Robin Williams’ ‘spark of madness’ let him soar above his demons

Robin Williams did not have a mere spark of madness, he was a bonfire.

Given the apparent circumstances of his death – severe depression leading to suicide – some might ask if he burned too hot for his own good. Was the “spark of madness” truly the precious gift he considered it to be? Or is it a dangerous thing that we need to smother with rationality and restraint?

“You’re only given one little spark of madness,” Williams said. “You mustn’t lose it.” I very much doubt the “madness” of which he spoke had anything to do with mental illness. Rather, it is the spark of impulse, insight, enthusiasm and inspiration that is essential to creativity. It is defined negatively as madness only by the forces of conventionality and conformity, by the powers-that-be who are threatened and undermined by original thinkers, rebels, contrarians and comedians.

A rapid-fire rush of comic insight was the hallmark of Williams’ performances. He perceived the absurdities and ironies of politics, sex, identity, life and death at such a quick pace, he left us breathless with laughter and amazement.

In the midst of his manic hilarity, though, there was most often a trace of melancholy in his face and poignancy in his voice. You could see that he knew, all too well, that the human foolishness he so fiercely lampooned was tragic, not comic. It is that tragic sense that made him such a good dramatic actor; why this comic genius could inhabit serious roles, as he did in “Good Will Hunting,” “The World According to Garp,” “What Dreams May Come,” “The Dead Poets Society” and many other fine movies.


By all accounts, he was a generous and gracious man, but he struggled with his own flawed humanity – the addictions to cocaine and alcohol that kept luring him back and that contributed to his mortal fight with depression. If he’d been less on fire with creative madness, would he have been less susceptible to the things that tormented him and, perhaps, finally killed him? If he’d been more drab and restrained, would he still be alive?

I’m only guessing, but I suspect his troubles may have been with him either way. From my own observations of life and human folly, I’d argue it was his brilliant, explosive spark of madness that helped Robin Williams soar above his demons for so long.