“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.