Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 15, 2014
If you begin reading about Hollywood and its stars at a tender age then at some point very early on you learn about suicide. I’m pretty sure my first suicide was Pete Duel, an agreeable young actor who had enjoyed important roles in such unimportant movies as THE HELL WITH HEROES (1968) with Rod Taylor and GENERATION (1969) with David Janssen but experienced greater success on the small screen. The Rochester, New York native (born Peter Ellstrom Deuel in 1940) had parlayed a recurring role as Sally Field’s brother-in-law on GIDGET (1965-1966) into a lead on the equally short-lived Screen Gems/ABC sitcom LOVE ON A ROOFTOP (1966-1967) before Universal offered him a long-term contract. His big break was being cast as Old West outlaw Hannibal Hayes on the weekly BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) cash-in ALIAS SMITH AND JONES (1971-1973). My sister Cheri was a big fan of Duel, who got a lot of play in the teen magazines of the day, and she was horrified and dispirited when the news came in over the transom that on New Year’s Eve 1971 he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. That’s a tough way to lose a crush. I can’t recall what my specific reaction was, at the age of ten, but I’m sure it was along the lines of “People do that?”
At some point I began to dive into Hollywood history, fueled by my purchase of Leonard Matlin’s 1975 TV Movie Guide and my membership in a movie book club. I also began to purchase John Willis’ Screen World annual, each volume of which concluded with the year’s necrology: the cancers, the heart attacks, the accidents, the olds, and the suicides. That’s where I found out about Chester Morris (pictured at right, in happier and healthier times), George Sanders, Barry Brown, Stanley Adams (Cyrano Jones!), Jean Seberg, Jon Hall, Don “Red” Barry, French actor Patrick Dewaere, and Walter Slezak, all of whom took their own lives. At some point in there, CHICO AND THE MAN star Freddie Prinze blew his brains out and I picked up Kenneth Anger’s dreadful and dubious one-two punch of Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon 2, which taught me about other Tinseltown suicides (Carole Landis, Lupe Velez, and Peg Entwistle, whose fatal leap off of the Hollywood sign in September 1932 is all any of us remember she ever did). I don’t remember now where I learned that Marilyn Monroe killed herself (conspiracy theorists abandon ship!); the fact is just hardwired, as if I always knew, as if the manner of her death were enmeshed in her being, inextricable and inevitable, like Christ’s death on Calvary and Davy Crockett’s at the Alamo. I remember being psyched when character actor Albert Salmi, whom I knew from THE AMBUSHERS (1967) and THE DESERTER (1971) and ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971), started popping up in feature films after 1980, appearing in both CADDYSHACK (1980) and BRUBAKER (1980) in the same year. “I love that guy!” I remember thinking. “How great to see him working again!” And then he was in DRAGONSLAYER (1981) and LOVE CHILD (1984) and BREAKING IN (1989) and then he was dead by his own hand, a murder-suicide, his body discovered alongside that of his wife. Friends spoke of his depression.
All of which brings us, of course to Robin Williams, the (depending on your taste and patience) brilliant or annoying stand-up comedian turned TV actor turned Academy Award-winning movie star who killed himself this week at the age of 63, having suffered from depression for most of if not all of his life and recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Williams’ death feels to me like a burglary, in the immediate aftermath of which you don’t notice anything much missing but then you keep reaching for things that aren’t there anymore. When I first heard that he had killed himself, my mind went to stuff like MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1993) and PATCH ADAMS (1998) — star vehicles bespoke for the motor-mouthed prankster, both of which I avoided like a burning Ford Pinto (a kneejerk reaction that says more about me than it does about him). It was only hours later that I remembered Williams’ wry cameo in DEAD AGAIN (1991) and his less kinetic leading roles in MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON (1984), DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989) and the sublimely creepy ONE HOUR PHOTO (2002), and then the loss hit me. Late in the day I remembered that he had played Teddy Roosevelt in one of my kids’ favorites, A NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2006), which reminded me that Brian Keith, who had played Roosevelt in THE WIND AND THE LION (1975), also died by his own hand.
