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Robin Williams lived in both spotlight and shadow

By Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.
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Mike Coppola - Getty Images

When one of the funniest people in the world dies of terminal despair, it sparks discussion. Comedian Pam Stone, who knew Robin Williams when his career was white-hot in the 1980s, would like some of it to center on mental health.

“We need to have a national conversation about depression,” Stone said Tuesday from her farm in Upstate South Carolina.

“Nobody should feel that bleak and in such a black hole. I hope this does start a big discussion in this country,” said Stone, a former Charlotte radio host. She went from stand-up comedy to an ABC series called “Coach,” playing gym teacher Judy Watkins for eight years. “There is not enough money that goes to mental health care.”

Stone remembers the ’80s as wild times in the comedy world in Hollywood.

“It was crazy. Nothing was cooler at the time as a comedian in the ’80s. We were like the rock stars. If you were a headliner, Hollywood was giving away development deals right, left and center. Everybody was getting sitcoms.”

There was a lot of drug and alcohol abuse at the time as well, she said. Williams often talked about being part of that world. He partied with fellow comedian John Belushi early on the night in 1982 when the “Saturday Night Live” star died of a drug overdose. Williams sobered up for years after Belushi’s death, and made his battle with the twin demons of drugs and alcohol part of his act.

He talked in self-deprecating terms about his struggle with both when he last appeared in Charlotte in 2009, playing Ovens Auditorium. It was clear that night that Williams had done his homework before coming to town, cracking topical jokes, including one about Mecklenburg’s overcrowded schools.

“You put $50 million into a NASCAR museum and your kids go to school in a trailer. What the (expletive)?” he said.

Then, on Charlotte’s button-down fashion approach: “Either cloning is real or Gap’s giving away (expletive).”

Stone remembers Williams as a brilliant improvisational comic, but insecure. He was kind to others, and made time for fans, she said.

Williams had talked about how his depression was sometimes overwhelming, putting himself in a state of diffuse anxiety where he felt afraid of everything all the time. Williams, 63, committed suicide at his home just north of San Francisco on Monday.

Stone said backing off from the hard-partying ’80s was something many entertainers had to do to stay alive.

“It’s probably politically incorrect to say it, but a lot of comedians when they quit doing coke – and they had to quit because they were going to die otherwise – they weren’t as funny. They had been manic and fearless. It was like a train just came through the room. And there are comics to this day who won’t get on stage without a little bump,” she said.

“It was never that way for me,” Stone added, saying the drug and alcohol scene wasn’t for her. “I was only in stand-up for the money. And all I ever wanted was a horse farm in the country.”

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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