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Robin Williams and a baseball film he never made

"Thank you very much. You're on your own. Good night." -- Robin Williams, 1978.

I fervently wanted Robin Williams to play Casey Stengel.

A long time ago, I wrote a book about the Hall of Fame manager based upon what I believed to be the central conflict of his life: That he was a very funny man who also wanted to be taken seriously. I don't mean that Stengel liked to take off his comedic mask the way Charlie Chaplin or Jerry Lewis did, walking into walls when in character and costume and then discoursing about the high seriousness of their art when off camera and in mufti. There was no mask. Stengel loved making people laugh too much to stop and yet was too smart not to need to be respected for his intelligence. Those instincts did not coexist well in the public perception of him, could not be rationalized by sportswriters and baseball executives of the time who were brought up to think that managers should be like John McGraw or Joe McCarthy -- drunk and  disorderly much of the time, sure, but also imperious Leaders of Men and publicly humorless.

As I wrote the book, I fantasized, as many authors do, about the film adaptation that might follow. From the very beginning, I imagined Williams playing Casey. He could inhabit that man as well as he inhabited Popeye (in a bizarre misfire of a Robert Altman film at once more true to Elzie Segar's original strip than any cartoon adaptation, a live-action cartoon itself, and a runaway train of drug-addled writing, direction and performance -- but Williams is very good in it), Parry the traumatized homeless savant in The Fisher King, the psychologist in Good Will Hunting, or even the villains in One Hour Photo and Insomnia. A large part of Williams' public persona, particularly as a stand-up comic, was antic, and as brilliant as his stand-up material could be, some of his worst performances in films came when directors indulged his stage/talk show persona. Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society were two of his more acclaimed performances (he was Academy Award-nominated for both), but watch those films again with fresh eyes, see how they stop dead while Williams morphs out of character and into his stage persona, and then how artificial the rest of his performance seems once he eases back out again.

Those films simultaneously pander to Williams and the audience, but betray their stories. That seemed avoidable when it came to Casey Stengel. Stengel could be antic when he was young, but my book attempted to capture the process of his maturing and moderating himself. These other roles, the ones when Williams stayed in character and didn't suddenly erupt into a John Wayne imitation regardless of the context, showed that he could dial it down enough to delineate a moment in Stengel's life when he could be cutting, but also endearing; cantankerous, but also compassionate.

Williams had never made a baseball film and, as it turned out, he never would. He had a long speech about the 1975 World Series in Good Will Hunting, and in Good Morning Vietnam he taught the Vietnamese to play the game (with a casaba melon or something; I've never been quite sure, and the forced joyousness of the scene is as hollow as those melons and the dysfunctional version of baseball they require -- come to think of it, maybe that's a good metaphor for our involvement in Vietnam after all), but even better, he had one of my favorite baseball-oriented comebacks while arguing with the humorless sergeant-major played by the late J.T. Walsh:

Sgt. Major Dickerson: [Pointing to his rank insignia] What does three up and three down mean to you, airman?

Adrian Cronauer: End of an inning?

That was all the baseball Williams had in him, at least that I'm aware of, but mine was only a harmless fantasy, one of a hundred ways of staying motivated while trying to finish a book. I could rationalize: I knew he was friends with Billy Crystal, a regular (sometimes with Williams in tow) at Yankees games who spoke lovingly of Mickey Mantle and would direct 61* for HBO in 2001. I thought maybe there would somehow be some kind of positive influence there.

Williams and Crystal

Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, 1994. (Getty Images)

As I said, it was just an author's fantasy, though I came closer than most writers to seeing it happen. A producer of many fine films optioned the book, believed in my Crystal-to-Williams daydreaming, and efforted to get the thing turned into a film. As happens more often than not, it wasn't to be, but in my heart I wasn't disappointed because I knew the odds were incredibly long. (I mean, they were going to film Forging Genius before they figured out how to do A Confederacy of Dunces? That would have been an injustice.) Only a few baseball movies get financed because they don't translate into French or German or Chinese; aliens and super-lizards are portable because their appeal isn't limited to North America, chunks of South America, and the Caribbean and screaming doesn't require subtitles. And yet, I have always held that image of Williams as Stengel somewhere inside of me and retained the tiniest hope that someday it might happen. As of Monday, that dream will never be realized.

