Like everyone else, I was shocked to hear the news of Robin Williams’ death. But more than that, like a lot of people I was also surprised at how moved I was, as if someone just told me a personal friend had passed. Why? I never met him. I enjoyed his movies and comedy, but was just a casual fan. Part of it goes beyond the comedian and actor to the person himself. It seemed he really, really wanted people to laugh and be happy, and was extremely generous and genuine in this equation, with no ego behind it. He gave so much joy to people while coming across as being exceedingly human, faults and all. For this he was universally beloved, and may have been the easiest person in Hollywood to root for.
But another big part was the feeling that he was one of us, a San Franciscan, a Bay Arean, a neighbor you knew lived nearby even if you never happened to run into him. He moved to Marin as a teenager and went to high school in Larkspur, studied theater at College of Marin, did standup at clubs in the city, worked at various places like the fabled Trident in Sausalito. And he stayed, calling the Bay Area home even after achieving incredible stardom. Despite this success, he kept living his life and going out like a regular person. And all the stories I’ve read on social media attest to how he touched so many people he encountered, at restaurants, cycling on area roads, or making one of his many, many charity appearances.
I read a comment from a bike messenger who’s bike had just been stolen, and was in a bike shop to price a new one. Williams happened to be there at the same time, and the next day the shop called and told the messenger to come pick up his new bike, compliments of Robin Williams.
Another guy I know worked at the SF library in the ‘90s, and Williams, who was active in charity work for the institution, would retreat from the crowds during events and hide out in their office, just hang out with the crew and drink coffee.
My Robin Williams encounter? I was a reporter for the Napa Valley Register and covering the annual Napa wine auction, a several day charity event that culminates in a Saturday afternoon auction. To help grease the wheels, Williams suddenly appeared at the podium to help auction off a couple wine lots, riffing and joking and getting the high rollers to laugh and pony up even more of their money (see photo at top). He electrified the room (or the tent in this case), which was made up of a lot of rich and powerful people. I thought of interviewing him as he left the tent, but it felt too much like celebrity stalking, so I just threw out a question as he walked away that he answered with a funny come-back.
Everything I’ve read says he was always kind and gracious with fans, and locals were mostly respectful of his space. We were proud to count him as one of our own, and now everyone is talking about him and playing Youtube clips of their favorite Robin Williams’ pieces. It’s really remarkable this outpouring of affection, as if we all knew him. They say depression was behind his suicide, that money or health issues could’ve contributed. And all I can think about is that final scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, how everyone in this city would’ve rallied around him, given him more love, money and support than he could know what to do with. And like the toast from George Bailey’s brother, he really was the richest man in town.