The Joy and Pain of Robin Williams

By Catherine Bigelow

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

A long a gritty stretch of Market Street, notched between the Tenderloin arteries of Jones and Taylor, is a vibrant wall mural depicting a man’s face framed by a bushy salt-and-pepper beard. Due to a tight crop, it’s difficult to discern whether the man is smiling. However, his twinkly blue eyes are the telltale “get” — the visage belongs to Robin Williams, the late comedian-actor beloved the world over.

Born in Chicago, Williams lived his early years in the Detroit suburbs, where his father was a car sales executive. At 16, Williams attended Redwood High School when his family moved to Woodacre, Marin. Later, following a stint at College of Marin, he moved to New York to study drama for three years at the prestigious Juilliard School. His professor was so impressed by his skill that he encouraged Williams to leave and pursue his craft — there was nothing more to teach.

The legendary performer returned home in 1976, joining the City’s burgeoning stand-up comedy scene — most notably at 408 Clement Street, formerly home to the hallowed Holy City Zoo.

Onstage his frenetic brain seemed to fire on every synapse. Williams combined a manic physicality with madcap, quicksilver monologues peppered with a variety of accents and trenchant cultural zeitgeist takes. Reading his audience, Williams deftly tweaked his improvisations like a great jazz artist.

The Market Street homage appeared in September, when Argentine artist Andres Iglesias was invited to paint over an old mural created by San Francisco artist Cameron Moberg. Iglesias, who tags his works “Cobre,” worked from a dramatic Peter Hapak photograph of Williams that accompanied the actor’s 2014 Time magazine obituary.

Exuding kindness mixed with a touch of world-weary ennui, the mural’s soulful orbs seem to echo the fictional eyes of “Doctor T.J. Eckleburg” — the omniscient observer in The Great Gatsby who imparts an unblinking gaze over a parade of human frailties.

The artwork is as beautiful as it is mournful, an emotion still felt by a legion of fans and friends who find it difficult to shake the sadness that Williams, a dazzling otherworldly spirit, died by his own hand on August 11, 2014 at his Tiburon home.

Comedian-director & Comedy Day president Debi Durst:

Illustrations by Iris Lei

I met Robin around 1976 in North Beach at Savoy Tivoli. I belonged to Spaghetti Jam, an improv offshoot of the Old Spaghetti Factory where lots of comics, including Robin, honed their acts. We both did little kids’ voices, so the director dragged us onstage for a scene. I instantly knew he was in a totally different league, and I was swimming with sharks. If you hesitated for a second with Robin, you were lost. When Robin took the stage, he was electric, blowing everybody away. In September, just before our annual free Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park, we officially changed the name [with assists from Rec & Park GM Phil Ginsburg, board president Mark Buell, and the late Mayor Ed Lee] of Sharon Meadow to “Robin Williams Meadow.” At the time, there was no San Francisco spot named in his honor. Robin was a great friend of Comedy Day — he literally gave and gave and gave. His code name was “The Eagle” because when Comedy Day was short on funds, which it always is, Robin would quietly float us a check. We’d confirm the show was on by saying, “The Eagle has landed.” Whenever he was in town, he’d perform a set. But [fellow comedian] Michael Pritchard always joked we had to allow an hour for Robin to get back-stage — he never said no to anyone who wanted to shake his hand or take a photo.My husband [comedian Will Durst] and I still can’t watch any of his films. When Robin’s face comes onscreen, it’s just too sad. But his legacy is one of laughter and love. It didn’t matter who you were: Robin treated everyone with dignity and spoke to you like you were the only person in the room.

Beach Blanket Babylon producer Jo Schuman Silver:

Illustrations by Iris Lei

Robin was a big fan of Beach Blanket Babylon and came to the show often. He loved my late husband, [BBB creator] Steve Silver. Robin was a wonderful person, but he was very private. Yet if a fundraising event in the City needed help, Robin was such a good sport he’d often show up at the last minute as a surprise.

North Beach raconteur Jeannette Etheredge:

Illustrations by Iris Lei

I met Robin in the early ’80s, when I bought Tosca Cafe and he was preparing for “Moscow on the Hudson.” He’d sit in the most inconspicuous corner of the bar, hanging out with my mother to learn Russian for his role. During the 1984 Democratic Convention, I wanted to hear Mario Cuomo speak, but the bar was busy and I needed to get back to North Beach. Robin told me to stay, he’d look after Tosca. When I returned, it was jam-packed and Robin’s behind the bar doing stand-up. He introduced Ron Reagan Jr., who was covering the convention for Playboy, to the Kennedy kids playing pool in the back room. Then he started making cappuccino, bouncing between the tables. Robin loved to entertain people. He was also very kind. Once, a friend’s son was just home from the hospital after being diagnosed with cancer. Robin Williams was one of his favorite people in the world. I told Robin where he lived and asked if he might boost the boy’s spirit with a phone call. Instead Robin found the house, rang the doorbell, and when the mother opens the door, she nearly faints. Robin stayed the entire afternoon, reading the boy books. They formed a close friendship: Robin stayed in touch with the young man until his death. It’s rare for someone of his stature to so genuinely go out of his way, helping someone he didn’t know.

Event designer Stanlee Gatti:

Illustrations by Iris Lei

I don’t live in cynicism, but things felt like they fell into a dark place when Robin died. He was one of the most unique people of our time, a brilliant talent and true genius. I was once at his house for a party. As I left, Robin walked me outside and for the next 15 minutes he entertained the valet guys — even as his party inside continued. I’ll never forget that moment: He was such a bright light it made you feel there was hope for humanity. At my 50th birthday party at Peña Pachamama, Robin pulled me to the floor, dancing to the point where I thought he’d kill me because he had the most physical energy of anyone. There are many funny people, smart people, talented people. But [there] was no one more brilliant than Robin. His relationship between the world of intellect and gut instinct was like a swinging door, swaying quickly between the conscious and subconscious. Robin was never self-aware of his stardom; a mirror to Robin was every face he looked at. He genuinely wanted people to be happy and feel joy.

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