I didn’t expect Robin Williams’ death to hit me as hard as it did. When it was reported this afternoon that the actor and comedian had been found dead at 63 in his Tiburon home, a suspected suicide, the loss felt profoundly personal in a way that was strange given that he was someone I’d never met. It had been years since I’d followed Williams’ career closely. I was dimly aware that he’d been starring in a television show with Sarah Michelle Gellar, The Crazy Ones, which CBS canceled after one season, but I hadn’t seen it. He’d been popping up in movies regularly in recent years, but the last things I’d actually seen him in were his 2002 one-two punch of dramatic roles in One Hour Photo and Insomnia.
But when I was a kid, Robin Williams was my hero, easily one of the greatest influences of my childhood. I never wanted to be a comedian myself (at least not that I can recall), but I was a big fan of comedy — and of his comedy in particular.
Like most kids of my generation, I first knew him as the sitcom space alien Mork from Ork, not just on Mork and Mindy but the strange guest appearance on Happy Days that introduced the character. When I was in fourth grade circa 1980, going to public school in Oakland, I happened across an interview with him in one of those gaudy fanzines for kids, Popcorn or Bananas, in which he revealed that other kids used to pick on him at school until he learned to make them laugh.
Now, as it happened, I was getting beat up a lot at the time, so this made a huge impression on me. I tried to be funny. Honestly, I did. I’d talk to my milk, dance with mops, introduce people to my invisible friend, dangle from third-story railings. But grade schoolers lack a fine appreciation for the absurd. After that I wasn’t getting picked on just because I was shy and awkward, but because I was a weirdo.
However dodgy my experience with taking his advice turned out to be, that didn’t sour me on Robin Williams. Far from it. When the movie Popeye came out, I stuck around in the Grand Lake Theatre and watched it three times in a row (partly because the clowns I loved from the Pickle Family Circus were in it — Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle and Larry Pisoni). I practically wore out my LPs of his standup-comedy albums Reality…What a Concept (1979) and Throbbing Python of Love (1983), listening to them over and over until I’d memorized them (not intentionally, just inevitably). In fifth grade my friends and I would sit around at recess reciting his routines to each other.
Back when Whoopi Goldberg was still living in Berkeley in the early 1980s — before her big break in The Color Purple — I remember going to a big party at her house and finding out that Robin Williams had showed up right after my dad and I had left. So my sister got to hang out with my hero and I didn’t; and boy did she enjoy telling me that.
As I grew older, I gradually stopped seeing movies just because Robin Williams was in them, but I continued to get a warm feeling every time I saw him. I didn’t care much for the sentimental Patch Adams-type roles that were a growing part of his oeuvre, but I was always a fan of his knack for over-the-top extemporaneous comedy and his chilling ability to go dark on occasion when cast against type in dramas and thrillers. And even though I never once ran into him in all the decades that we both lived in the Bay Area, I always loved hearing that Williams had dropped in at this or that local venue to do a surprise set or just to support a friend. And though it would have been great, I never once kicked myself for missing any of those appearances. I just liked knowing he was around.
And that’s what hits me so hard — and what I suspect will be hitting a lot of us in the coming days: the sudden shock of knowing that none of us will be running into Robin Williams anymore.