truth about suffering, and in so doing open a door to bear, endure and even redeem and transform that suffering into deeper meaning.

A celebrity brings some extraordinary gift into our midst. Sometimes the gift is artistic (acting, comedy, writing, songwriting, musicianship, singing, dancing, painting, sculpting).

Sometimes the gift is athletic (Olympians, physical endurance, individual or team sports). Sometimes the gift is a moment of heroism (pilot “Sully” Sullenberger).

Sometimes the gift is a lifetime of extraordinary character and admired values (Theresa of Calcutta). Sometimes it is the gift of intellect, leadership, invention or scientific discovery.

But, with few exceptions, the train engine of celebrity pulls boxcars of fame. They walk hand in hand.

And fame is nuts. It makes me feel interpersonal affection for someone about whom I know nothing interpersonally. It makes me feel a collegial or even familial bond with someone I’ve never met. It makes me presume upon a rapport existing only in my fantasy.

I’ve always admired celebrities who handle fame with grace and professionalism. And I’ve easily accessed compassion and empathy for celebrities who finally just punch the paparazzi in the head. I understand why celebrities almost exclusively date and marry each other, because only another celebrity could be trusted to know that fame isn’t real.

I grieve the death of Robin Williams. I grieve hard. The news throws me into a depression that surprises me. I feel sad. I feel scared. I feel angry. All of this for a man I’ve never met.

That’s what my mind says, anyway. My heart insists I do know Robin. At least inferentially through the characters he played. It seems impossible that Robin could move me so deeply without us being friends. Or at least warm acquaintances.

The odd part is I wasn’t grabbed by television’s “Mork &Mindy.” Not until Jonathan Winters showed up for that final season, that is. And I wasn’t a particular fan of Robin’s stand-up. Too frenetic for my taste. Wore me out.

No, my love affair with Robin Williams began with “The World According to Garp,” a movie about the heroic journey of forgiveness in a marriage, not to mention a study of just how quickly the status of “victim” can become pathology as bad or worse than the evil that victimized. From the Gaza Strip to Ferguson, Mo., the phenomenon of “Ellen Jamesians” is real. (You’ll have to see the movie to get that reference.)

In “Moscow on the Hudson,” I knew this man was an even better actor than a comedian. In “Dead Poets Society” and “Patch Adams,” Robin plays the same character: an inspirational human change agent a la Mary Poppins. And, in both movies, the naivete of his character is complicit in two deaths, respectively. One by suicide. And one by homicide.

“The Fisher King” is simply a phenomenal exploration of schizophrenia.

But “Hook” …

I will always love Robin Williams (or, more accurately, the character of Peter Banning) for sword fighting pirates while calling up to his son Jack: “Jack! Jack! You won’t believe this! I found my happy thought! Took me three days to find it. And guess what happened when I did? You know what my happy thought was?”

And Peter flies up to be face to face with his son. And Peter smiles from the bottom of his soul and says, “It was you.”

And I cry every time.

I am so sad for Robin. I tell myself that I know something of how all genius comedy is born of suffering. About how the ability to stretch oneself into compelling characters draws from a psychic well that is not without cost. Sometimes great cost.

I’m scared. Robin giving up sends a psychic tremor through those of us who acknowledge every day some degree of darkness always looming in the distance. A few times in my life, that darkness has tried to have its way with me. Depression is real. It’s agonizingly painful. It grinds your energy to a pulp.

Get help. If you know people with depression, insist they get help. Become intrusive and bossy and rude if you have to.

Don’t give up.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@ reviewjournal.com.