After months of hallucinations, memory loss, and deep depression, Robin Williams finally got a diagnosis. In May 2014, doctors told him it was Parkinson’s Disease. After his untimely passing in August that same year, the autopsy revealed that Williams didn’t have Parkinson’s at all. Suddenly, the same question was on everyone’s lips – How could this have happened? What were the doctors missing? More importantly, could he have been saved?
Today we dive into the last twelve months of Robin William’s life.
A quick rise to fame
When Robin first starts out in the business in 1976, he is unlike anything anyone has ever seen before.
Fast forward to the ‘90s, and Robin is at the top of his game as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, a king among men. But as we’ve seen time and time again, the entertainment industry is a fickle one. Even kings can’t stay on the throne forever.
The struggle begins
When the early 2000s come around, Robin is beginning to lose his footing in Hollywood. Doors that once opened easily to him remain closed as a new wave of talent begins to emerge. Suddenly, roles dry up as the Seth Rogans and Will Ferrells of the comedy world take over. By 2013 he is a 63-year-old veteran actor trying to stay relevant in a business that no longer looks the same. Little did we know that those last 12 months of Robin’s life would shape his death in such a harrowing way. A stay in rehab, long periods spent in confusion, a misfire of a show, and a painful misdiagnosis turned Williams from a legendary American icon into one of the world’s greatest tragedies. Let’s rewind.
A close encounter with death
Robin’s first brush with depression coincided with his rise to fame in the late ‘70s. By his own admission, he would drink and party until the early hours several days a week, developing a substantial cocaine habit. Things swiftly went from bad to worse in 1982 when his friend, Saturday Night Live star John Belushi, died after taking a fatal combination of cocaine and heroin just a few hours after Robin had visited him at home. Belushi was just 33.
Belushi’s passing shocked Robin. He knew he needed to change his life, but slipped into a deep, dark depression that he struggled to get out of. Although he remained clean and sober for the next twenty years, Robin wasn’t free and clear.
A devastating relapse
Robin’s family and friends thought that his partying days were firmly behind him, but they were wrong.
It’s 2003 and Robin relapses while working on the ill-received movie, The Big White. In a somber interview with The Guardian several years later, Williams explains, “I was in a small town where it’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking. I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid.” Like many addicts, Robin thinks he can stop when he wants to, but it soon becomes apparent that he can’t. After three years, William’s wife of 14 years Marsha, and his kids decide enough is enough. After a family intervention, Robin enters rehab in Oregon and regains his sobriety for the final time.
Robin was always open about his addiction issues, but it’s this candor that would eventually work against him after news of his death broke in 2014. Many assumed it was a case of another superstar crippled by demons he couldn’t cope with, but while Robin’s struggles with mental health and substance abuse would certainly play a part, they weren’t the deciding factor in his death. It was far more complicated than that. So, let’s go back to 2013.
A financial burden
It’s the fall and a 62-year-old Robin has been working hard at maintaining his clean lifestyle for ten years, but his career isn’t what it once was. Then, he lands a lead role in David E. Kelley’s sitcom The Crazy Ones alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar. Robin is ecstatic. He believes that the show could be the ride he needs to get back on top. He is truly invested in the project for multiple reasons. Williams doesn’t just want it to work. He needs it to work.
No longer pulling in the multi-million-dollar deals he used to in his prime, Robin is facing some serious financial problems. In an interview, he explains, “The idea of having a steady job is appealing. I have two other choices: go on the road doing stand-up, or do small, independent movies working almost for scale…there are bills to pay…I’m selling the ranch up in Napa. I just can’t afford it anymore.”
Alarming signs of deteriorating health
However, Robin is starting to experience problems that go beyond what is in the bank. While celebrating his second anniversary with his wife Susan in August, Robin is struck with intense abdominal pain and gut issues. Doctors can’t find anything seriously wrong with him physically, but Robin’s reaction to the illness is alarming Susan. “He had a sudden and sustained spike in fear and anxiety unlike anything I’d seen before,” she explained.
Stomach pain turns into a myriad of symptoms, unlike anything Robin has ever experienced before, even in his darkest days. He is suddenly plagued with paranoia, he is constantly fearful and even prone to hallucinations. As his medical team desperately searches for an answer, Robin has a job to do. Throughout the fall, he films The Crazy Ones, keeping his health struggles behind closed doors as he completes the first season. When the show is wrapped, his work isn’t done.
