Farewell, Robin Williams!

Robin Williams 1“Why are all those helicopters flying over Tiburon?” asked Mr. Bookworm.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Maybe there’s a fire or an accident. I’ll check.”

I turned on my internet and immediately discovered why helicopters are circling Tiburon like vultures: Robin Williams was found dead at his home in Tiburon today, a probable suicide.

To say I was shocked is an understatement. When I told Mr. Bookworm the news, he physically recoiled, like a cartoon character . . . and I totally understood. That was exactly how I felt.

Robin Williams emerged on the scene when I was in high school. The morning after Mork and Mindy played, all of us would gather in the hall before band (our first class), and dissect all the funny jokes, and riffs, and quotable material. His manic energy and improvisation utterly charmed us.

Then, in 1979 or 1980, I saw him perform live at a “Bread and Roses” concert in the Greek Theater at Berkeley. It was a packed show, with appearances by the Smothers Brothers; Hoyt Axton; Peter, Paul & Mary; Father Guido Sarducci; and a host of other extremely well-known figures from the 1970s world of comedy and music. Robin Williams left them all in the dust.

Practically vibrating with energy (and, probably, cocaine), Williams walked through the audience, riffing off of clothes, hair, and anything else that caught his fancy. His persona changed from second to second, as he transformed himself, just through voice and mannerism, into a small child, a Texan, a sassy black woman, a Yiddishe mama, and anything else that seemed appropriate at the time. I don’t really remember Peter, Paul & Mary, but I’ve never forgotten Robin Williams.

As the years went by, Williams outgrew both television and the small screen, and headed to Hollywood, where he did very well. With the exception of his role as Genie in Aladdin, which I thought was brilliant, I never much liked his movies. He had a terribly tendency to go for bathos, which is my least favorite form of entertainment. Even disliking the movies, though, didn’t blind me to his talent.

Williams’ personal life became the stuff of soap operas. The newspaper (yes, back in newspaper days) reported that he infected someone with Herpes, that he was cheating on his wife, that he left his wife for his nanny, that he was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and that his heart was a mess, requiring surgery. He endlessly cycled through rehab, always trying to beat back his demons.

It all seemed so sad and sordid, but Williams never let it slow him down. He appeared on television and I kept an eye out for him whenever he appeared on Johnny Carson or Jay Leno. I’d even make an exception for him and watch the Letterman show, if Williams was on. As the years went by, some of his shtick went stale, but there was always something worth waiting for.

Living in Marin, I saw Williams periodically over the years. The photo above was taken at our local Barnes & Noble a few years ago, when he was kind enough to pose with one of the little Bookworms. I also saw him a couple of times when he made surprise appearances at the local comedy club. I actually wasn’t impressed with him the last time I saw him, in early 2010. He appeared tired and, far into Obama’s administration, was still making tired jokes about Bush and Cheney.

Still, he had that Williams charm, which reached out and embraced the audience. Even though I wasn’t inclined to laugh at retread Bush jokes, I still enjoyed watching him. More than that, I remembered that, while Williams didn’t agree with Bush’s policies, he more than once flew to Iraq and Afghanistan to entertain the troops.

And now all that manic, innovative comedic energy is gone, apparently snuffed out by Williams’ own hand. Rest in peace, Robin Williams, and thank you for the laughter.

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  • JKB

    I never saw him live but did find him as you did on Mork and Mindy. He really proved himself when he was able to give Jonathan Winters a run for his money on that show.

    I had grown tired of his schtick in recent years but he seemed to be back in form on his recent show.

  • Charles Martel

    Somebody once said that Williams had mastered the ability to demolish whatever built-in censor occupies the place between the subconscious mind and the larynx. That direct connect was, as you said Book, something that left the entertainers around him in the dust.

    Your take on him is pretty much what mine was through the years. I got tired of the mindless DemProg schtick long ago (he was on automatic the past 10 years) and agree that his acting always had deep tinges of bathos. But, like Mr. Bookworm, my reaction was visceral. Bad, sad news. RIP, Robin.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Not much of a reaction here.

    Williams, like 68% of humanity, feared dying alone. There wasn’t much of a hope that he would find the emotional support in Hollywood California, no matter how much the money or cocaine fix was paid out. The very air creates people like the Santa Rog killer and gun runners masquerading as political leaders.

    No matter who you are, no matter how much you have, Death is equal in treatment, though not in timing. Rather than seeing that as a negative, I treat it as a feature of this universe.