I clung to Williams as Stengel not because I wanted to have the ego-fulfilling experience of seeing my book filmed, and it's not just that I thought Williams suited the part, though I think he could have been very good and I would have enjoyed seeing him do it very much. It was about a feeling of empathy. Though I never met Casey Stengel -- he died when I was roughly 5 -- as I learned about him, I came to like him and that moved me to write the book. Though there are many stories of his being a hard, harsh man, I also heard or read many of his being a good and kind one. Similarly, I never met Robin Williams, but I liked him. As with Stengel, I know he wasn't perfect, and in some situations it was said his ethics were not the strongest, but his performances conveyed kindness. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't, I'll never know, but I knew he could bring that quality to a role.

Perhaps somehow I sensed that we had something in common as well. I have never made much of a secret of the fact that depression has been a lifelong problem for me. It would creep up on me from time to time as a child, lay heavily on me as a teenager, knock me to the floor for days in my 20s. If you've had it, you know that it feels like a 200-ton weight is sitting on your spirit and there is nothing you can do to lift it. Some sufferers stop eating, others binge. Some stop sleeping, or find it impossible to get out of bed. Either way, forward movement seems not only impossible, but futile.

Until I was in my mid-30s I would go through long periods of remission interrupted by episodes of deep blues. These were always transient, so I was never medicated. I would sink, rise again, and go on. It was just something I dealt with, the way one deals with a cold. And then what Winston Churchill, a fellow sufferer, called his Black Dog came to stay. My brain chemistry had altered as I had grown older, and the old resiliency had gone forever. I sank, but did not rise. Medication became a necessity. From time to time I have since tried to wean myself away from it, but it is always a mistake; off of the pills I feel good, liberated even, for a few weeks, but in reality I am steering toward a seemingly bottomless pit, and despite having endured the withdrawal symptoms and the "brain snaps" and all the other hardships of quitting drugs, I go right back on them, taking a higher dosage than I had when I had quit. Brilliant.

The medications have unpleasant side effects. They also sometimes suddenly stop working, or are overwhelmed by the hard knocks that life offers everyone, and one can be kicked off balance and transported back to that dark place. Formulations and dosages that have worked for years have to be recalibrated or done away with altogether. As a result, there have been so many discontinuities in my life that I am no longer who I was before the Black Dog. I sometimes quote a line of Elvis Costello's to a close friend who met me after all of this had taken place: "I wish you'd known me when I was alive."

And yet, in many ways I am better off now than I was before I began warring with depression. In retrospect, in all the years prior to the problem being recognized and treated, I suspect that something like 80 percent of the decisions I made in my life were in some way influenced or dictated by that demon. Some of those decisions were wise, others very poorly thought out, but all of them were made either in the thrall of the beast, in fear of awakening it, or in hopes of placating it. I shrank from challenges I should have accepted and fought too stubbornly to win those I should have refused.

Good Will Hunting

Williams with Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting," the film for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He was nominated three other times. (Getty Images)

We have been told that Robin Williams took his own life. I'm not a spiritual person, and so I've mostly been too afraid of dying to think seriously about doing myself any harm even when at my lowest. There are also many people in my life I love too much to hurt them that way. A close relative killed herself when I was a teenager, and I remember what that sudden disappearance felt like. And of all the stories I have written or played in part in creating, I most want to know how that of my children turns out, and to be here to help them when I can.