Despite his rapidly declining health, Robin honors his commitment to reprise his role as Theodore Roosevelt for the third Night at the Museum movie, Secret of the Tomb. Filming begins in February 2014.
However, when he gets onto the set, it doesn’t take the cast and crew long to notice something is very wrong. When talking to author Dave Itzkoff, Robin’s make-up artist for the movie, Cheri Minns explained that Robin couldn’t remember his lines. For a man with decades of experience under his belt, it’s a devastating turn of events. Minns said, “He was sobbing in my arms at the end of every day. It was horrible. Horrible. He shouldn’t have done that movie.” In one such episode, Williams reportedly tells Minns he “doesn’t know how to be funny anymore.”
A mistaken diagnosis
Robin completes filming, but it was a long haul that left him almost completely broken. Different symptoms arise over the coming months, making it nearly impossible for Williams to find a solid diagnosis. Susan herself later admits to feeling like Robin was perhaps a hypochondriac. That changed in late spring. Doctors tell Robin he is suffering from Parkinson’s and he’s depressed because of it. Susan would go on to state, “Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it…but we had an answer. My heart swelled with hope.”
While Susan is hopeful that they can get back on track, Robin isn’t fully invested in the diagnosis. He doesn’t quite believe it. Meanwhile, in April, Williams receives the news that The Crazy Ones has been canceled by the network. It’s a blow to Robin and it doesn’t help his mental state. His hopes of a career revival are dashed. It comes at the worst time.
Robin is trying hard to keep his private life private, but when he enters rehab in July the world starts to realize there’s a problem. Even then, Robin’s reps downplay the issue. They say Williams has gone into the Minnesota-based facility to “fine-tune” his sobriety. After working on back-to-back projects, he simply needs a break. We bought it. After all, why wouldn’t we? No one could predict what horrors lay just around the corner.
A tragic night
By August, Robin is painfully aware that there is something wrong with his brain. He has seen two of his close friends, Superman actor Christopher Reeve, and another close confidant, end up in wheelchairs due to their ailments. Robin sees himself declining – and he’s terrified of what his future looks like. With little control over his mind or his body, even after his stay in rehab, he becomes more withdrawn. He tries to maintain his relationships with his family, frequently calling his sons Zak and Cody, and his daughter, Zelda, but it’s clear that he’s struggling to cope. Robin’s son Zak would tell Dave Itzkoff, “It was really difficult to see someone suffering so silently.”
On August 10, 2014, Robin and Susan are at home when Robin starts to act strangely. While looking at their designer watch collection that’s worth thousands, he starts to become agitated. He worries that they may get stolen, although, by who, he doesn’t say. Rather than lock them in a safe or hide them within the property, he stuffs several of the most expensive watches into a sock and delivers them to a friend’s house. By the time he gets home, Susan is in the middle of her nighttime routine, on an evening she believes is just like any other. Yes, Robin is sick, but he will cope, she thinks. They have a diagnosis now.
The night continues much like any other night at the Williams household in Tiburon. Susan recalls watching Robin rummage through the drawers in their bedroom, looking for different items, but his behavior doesn’t strike her as unusual. In fact, as he picks up his iPad for the first time in months, she believes that it’s a good sign – one that he’s on the up. He hasn’t read in a long time and perhaps it’s just what he needs.
They say their goodnights, before Robin goes into a separate room, something he often does so he doesn’t disturb her. Susan closes her eyes and drifts off, not knowing that she will never see her husband alive again.
The following morning on August 11, 2014, Robin Williams, the man hailed as one of the greatest actors of a generation, is discovered dead in his final scene.
Robin hung himself with a belt from the closet door. He was 63.
The eternal question
Although Robin had searched for months for an answer, it was only in death that he would get one. His autopsy revealed that despite what his doctors thought, Robin wasn’t suffering from Parkinson’s with a side of depression. He was plagued with Lewy Body Dementia, an all-encompassing disease with a range of 40 plus symptoms. Over the last year, Robin had displayed all of them.
For many, the autopsy would throw up more questions rather than bring closure. One thought is more prominent than any other: Would Robin still be here if he had been rightfully diagnosed? If he had the correct treatment, could his condition have improved? It’s impossible to know, but one thing is for sure: the world will forever wonder if Robin could’ve had the ending he deserved.