If you were fortunate enough to talk to Robin Williams in person, as I’ve been over the years during his lengthy TV and movie career, you’d invariably walk away with a smile on your face from some joke he told, and also be moved by some observation he shared about his own life. He wasn’t shy about opening up a wound for others to see, but it was seldom painful except for the stitch in your side from laughing.
He loved to make people laugh, even if it was at his own expense. His bright blue eyes would zero in on you as he spoke. While he could be a little crazy when onstage, he tended to be more quiet and thoughtful during one-on-one situations. He spoke with a careful cadence, reflecting his upbringing as the son of an automotive executive and his training as an actor at Julliard.
Williams’ mind never seemed to shut down. He seemingly remembered every joke he ever heard. He went out of his way to be kind to others, yet often tended to be solitary in his daily activities. The married father of three grown children rode his bicycle all over the San Francisco Bay Area.
Years ago, when I was covering David Letterman bringing his late-night show to San Francisco, a bicyclist rode up beside me and others hanging outside the theater and asked us what we were doing. As we chatted easily with the man in the dark glasses and helmet, there was something familiar about him. Later, that bicyclist rode onto the stage and revealed he was Williams.
Neighbors say he loved being a regular guy, and not a celebrity. He often took his beloved pug Leonard on walks around the quiet, upscale Tiburon neighborhood where he lived with his wife, Susan. His yard backed up to the San Francisco Bay and it would seem he lived a charmed life.
But he always battled his demons, which included bouts of severe depression. During a set visit in January, Williams again captivated jaded TV critics with his wit as he tried to bring in more viewers to his struggling TV series. Had the series been on any other network, critics agreed it would have probably stayed on the air. But it didn’t have enough viewers for the comedy-strong CBS, and it was canceled by late spring.
It was a blow to Williams, who enjoyed the steady gig and the camaraderie of his cast and crew in Los Angeles. He noted in our SUCCESS interview that it was difficult being an aging star who no longer commanded the box office, and making money was much harder. After the series ended, he entered rehab for a tune-up and was seen at local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as recently as last month.
By all accounts, including his own, Williams should have been an early drug-fueled celebrity casualty.
“Back then, I was on everything but skates,” he joked last summer when meeting with reporters to promote his new aptly named CBS series The Crazy Ones.
He watched many of his friends, including John Belushi, perish because of substance abuse, and he struggled mightily with his own demons throughout his life. Like many other comics, he was prone to depression and self-doubt. He made his shortcomings a target for his comedy, joking about rehab (“I went to rehab in the wine country just to keep my options open”).
And inside he was still that fat, lonely kid in school who was voted least likely to succeed while always yearning to earn the affection of others. He did that in spades. His loss has rippled across the world and broken one tough TV critic’s heart. Still the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Twitter said it best, referencing his role as the manic blue being in Aladdin.
“Genie, you’re free.”