Robin Williams and Hollywood’s illness stigma

The late Robin Williams is shown performing at Town Hall in New York in 2009.
(Dave Allocca)

The graphic details of Robin Williams’ suicide were shocking when a Marin County coroner revealed them Wednesday. But on Thursday came an equally startling revelation: Williams was suffering from Parkinson’s disease at the time of his death.

“Robin’s sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly,” his wife Susan Schneider said in a statement.

Medical illness is a strange thing when it comes to Hollywood. Addiction is a subject people will talk about often and freely; there’s hardly a week that goes by without a celebrity “opening up” about their struggles.

That’s far from the case with illness. Nora Ephron kept her battle with leukemia secret up until her death. Michael J. Fox didn’t disclose his Parkinson’s for seven years after his diagnosis. Patrick Swayze continued to downplay reports of his cancer until his condition had deteriorated irrevocably in 2009.


In part this is all for a very simple, practical reason — like many people, a lot of actors want to continue working when they become ill, and everything from casting to insurance becomes trickier once disease enters the picture. (Fox worked for a good chunk of those seven years without anyone the wiser).

But there’s also a social stigma that comes with the disclosure of illness. If the average person must contend with being treated differently by colleagues and relatives, an actor feels that pressure tenfold, which in turn only creates a reluctance on the part of the actor. And can you blame them? We’ve created such a sense of infallibility and vitality around actors that a revelation of any malady will be picked over and talked about. If nothing else, it’s a distraction for people who rightly just want to call attention to their work (and it’s usually even more than that).

This tabloid age has of course only multiplied all this. Fox is still the subject of obsessive coverage for how he reacted to the early days of diagnosis — 15 years after he announced he had the disease. Organizations like the one founded by the late Laura Ziskin have helped change some of this mind-set; Ziskin six years ago helped create “Stand Up2Cancer,” a group and fundraising event that has not only raised millions for research but has turned illness into a topic that can be discussed in pop cultural circles in ways that go beyond fear or knee-jerk pity. But compared to how we talk about addiction, illness remains light years behind.

It’s interesting to see how the revelation of Parkinson’s shaded some people’s view of Williams’ suicide, moving it from a head-shaking disbelief to something more complicated (and echoes the shift in how many thought about the reports, later proved unfounded, that the director Tony Scott’s suicide was preceded by a diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer). The truth of course is that there’s no way to know exactly what motivates someone to take their own life. What we do know is that before he died Williams had chosen to talk about depression and addiction but not yet illness.

When to do that is a highly personal decision, and as with everyone else, it could only be made when a person feels comfortable. Here’s hoping the discomfort stops being compounded by stigma or our own collective scrutiny.