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Robin Williams: Bay Area made him feel normal

By
From page A10 | August 14, 2014 |

SAN FRANCISCO — Robin Williams was everywhere in San Francisco, it seemed, as he made a place for himself in the everyday fabric of a city where he once said he passed for normal.

The comedian was there to usher a few fellow inhabitants of the Bay Area into life – visiting a pediatric ward, unheralded, each year on Christmas Day to welcome newborns to the world.

He also ushered friends out of life – delivering a boisterous eulogy for an iconic local journalist known as Mr. San Francisco, musing on heaven as a nice bar in the city with a dry martini.

In between, Williams had turned out to cheer everything from the Giants to the opening of a local public library. Bay Area people got used to seeing the actor at restaurants and stand-up clubs, even handing out treats to children at his house, with a topiary dinosaur looming in the yard, at Halloween.

After word of his apparent suicide this week at his home in Marin County, residents who had encountered Williams recalled a comedian who didn’t always try to be funny but never failed to be gracious.

In 1998, Dr. Carrie Chen and colleagues at the University of California-San Francisco hospital had just delivered a premature baby on Christmas Day. “And then someone knocked at the door and said Robin Williams was there,” Chen said.

“He looked at this tiny baby, all the tubes and IVs coming out of him. And then he looked each and every one of us in the eye, and personally thanked us for being there on Christmas Day, and for being there for the baby,” Chen recalled.

“He made it all about us and not about him,” she said.

The only child of a well-off auto executive, Williams was born in Chicago and moved to Larkspur north of San Francisco with his family in the late 1960s. In a 1991 interview with an Oklahoma newspaper, Williams credited going to a “gestalt” Marin County high school – where he said a teacher one day shared that he had just taken LSD – with helping him discover comedy as a way to bridge the gap he felt between himself and others.

Later, at the College of Marin, theater director James Dunn saw the genius in Williams when the young student riffed on stage one night, bringing classmates to tears of laughter. Dunn waked his wife when he got home. “You will not have believed what I have just seen,” he told her. “This young man is going to be somebody one day.”

Williams through the years raised funds and gave scholarships at the college, and he was a familiar sight riding his bike, running trails, shopping in the supermarkets in Marin. “He just loved the Bay Area,” Dunn said. “It kept him away from the hurly-burly of Hollywood, and he liked that.”

In private, people found Williams quiet and unassuming. Not the guy “with the lampshade on his head and throwing eggs in the air,” said longtime Bay Area comedian Brian Copeland, who last saw Williams in February at a comedy club, Throckmorton, not far from Williams’ home in Tiburon, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.

Williams “once told me that the average encounter with a fan lasts about 44 seconds,” Copeland recalled Monday. “And that you should be able to be nice to them for those 44 seconds.”

Williams had helped the San Francisco Zoo raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and donated time reading books to children, zoo director Tanya Peterson said Tuesday.

During a visit in June that turned out to be one of his last public outings, zoo workers showed Williams a howler monkey they had named after him, Peterson said. But Williams really had come to visit old pet parrot he had donated to the zoo years ago when travel made keeping the bird impossible.

He was “very thrilled to see the parrot with other parrots acting like a parrot,” Peterson said. “I think it brought him great joy.”

In 1997, Williams gave a San Francisco-styled eulogy to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, whose work had memorialized the city’s beauty and characters for decades. Caen was probably in his own version of heaven, Williams said – a club on San Francisco’s Fillmore North.

Williams read out loud part of Caen’s own tribute to San Francisco, where newcomers glory ‘”in the sights and sounds of a city they suddenly decided to love instead of leave.'”

“I’m sorry you had to leave, man, but you’re still here. See ya,” Williams said then.

 

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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