  • Katja

    I remember seeing a routine of his on tape when I was in high school. I was battling some of the demons of depression and while the other kids hooted and laughed, I remember thinking “this man is not well”. It was quite scary in a way. A couple of years later he “came out” talking about his depression, and remembering what I had seen that one day, I was not surprised. And so for me, it seems especially sad that he succumbed to this. Of course, substance abuse only makes things worse.

  • JohnC

    I thought he was hilarious when I was younger. As I grew I couldn’t ignore his politics but he wasn’t a bad person or mean to people. He tried to help wherever he could. He even did shows for the troops and that’s really unusual for the groups with whom he was most associated.
    His depression/mental illness made him funny, famous and beloved. Tragically, the same thing that made him successful wound up causing him to take his own life.
    Goodbye, funny man, and thanks for all the laughs.

  • http://www.amazon.com/Occupy-Innsmouth-ebook/dp/B009WWJ44A/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1361504109&amp raymondjelli

    I used to have his Reality What A Concept album. At the time I thought it was one of the funniest comedy albums I ever heard. I wonder if it would hold up now.

    He did have a unique gift for doing standup that was much closer to a skit than standup. He quickly inserted characters and it was all him.

    He did start to wear though. The characters got repetitive. If he wasn’t manic his comedy seemed forced. I did really like Awakenings though. A great film.

  • Wolf Howling

    Never saw him in person, but no comedian ever gave me more uncontrollable belly laughs. I, like apparently many, are reacting on a visceral level to his choice of suicide. Such a waste.

  • jj

    Robin Williams was, of course, not healthy. I obviously know a bunch of people who worked with him and knew him quite well – I didn’t know him at all – but Jay Leno, for example, was a very old and close friend of his. Leno would tell you of his contemporaries and friends that they were all, always, fully aware of the differences between him and them. One very old friend was part of that group when they were all up-and-comers together, and even then the differences were plainly apparent.

    In fact that guy, a fairly perspicacious fellow, said thirty years ago (to the Iron Butterfly, in fact) that marijuana should be legalized for Robin Williams, possibly it would help slow him down, get him a night’s sleep. Thirty years ago.

    I’ve seen interviews from a variety of folks in the last few hours, and one of the things they all seem to agree on was that he always wanted to entertain. It didn’t matter where he was: in the green room before (or after) the show; in the bus on the way to the show; in the lobby out front before the show; at the pool the afternoon of the show: he was always entertaining whoever was around. What this is really telling you is that he suffered from the same thing from which Jonathan Winters suffered: he couldn’t turn it off. There was no ‘off’ button. He had no control.

    Winters was his model, and those of you of a certain age will remember that Jonathan Winters used to do the occasional stint in places without sharp edges. He was not a well man either, nor could he always be certain of turning it off. He used to appear fairly often with Dean Martin, and there were times when Dean would spend hours after a taping calming him down, easing him back to solid ground. (And there were times when the only work he could get was with Dean because he scared everybody else. Carson used to treat him like he was a stick of dynamite with the fuse lit.)

    And that, I think, was the biggest piece of what I’ve always heard – and am hearing – about Williams: he couldn’t shut it off. He couldn’t quiet the voices in his own head. He couldn’t escape from himself, there was no respite. I think there’s plain evidence of this, too. Not being able to turn off is enervating, and I think he generally looked tired. Most of the pictures you see of him, even the one you took in the market above: he looks tired.

    The guys who knew him best, who knew him for thirty, forty years, I imagine they’re not hugely surprised.

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    I agree with all of you. It says something about the man, doesn’t it, that people from all walks of American life, and across the political spectrum, found something about him to admire.

    I can’t imagine the mental anguish that would send such an admired figure to such a sad, lonely death. It’s worse knowing that he apparently doodled around with slitting his wrists before he opted for hanging. He really, really wanted out of the pain of his own life.

  • Annabelle

    I was also at that Bread and Roses concert at the Greek, and it was the first thing I though of when I heard he had died.

    I was 12 and I had only seen him on Mork and Mindy, and I remember being shocked by how foul-mouthed he was, but he was hilarious and so dynamic that I never forgot it. I had never seen an adult like him, and I always had a soft spot in my heart for him after that. I saw him in passing one other time after that in SF, but never got to thank him in person.

    I had my first experience of someone close to me committing suicide just a few months ago, and the questions still keep coming. It’s so very sad that he felt awful enough to get to that point. I feel so sorry for his friends and family, but feel the most for his kids.