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The Perils of Having Money as a Starring Role


Perhaps we’ll never know what drove Robin Williams to kill himself, but growing indications are that money might have played a part. The Mail Online is reporting the funny man was having serious financial problems and that his frenetic work schedule (four movies in production, two of which are due out this Christmas) was more to pay the bills.

Williams himself joked about his return to television, for what turned out to be a one-season CBS comedy, was simply to make money. Last year, he put his $35 million Napa, Calif., estate on the market for $29.9 million.

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It’s hard to link any of these events, but there’s no denying Williams had a lot of bills. The Mail reports his 2008 divorce from his second wife Marsha Garces, cost him $30 million, about double what he paid his first wife when that marriage also ended in divorce.

“Divorce is expensive,” Williams said in a 2013 interview. “I used to joke they were going to call it “all the money,” but they changed it to “alimony.”

“It’s ripping your heart out through your wallet.”

Whether these financial pressures led Williams to do what he did is anyone’s guess. To be sure, the comic certainly had his demons. A life in and out of rehab for various drug and alcohol addictions attests to that, but is it as simple as that?

Probably not. But those addictions are pricey. Williams himself once joked that cocaine was “God’s way of keeping you vulnerable, and keeping you poor.”

For whatever humor he showed in the face of his building financial worries, Williams was far from destitute. TMZ recently revealed the comic has left considerable trust funds to his three children, and taken great care as to how the monies will be parceled out in stages over their lifetimes. He reportedly wanted to provide the financial discipline to them that he once joked, he lacked for himself.

Still, Williams’s financial battles typify the enormous pressure on the rich and particularly the celebrity rich, to maintain their lifestyles. A talent agent recently told me there’s even a strategy to it, a “self-survivalness” to it.

“People who get the parts and the jobs in this business have to appear like they don’t need the parts and the jobs,” he explained. “It’s almost Darwinian, once they see you’re desperate, you’re a marked man and you lose all negotiating leverage.”

This could explain why even company chief executives like to keep up the appearance that they’re doing well. That creates their aura, and in a sense, their demand. The slightest hint of financial difficulties can send quite another message – that the rich guy isn’t only hurting, he’s an easy mark and open to do anything to make sure he won’t be hurting.

Maybe that could explain Williams’s frantic movie and TV work over the last year. Friends now talk about how they feared he was spreading himself too thin and signing himself up for too much. Besides another “Night at the Museum” sequel, in which Williams would be reprising his Teddy Roosevelt role, he also was working on another “Mrs. Doubtfire” movie, and at least three others. There was also talk of another standup comedy series, similar to his highly acclaimed “Weapons of Self Destruction” tour that proved such a big hit, albeit personally exhausting one back in 2009.

Too much? One of Williams’s best friends, Joe Piscopo, says no. “Look, Robin loved doing what he did,” he explained to me. It wasn’t about money, it was about being in demand. “He loved the attention, he was flattered by it.”

Maybe so, but Williams was also shrewd. He knew he had lost a lot of money, but he also knew he had the means to make a lot of it back. Who wouldn’t want Robin Williams in their movie? What changed, at least according to those who knew him best, was that the actor wasn’t turning “anything down.”

Hence, all the added projects in the last year of his life, and the sale of that Napa home he once vowed never to leave. It’s too trite to say Williams wanted to keep up appearances. If anything, he was quite the opposite. He often joked about his money issues, and divorce issues, and taking movie roles to “pay the bills” issues…but what seemed to change over the last few months, in particular, was the pace at which he was taking up these jobs.

If they were merely about the money then Williams wouldn’t be much different than countless other Hollywood stars trying to claw their way back and “stay in the mix,” as one agent put it. Indeed, among business titans too, keeping up with their colleagues is important, and often mentally taxing.

Jack Welch used to joke with me that soon after he retired, while he’d very much be in demand on the speaking circuit – and still is – he didn’t quite command the notoriety and even fear he did when he was running General Electric, and changing the world. “That takes some adjustment,” Welch said at the time.

Some, like Welch, do adjust. Then again, that’s because they can, and certainly Welch can. Others? It’s more of a constant effort – and an emotionally draining, exasperating one at that.

None of this is to say that money is the root of all evil. Let’s just say losing that money, or the fear of losing that money, becomes the root of all worries – particularly for those who had it, and scramble to get it back. Add a deeply sensitive, vulnerable personality to all that and it’s not hard to imagine how even one of the funniest men who ever lived on this planet, could consider leaving this planet.

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