Because he was far more than simply a brilliantly funny man, because he was also a gifted actor, intelligent, compassionate, unpretentious and kind, the loss of Robin Williams has created an almost incomprehensible hole in our cultural universe.
To many of their fans, Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters were the Everest and K2 of comedy, top-of-the-world talents with personal demons to match, both charged with a creative energy their bodies seemed almost unable to contain. When Winters died last year, Williams posted the following message on his Facebook page: “First he was my idol, then he was my mentor and amazing friend. I’ll miss him huge. He was my Comedy Buddha. Long live the Buddha.”
Many of us, even if we didn’t know him, have similar feelings about Williams, especially in the Sonoma Valley, where he sometimes lived, where many of us encountered him just being a normal, thoughtful and very sweet, everyday guy, albeit an insanely funny, impossibly fast, ricocheting rocket ship of humor.
And because he was comfortably, if unpredictably, among us, the loss seems all the harder to comprehend.
Anyone who was in the Sebastiani Theatre during the 2010 Sonoma International Film Festival when Robin Williams rescued emcee Kevin McNeely from a conversational cul de sac and hijacked the onstage interview of tribute honoree Lauren Hutton, witnessed Williams at the height of his spontaneous, manic, unscripted and breathlessly brilliant self, juggling the conversation, a microphone and Wavy Gravy’s clown nose while Hutton and the audience laughed so hard they could barely breathe.
That was one Robin Williams.
Another Robin Williams was walking across the Plaza one day, in the early 1980s, when he discovered a young boy playing alone in the grass who recognized him. Not knowing that the boy’s mother had just stepped across the street for a moment to buy some cheese, Williams asked if he lived nearby and then walked the kid the few blocks to his home.
Moments after the two left, the mother returned, found her son gone and assumed he had returned to their house, as he had done in the past. When she got there, she stepped into the living room where she found her son and a strange man playing happily on the floor with his toys.
“Look Mom,” the boy said, “It’s Mork.”
In relating the story years later, the mother couldn’t remember whether Williams introduced himself with the Ork greeting, “Na-Nu, Na-Nu,” (if you never watched “Mork & Mindy,” many of the episodes are now on YouTube) but she did remember that Williams was gracious, very at home on her living room rug and concerned enough about the welfare of her son that he assumed the role of sitter until an adult returned.
I almost ran over Williams one night in the Marina District of San Francisco when he dashed across Chestnut Street into the path of my car. I slammed on my breaks, Williams spun around to face the car and put both his hands protectively on the hood. For a second he was frozen there, a wild, loopy grin on his face, the flicker of fear already fading from his eyes, his body still charged with impatient motion.