I'm a big I Love Lucy fan. I remember one episode, called Pioneer Women, where Lucy and Ethel are trying to become members of the The Society Matron's League. Without going into too much detail, the gang (Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel) get into some situation where they all decide to live like people did in the early 1900s. Antique clothes, baking bread, churning butter, and so on. Snooty representatives from The Society Matron's League show up at the apartment in a surprise visit to "check out" the potential new members. Heated conversation ensues after the Matron's League ladies observe the strange goings-on at the Ricardo home and make a comment about "theater people." At the end of the day, Lucy tells them to take their League and shove it, the ladies leave, and the kooky quartet is happy continuing to live a zany though content theater people life.
Theater people. There was a time when that phrase was common, and was a not-so-flattering description of those in the stage and movie business. It implied wacky, off balance, eccentric, and yes, a bit nuts. Then somewhere along the way -- certainly after 1952 when Lucy's Pioneer Women aired on televisions across America -- theater people became multi-millionaire idols, idols many today admire and try to emulate. They aren't sniffed at and called theater people anymore. They're called STARS.
I have friends (oddly reminiscent of the Society Matrons) who turn up their noses at any news related to celebrities. I guess they (these friends) think of themselves as too intellectually superior to wallow in the pish-posh of celebrity information. Okay, whatever. So I'm a dumb-head celebrity gazer. Guilty and proud of it. I like to read, I like to write, I like to sit and ponder my toenail, I watch birds, I listen to music, I dabble around on the Internet, and yes, I like the Housewives. I've never quite understood why some people have to make others feel less because of interests that drift into pop culture. Theater people -- stars -- certainly fall into the pop culture category. Again ... w h a t e v e r. To each her own and let me be.
Robin Williams was one of those pop culture, theater people guys. The first time I saw him was on Mork and Mindy. I remember thinking he was a nut. A wildly talented nut, but a nut nonetheless. I didn't know him, of course. Like everyone else, I knew him from TV and the movies. His routines and moods seemed to swing so much. Swwwing. Sometimes he was quiet and sincere and deep (as in Good Will Hunting), and sometimes he was utterly over the top (as in his comedy skits, or on talk shows). I saw him once in person, a million years ago when I was climbing aboard a cable car in San Francisco. He was standing on the street, just a regular fellow in jeans and a T-shirt hailing a cab. That was my one and only personal connection to the man. There he was, hand raised on a hilly street where Tony Bennett left his heart, flagging down a taxi. Then the cable car moved on and that was that.
A million years later, on August 11 of this year, a friend sent me a text with this message: "Robin Williams. Suicide."
Shit, I said out loud when I read the text. I couldn't quite believe it, wanted it to be one of those web hoaxes. I was with a gang of friends celebrating summer. Robin Williams killed himself, I told them. They said it too. Shit. We shook our heads. What a crying shame.
It's true, I didn't know Mr. Williams. But I did so admire his work, his theater people work. He made me laugh out loud a thousand times. He made me think and sigh in Good Will Hunting, and he made me mop tears in Awakenings. He made me a nervous wreck sometimes, so erratic was his behavior. I often wondered if he was a manic/depressive (ie, bipolar) because there were times he was so serene and focused, and others when he was just flat over the wall. Like two people in one body, one up, one down. The single thing I never wondered, though, was if he was sad. He was a complete stranger to me, and let's face it, he was theater people. And you know, as the Society Matrons said, they're all a little crazy.
I guess I never actually considered that he was just a human being. Living in his house somewhere, probably California. Sad. Tortured. Suffering, as one columnist put it last week, with Thought Cancer.
So one night he had enough of this life and hanged himself. Shit. And from my southern sensibilities, bless his heart.
To those who poo-poo the celebrity thing, and who in fact make nasty remarks like "he was so rich" and "he was so famous" and "what a jerk he was to waste all that:" let's try not to forget that Robin was just a person, like all of us and like all the other stars out there who eat and drink and sleep and laugh and suffer love and try their best to carve a living with whatever talents they have. He was a famous man, certainly, but in the shower or tossing a ball to his dog in the park or running his car through the Jiffy Wash or hailing a cab, he was just guy who had a particular gift that was to make people laugh, which he did well. Forget about People and Radar Online and all the other celebrity buzz outlets that titillate with photos and soundbites and that make my friends snarl about pop culture. Like it or not, this is our culture, one in which we feel we know people whom we don't, and in which we grieve for people who maybe deserve a little grieving over, even though they're strangers to us. After all, what's wrong with grieving for a stranger? Doesn't that make us human?
Mr. Williams put his pants on one leg at a time, just like you and me; but unlike you and me (hopefully) he was a person on this earth who was wounded by a chemical imbalance that finally led him to put a belt around his neck and say goodbye cruel world. I don't think there's anything wrong with weeping for that poor soul, famous or rich or pop culture or not.
So adios Society Matrons. Some of us like and appreciate theater people, and mourn them when they're gone.
Robin Williams brought great joy to the world, if not -- in the end -- to himself. Bless his heart indeed.