LUMBERTON — When the news of Robin Williams’ death hit last week, it struck Hal Davis particularly hard.
Davis, who is coordinator for the musical theater program at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, counts himself as one of the lucky ones who crossed paths with the Academy Award-winning actor and renowned comedian during a film shoot early in both of their careers.
Davis served as an extra on the 1984 dramatic comedy film “Moscow on the Hudson,” one of Williams’ first starring roles. In the film, Williams played Russian immigrant Vladimir Ivanoff, who had defected to the Bloomingdale’s department store. Off camera, Davis says, Williams seemed just as much of a fish out of water as the character he was playing.
“It was a long shoot,” Davis said. “We ran from sun up to sun down, just for a couple of scenes in the movie, but [Williams] held up so beautifully. He was a funny guy and when I say that, I don’t mean just as in he was humorous, he was funny in that he was unusual too.”
Davis recalls Williams standing in a circle with the other actors and crew between takes and appearing to simultaneously listen to the conversations going on while also appearing detached.
“Between takes he would be very quiet and reserved,” Davis said. “We literally circled him and he would just kind of keep his hands folded by his waist, almost like he was praying, just below his belt buckle and then suddenly he would hear someone say something and he would pop into this improv and he would make us all laugh, do these characters and then he would go right back into himself, being quiet.”
While “Moscow on the Hudson” found moderate success, Williams’ career picked up steam with the 1987 release of “Good Morning, Vietnam,” followed by a string of other hit films, including 1989’s “Dead Poets Society,” 1991’s “The Fisher King,” 1992’s “Aladdin,” 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire,” 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” and more recently, the “Night at the Museum” trilogy, which began in 2006, with the third installment to be released in December.
“He was an extraordinary person,” Davis said. “Obviously, as a performer, but the more I followed him, the more I noticed that he used his performance to help other people. I did not know at that time that he suffered from depression.”
Davis says he was inspired by Williams’ charitable work, including the creation of the Windfall Foundation, a philanthropic organization to raise money for various charities such as the St. Jude’s Foundation, and his work with the “Comic Relief” fundraising television specials, which had gone on to raise more than $50 million for food, housing, health care and other forms of assistance for the homeless.
“It sort of broke my heart when I learned of his death, because I know he is a good father and a good man, and it was just sad because, I know that the pain of depression was too, too much,” Davis said. “Even though I have never felt that kind of pain, I have heard people talk about it and I can almost feel I understand. He just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Robeson County native and professional comedian Efrain Colon grew up watching Williams.
“Him and Jim Carrey were the most physical comedians I saw growing up. Guys like him are the reason guys are going into comedy today,” Colon said. “He was an A-list comedian. One of the top comedians of his time. You don’t see that often.”
Fellow improv comic and UNCP alum Jules Ollie Forde agrees.
“He was absolutely an inspiration,” Forde said. “… His was a kind of universal talent, one that spanned generations.”
Williams was at first largely thought of as “just a comedian.” Today Williams is known almost as much for his dramatic roles as he is for his comedic ones.
“His passing has kind of caused people to take another look at his works and remember the genius that he was,” Forde said. “I personally had ‘The Fisher King’’ in my Netflix queue for probably two years and kept telling myself I’d watch it eventually and then finally, I did last night, thinking there wasn’t a better time to catch up on performances of his that I’d missed … . I’m incredibly glad I did. It was a terrific movie and really impressive yet sad portrayal … .That just showed his incredible ability to make you feel every kind of emotion.”
Jeanne Koonce, who teaches acting for the Public Schools of Robeson County’s Studio Lab One, said she was devastated at the news of Williams’ death.
“Absolute dismay, incredible sorrow. Robin Williams was, to my mind, one of the greatest comics ever, certainly of my time,” Koonce said. “I grew up with Robin Williams’ comedy, with his stand-up, and he was one of the most brilliant minds you’ve ever seen. There are comedians that do comedy that are funny and there are that select few that are on the top of the heap. They all have an incredible wit, and more than that, they are almost like philosophical giants. They say things that need to be said and they say them with pinpoint precision.”
Koonce felt Williams’ manic style of comedy was evidence of a brilliant mind, which she says may have made him more susceptible to mental illness.
“Most people who can’t stop thinking even for a moment would go mad,” Koonce said. “If you weren’t already crazy it would make you crazy and if you are burdened as he was with his background of alcoholism … I read that his mother had depression too. Depression is not always a state of being brought on by circumstances, but an actual illness, that can be inherited … . The only good thing about his death is that it has galvanized people to talk about this. Depression is like diabetes. It doesn’t go away because you have success, or are loved, you have to live with it.”
According to Dr. Robert James McHale, medical director of Monarch Mental Health, which has two locations in Robeson County, having a successful career can actually be a sign that a person struggles with depression.
“Successful people in life tend to be successful in suicide,” McHale said. “He fits the profile. White male, above the age of 60, successful in his career … Statistically, those people are more likely to commit suicide successfully. People who suffer from depression will often become very successful in their careers because they are seeking validation.”
If you or a loved one is suffering from depression or have thoughts of suicide, McHale advises seeking immediate help. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255.