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Robin Williams: One of ‘the mad ones’ left us too soon

Robin Williams at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, August 2009.
Robin Williams at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, August 2009.
Ken Hively/MCT

When Jack Kerouac wrote about the kind of people who charmed him in “On the Road,” Robin Williams would have been at the top of the list – if not for the fact that Kerouac wrote the final draft on a roll of paper towels during a three-week typing binge a few months before Williams was born:

But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight and everybody goes ‘Aww!’"

Over the last four decades I had the privilege of seeing Williams perform stand-up from the Comedy Store in West Hollywood to the Holy City Zoo and San Francisco Opera House. Like everyone else, I marveled at his preternatural display of synaptic fireworks. Robin Williams was unlike anyone we had ever seen before – and will likely ever see again. Imagine Kerouac’s Roman candle as a rapid-fire burst of personae encompassing all generations, genders, sexual preferences and nationalities – with dialects to match.

While Williams was an often compelling film actor, like Richard Pryor, his best work happened in real time, alone on stage in front of a live crowd.

Already the media – ravenous for every sordid detail around the act – is pressing the police and coroner’s office for more information. It’s hard to watch, and far more than we need to hear.

The latest news is that Robin wrote a letter. If he wanted the audience outside his immediate family see it, I would like to read it. He must have known how much his fans wanted to see more from him; he was a beloved public figure, in the way we “love” celebrity personages. There aren’t a whole lot of lovable public figures around these days, but Robin was different. He was one of us – a San Franciscan, an American and world citizen – mixed in with a little Mork – the barbs more pointedly gentle than gratuitously aggressive.

Yesterday, a grieving Marc Maron replayed his April 2010 interview that put his WTF podcast on the map, barely making it through the intro. They talked about comedy, celebrity, drugs and so much more, including how Bay Area culture affected the goofy-absurd multifaceted Williams persona that made him so unique.

In the end, Robin broke one of the cardinal rules of show business: “Always leave ‘em laughing.” Instead, he left us too soon – and broke our hearts.

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