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Rest in Peace, Mr. Williams

In 1988 Peter Weir, the legendary Australian film director, approached the officials of St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware and asked for the rights to make a film at the school. He explained, “We’ve visited school campuses up and down the East Coast and we were most impressed by St. Andrew’s.” But the screenplay involved...

Robin Williams, during the filming of the Dead Poets Society at St. Andrew’s School. The two men on the right are Peter Weir, the Director, and Robert Sean Leonard, the actor whose character commits suicide in the film. Mr. Williamss is seen holding an ink sketch of the Octagon, the site of his apartment in the film.

In 1988 Peter Weir, the legendary Australian film director, approached the officials of St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware and asked for the rights to make a film at the school. He explained, “We’ve visited school campuses up and down the East Coast and we were most impressed by St. Andrew’s.”

But the screenplay involved the suicide of one of the students, and many of us on the Board were reluctant to give our permission. A student in the second form (8th grade) at the school had committed suicide just five years earlier, and the Board had responded by dissolving the second form. This had come on the strong advice of the Headmaster, who felt the school did a disservice to students who enrolled for 5 years. We did finally give our blessing to the production of the film, and the unforgettable film, “Dead Poets Society” starring Robin Williams as “Mr. Keating” and co-starring St. Andrew’s School, came to fruition. The film became a launching pad for the careers of a number of young actors, including Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles and Lara Flynn Boyle.

How tragic it is that this boundlessly talented actor succumbed to his inner demons and took his own life. One frequently hears of movies imitating life. In this case, it was life imitating movies.

During the filming in 1988, my family and I traipsed up to Delaware from our home in Virginia a number of times. The accompanying photo was shot during a break in the filming on one of these occasions, when Mr. Williams stepped out into the staircase in the Octagon for a group photo. Since the film depicted approximately my time at St. Andrew’s, Robin Williams and Peter Weir were both interested in knowing about life at St. Andrew’s in those days. The one thing I remember telling them was, “Where you work hard, you also play hard!” They wanted to know what that meant, and I listed a litany of pranks. I mentioned a student having poured flour into one of the large pipes of the new organ in the school chapel. As the organist played — to the accompaniment of the muffled sound — flour was expelled, falling on members of the choir. Robin Williams loved the story, suddenly mimicking an organ pipe expelling flour.

As a comedian, Williams was irrepressible, he was fearless, he was frenetic, he was the ultimate court jester. And he was also an extraordinarily talented character actor. But he was a bundle of contradictions, and the same inner demons that drove him to such peaks of euphoria also drove him to unimaginable depths of depression. In a candid interview with Diane Sawyer, he said, “You feel like you are at the edge of the precipice, and an inner voice whispers, ‘Jump! Jump!'” What I fear is that there may be others in society with similar problems, who might even identify with Robin William, and jump. In a sense, this tragedy is like the Columbine High School shooting by two troubled teenagers 15 years ago — unthinkable to most of us — giving rise to so many copycats. In 1802 Ludwig van Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers, confiding in them that he was losing his hearing, and that he was teetering at the brink of suicide. The famous letter, “the Heiligenstadt Testament,” was never mailed. The great composer returned to Vienna, and experienced his “Heroic Compositional Period,” creating some of the greatest works in the history of music. Suicide is an impulsive act, and if Robin Williams had not given into his demons when he did, he might have also recovered and continued to add to his remarkable legacy.

Robin Williams was universally loved. In response to a pair of notes I posted on Facebook and at Trekearth, I received numerous comments from friends and readers in Australia, Canada, China, England, France, the Netherlands, Namibia, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Turkey… Klaudio Dadich, an Australian friend of Croat/Albanian ancestry, captured the Robin Williams phenomenon in incisive and eloquent words. He wrote, “The more we read about the way Mr. Williams lived and died the more poignant his life seems to be in retrospect, for me at least. I always found from the very first when he appeared on TV that there was something frenetic about him, verging on despair and even as I laughed, I felt uncomfortable. He tried so hard to be noticed in my opinion and in those troubled eyes and the often twisted smile I often saw a soul weeping behind the comic mask and the high pitched delivery. As the Russians say ‘laughter through tears.’ May his soul finally find the repose and love he was looking for.”

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Meet the Author

Bulent Atalay
Bulent Atalay, a scientist, artist and author, has been described by NPR, PBS and the Washington Post as a “Modern Renaissance Man.” He is the author of two successful books on the intersection of art, science and mathematics, with Leonardo, the pre-eminent Renaissance man, serving as the foil. His best selling book, "Math and the Mona Lisa," (Smithsonian Books, 2004) has appeared in 13 languages. Professor Atalay's academic background is in theoretical physics. He travels around the world lecturing at academic institutions and on cruise ships on the "A-subjects," art, archaeology, astrophysics, atomic physics and Ataturk, confessing that he knows much less about the "B-subjects," business, banking, biology and botany... He is the President of the Ataturk Society of America (ASA), dedicated to promoting Ataturk's ideals of science and reason over dogma and superstition, of a secular state with full equality of genders. For more details click on Bulent Atalay