The movies mean forever and suicide means never again. I got used to that dichotomy early in life, long before I lost actual friends to suicide or just people I knew from around town when I lived in New York, like Spalding Gray (pictured right), whom I used to go see live, and MIDNIGHT EXPRESS star Brad Davis, whom I passed on Fifth Avenue one day – he was walking at a furious clip and grinning from ear to ear, though this was after his very public diagnosis of HIV+. The list of dream-makers, of artists, singers, musicians, writers, actors, and artisans who left this life on their own initiative is staggering. Staggering. In preparation for this little essay I only just learned that one of my favorite Hollywood character actors, Paul Hurst, killed himself in 1953 after having been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The same reasoning brought about the untimely deaths of many performers close to my heart: Arthur Edmund Carewe from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933), the mighty mighty Chester Morris, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE‘s Pedro Armendáriz, stuntman turned actor Richard Farnsworth, and Wyatt Knight from PORKY’S (1982) and its sequels. An aging Gig Young killed his fifth wife and himself in 1978; I remember being stunned by the news, as he had been so great, so wise and cuddly, in the Gene Roddenberry TV pilot SPECTRE the year before.
Depression has taken so many of the bright and beautiful, gobbled them up, Saturn-like : Maggie McNamara. Alan Ladd. The wonderful 70s film actor Steven Keats. Ed Flanders. The great Rachel Roberts. Elizabeth Hartman, the voice of Mrs. Brisby in THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982), jumped to her death from the balcony of a Pittsburgh high rise. David Arkin from Robert Altman’s films. The Psychotronic suicides are equally sobering: Patricia Cutts from THE TINGLER (1959), Carolyn Craig from THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), Laurie Bird from TWO LANE BLACKTOP, Michael Gothard from SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1971), frequent spaghetti western and giallo actor Luigi Pistilli, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS star Todd Armstrong, THE TIME BANDITS‘ David Rappaport, THE CAT CREEPS’ Helen Twelvetrees, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST‘s Frank Wolff, Hong Kong film star Leslie Cheung, and international beauty Capucine (THE PINK PANTHER), whose estate went to three cats. The IMDb page for cowboy actor Art Acord records the date (January 3, 1931) and place (Chihuahua, Mexico) and manner (cyanide) of his suicide and that nearly all of his films are lost; so much for immortality. Before she took her own life in 1970, actress Inger Stevens (pictured above left) said “A career, no matter how successful, can’t put its arms around you. You end up being like Grand Central Station with people just coming and going. And there you are–left all alone.”
As far as taboos go, suicide is right up there with incest and cannibalism, which is pretty harsh given that it’s the only one of these offenses that you can commit alone. I get our culture’s abhorrence of self-slaughter and its fallout on the loved ones of the departed, yet I think we need to be realistic about our ability to control it, which is to say that we need to face the reality that we never will. We may yet find a cure for cancer and AIDS, and cause the common cold to retreat to the rarity of polio, the Black Death, and ague, but suicide will endure, it will always be for someone, somewhere, at some time, an option… and we need to learn to live with that. However we like to believe that there is in each of us a standard issue reverence for life, baseline at birth, and that anyone who falls short of that ideal by expressing or acting upon a desire to put their back to it is weak or sick or unworthy, that certainty comes from the man behind the curtain and not the man upstairs. (The faithful among you will object but the Bible is strangely elliptical on the subject of suicide, though I suppose Corinthians makes the best case for stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive, if you believe in that sort of thing.) The received wisdom in these times of zero tolerance for suicide is that we have to be rigid in our semantic reference to it, we have to cultivate a language that is prohibitive and custodial. (“You do not romanticize, you must not inspire. Above all, you prioritize the feelings of those who are left behind.”) Years ago when a public service announcement suggested that “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” dissenting voices declared “Suicide is not a solution!” (The furor was revived this week in a response to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tribute to Williams, which took issue with the inference that his suicide was a welcome release.) I get the point of zero tolerance and I sympathize with the desire to slap the pistol or the pills out of the hands of the suicidal. I believe some, perhaps most, lives can be saved, I think medications can be adjusted to good effect, and I know that the suicide spike among gay, transgendered, and bullied teens can be reversed if we can all get on the same page… but at some point we have to make peace with the reality that people will do what they will do and that we can’t always love them out of it. We’ve been working this problem out for centuries, with William Shakespeare wondering five hundred years ago “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune/Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles/And by opposing end them?” That question cannot always be answered by the promise “it gets better,” though I wish it were otherwise. And so in the wake of this most recent Hollywood suicide (which is really just a suicide, of course – in death we are all off the red carpet), my inclination is not to judge or condemn Robin Williams, to analyse or angelicize him, or even to make of his death a teachable moment. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll just say “I get it” and let him go.
Richard Harland Smith is the author of “Ten Horror Movies That Suggest Life is Unlivable,” The Book of Lists: Horror (Harper Perennial, 2008)
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