Months before his death, the actor helped a friend with his own struggles, telling him to "keep the flame alive"

By Jamie Kilstein
August 13, 2014 12:35 PM
Credit: Courtesy Jamie Kilstein

Just a few months before Robin Williams‘s sudden death after succumbing to his battle with addiction and depression, the actor and comedian spent time helping a friend, stand-up comedian and Citizen Radio co-host Jamie Kilstein, with his own struggles.

PEOPLE’s Laura Lane spoke with Kilstein about meeting the legend, how he helped him through dark times and the advice he wishes Williams would have listened to.

Here’s the thing about depression. People who get depressed or have addiction, we are really good at taking care of other people, but not always ourselves. Robin would email and ask me how I was. I would tell him, “I’m having a really hard time,” and he would write, “Can you talk?” And that night I would get a call from a blocked number. He would say, “Tell me, man, tell me what’s happening.” I was having panic attacks. I canceled gigs. I told him I couldn’t do this anymore.

Here was this guy, who had been through so much, telling me it was okay to feel these things. He was probably telling me what he needed to hear, that it’s okay to feel these things. He told me, “You can’t let the ass—- get you down.” He felt so strongly about encouraging people who were outsiders. He emailed me and said, “Anything I can do to keep the flame alive, let me know.” He thought what I was doing was important for some reason.

There was something so warm and genuine and kind about him. The reason he probably knew what to say was that he was going through it, too. You knew he was talking from experience.

Meeting the Legend

I met Robin backstage at one of my shows. I was so nervous. Robin Williams was one of the first things I associated comedy and laughter with. The first thing he did when he got backstage was hug me and thank me for putting him on the guest list. I just felt instantly so comfortable and so happy. He was so warm and fatherly. I get on stage and I could just hear his laughter booming. We went out after and became friends ever since.

I told Robin my story, how I struggled, how I lived out of my car for a while, how I wouldn’t get into certain comedy clubs because of my politics, how I wanted to quit. He said, “Anything you need, just ask me.” He said, “I will always help you.”

My partner and I had this podcast called Citizen Radio, and we left the station we were with at the time and lost our source of income. I emailed Robin to see if he knew of other people to talk to and within a day I had his managers, his agents, and he was paying our salary. I tried to turn it down and since then I’ve turned down more money from him than my grandparents, but he wanted to support our cause and what we were doing. He really was a radical guy who really appreciated boundary-pushing. Citizen Radio had no corporate sponsors, but technically it was brought to you by Robin Williams.

Soon I had the booker from Letterman calling me saying that Robin called him about me. He took me under his wing. He was so famous and wealthy and he didn’t need to do any of that. He didn’t need to help out this kid. I’ve done nothing but get in trouble as a comedian. He saw something that he believed in. He did everything he could for me. I forgot how famous he was because he was a friend.

He encouraged us when all odds were against us and we were speaking out on issues on war, same-sex marriage, feminism, and he just said to keep raising hell. He was maybe trying to support what he couldn’t do. He said he wished he could say some of the things that I was saying. He wanted to be more political. He just started supporting me. He would recite parts of my jokes back to me and tell me his favorite parts of my set.

Comedy was more than laughs for him. He wanted to stick up for people, challenge their beliefs, making them think and keep asking questions. He was so intellectually curious and so brave.

A Light in Dark Times

A few months ago, Robin called me to talk me out of my depression. I felt like a failure and was really sad and didn’t feel like I could do what I wanted to do in comedy or say the things I wanted to say. He asked if it was a money issue, and I said no. He wanted to know if he could do anything. He told me not to stop. He said, “Just don’t.” He just made me feel special.

He told me stories about watching Richard Pryor on stage for the first time sober, and how scared Richard was. Addiction has been such a huge part of my life that I was nervous to ask him about it when I heard he had gone back to rehab. I emailed him and just said, “I hope you’re okay.” When we talked, he was very quiet, soft-spoken in a concerned whisper, very wise and very parental. He didn’t want to talk about him. He wanted to talk about me and make sure I was okay.

I don’t know how he was. I don’t know if he was okay, which he seemed, or if he wanted to talk about me because he wasn’t okay and didn’t want to talk about it, or if he didn’t think we were close enough. I don’t know. I don’t know if he was depressed or sober or happy. He made me feel like I was the only person that mattered, and he put his stuff aside, which is a rare quality, and I wish I would have ignored that quality and fought him on it and made sure he was okay.

I didn’t get a response when I emailed him a couple months ago to ask if he was okay. I just figured he was busy. I was excited to send him our book [#Newsfail], which we dedicate to him when it comes out in October. Now it’s in his memory.

Saved by Laughter

He was so confident when he was helping me that I assumed he was fine. Every time I wanted to quit comedy, he was there. Every time I was depressed, my own dad told me to call Robin. He had been through so much with addiction and depression, and he always brought me out of it. He was giving me such good advice and talking me out of my worst times. He just told me, “You can’t stop.” He said the good people always quit. The people with the point of view or the people who are struggling, they always stop or are driven out.

The people who are true comedians were nerds and outcasts and had really hard childhoods. Robin got picked on, I got picked on. I got funny as a defensive mechanism. There were times when he would be incredibly depressed or seem really quiet or low and then he would see comedy or be around comedy and get on stage, and it would just change him. He was saved by laughter. That was all that mattered to this guy, and you could tell that’s what pulled him through until it didn’t.

There was this feeling that even though you are in front of thousands of people on stage and making them laugh, you can still feel alone. He was a soothing voice who had been there, who connected with me on a human level. He just told me, “It’s going to be okay.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The Williams family is asking well-wishers to send contributions to charities close to the actor’s heart in lieu of flowers. Suggested organizations include St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Challenged Athletes, USO, the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.

For more on Robin Williams’s tragic death and his legacy of comic genius, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

CNN Newsource: Remembering Robin Williams