Yet, at the times when I have been off the drugs or simply too wounded for them to function properly, there is an intense desire for surcease of pain. At such moments I can empathize with what Williams might have felt. When I was in the deepest morass of despair a few years ago and spoke of suicide, a dear, dear friend, a well-meaning friend, quoted a cliché: Suicide, he said, is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. "No, no, you don't understand," I wanted to cry out. "This is a permanent problem!" I recently watched the documentary on Roger Ebert, Life Itself. It's an excellent film, but a difficult one to rationalize emotionally, because it contains a contradiction: It simultaneously celebrates the life Ebert made for himself when cancer ravaged his body and depicted a man who had had enough and was rapidly losing the will to live. I've had cancer too, though not in the wholly debilitating way he did, but because of my depression I understand that there can be a moment where your brain says, "Enough. I can't take anymore. I quit," and I empathized.

I'm not judging that moment. I think, as with diseases of addiction, we do people a disservice when we depict such things as purely matters of choice. I suspect the decision to take one's own life emanates not just from surface-level emotional turmoil, but also something deeper, a biological, Darwinistic impulse that calculates and says, "You're not going to be contributing anymore? OK, fuck it. For physical or emotional reasons your usefulness is at an end. Permission to release granted."

I want to be clear: I'm not judging that moment, but I'm also not saying that it's right. I am in no way endorsing it. If you have the urge to harm yourself (or anyone else for that matter), please, do what I finally did and recognize that you need help. I deeply wish that Williams had been able to take that step, to, in our sports argot, give himself a time out before taking the action he did. He had been in a kind of career doldrums in recent years, but I have no doubt he had more to give, to family, to friends, to the public -- though if he was done with the latter, the first two would have sufficed.

Williams had been a star in different settings for nearly 40 years. That's a long time to be the same person and hold the world's attention. At some point, I suspect the public saw so much of Williams that his limitations were exposed, that what had once been spontaneous and original seemed forced and contrived. Watch the linked performance, how unrehearsed it seems, how he is constantly interrupting himself with new thoughts. It's one thing to be in your 20s and, fueled by a few illicit substances, keep moving at that speed, another to do it in your 40s, 50s, 60s. Williams' later shows are clearly much more written, those ad libs seemingly artificial. At that point, what had seemed so fresh crossed the line into shtick and became wearisome.

When you choose weak vehicles, as Williams apparently did late in his career, familiarity becomes harder to overlook, and, as the old saying goes, breeds contempt. We're ungrateful bastards that way. That doesn't make us culpable in his suicide; that was his decision and his alone. It just makes life unfair. Sometimes inspiration only strikes once, then you spend the rest of your life chasing. We're not obligated to watch.

In the 1978 performance linked above, Williams finishes the main part of his set by pretending to be himself 40 years hence, an old man feeding drugs to pigeons in a post-apocalyptic future. "There are some good feelings I have to relate to you," the old man says. "From me to you, you've got to be crazy. You know what I'm talking about? Beaucoup bozo. ‘Cause what is reality? ... Madness is the only way out, to stay alive ... You're only given a little spark of madness, and if you lose that, you're nothing. From me to you, don't ever lose that, ‘cause it keeps you alive. If you lose that [nothing] ... That's my only love, crazy."

It's a funny performance, naturally, but also a moving one. In another version of that same show, the audience chants for him to do his alien character, Mork, from his hit television show of the day. "An angry mob!" he shouts. "Wait! Time out! I have to explain one thing: I ain't doing Mork because that's why I perform here, to do something different." That was 36 years ago. Given all that time maybe we run out of "something different" to do. Maybe we fall out of love with crazy.

Perhaps it's as simple as the fact that deep sadness can be overwhelming, or all of the above, or none of it. I don't know. I just know I still want to see Robin Williams play Casey Stengel, or hell, any other role he was meant to play. I wish he had had one more try in him. I wish I had gotten a chance to talk to him about it, even if he hadn't taken the part. "Don't give up," Casey said. "Tomorrow is just another day, and that's myself."

It's harder than it looks, Casey.