Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Death of a Poet

Oh, Captain, My Captain


This past week has been one of the most profound and strangest weeks I could have had to deal with, some of the news has been something I didn’t expect to deal with for another twenty or thirty years. While it’s hard to utter the words, Robin Williams has died from a suicide in his Tiburon home, August 11th, based in the bay area. This is a seismic event, on par with the death of John Lennon, and I wonder how many people have processed the ripple effect this will have for decades. To the casual fan outside of California, or the bay area, and to the generation that grew up in the 70s and 80s on the icon’s work, this will be a major loss, but to those of us who are from Marin County and San Francisco, this takes on an intimate feeling to that loss. Robin Williams wasn’t born in the Bay Area, but to many who live in this region, he always felt like a son of the bay area. But of course, Robin became an everyman on a broad level.

I question if people really understood what a vast intellect Robin held behind those eyes. He was well read, and on par with George Carlin. This makes this an even greater loss. All of the great comedians have to be smart, but there’s only a smaller percentage that have the depth, as truth tellers, to look at the world from the kind of fresh perspective that manages to reveal hard truths while being accessible and guiding the audience along with them. That’s a rare juggling act and talent to undertake. Robin could do that in his comedy, setting aside that manic freeform jujitsu he would perform from moment to moment. His best moments always had a profound truth about them, and why he’s on par with a figure like Richard Pryor.

How does any of this connect to X-Files fans? Robin manically appeared in Terry Gillian’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, which starred John Neville, and then Robin worked on the project helmed by David Duchvony in 2004, House of D, with Anton Yelchin. But of course Robin’s appeal was very wide-ranging; even people who didn’t care for his brand of Comedy, often liked or admired his dramatic work. Marc Maron (another figure I’ve admired since 2004) just repeated his incisive podcast interview with Robin from 2010. It is probably one of the most real, unassuming, and interesting interviews Mr. Williams had done in years. Plenty of people are offering up platitudes, which feel like a disservice, so I am going to try to contextualize this from my own memory, and the in-direct connections I have had with Mr. Williams as a resident of the Bay area.

Career overview

The legend of Robin Williams goes something like this. Having trained at Julliard for several years before dropping out, he came back to San Francisco as an out-of-work actor, started taking some improvisation workshops in 1976 / 1975, and moved through the Bay area comedy circuit. By 1978, the writing team of Happy Days wrote a script about the Fonz meeting an alien. Gerry Marshall’s son suggested Williams and he was cast at the last minute as the humanoid alien Mork from the planet Ork. That appearance became seismic. No one had seen, other than Jonathan Winters, a comedian that could riff on ideas at such a speed. It was breathtaking to process between the laughs. The spin-off, Mork & Mindy, became a juggernaut. At the end of the 70s, people of a younger age group, who know of Williams as the film actor, might not realize just how big the series became for several years. Mork became ubiquitous within pop culture, and it almost seemed like the character was going to overshadow Williams, in a similar way that Bond overshadowed Connery for a period.

Williams first starring role in Robert Altman’s Popeye was perfect casting, but Altman’s haphazard tactic made the film a misunderstood anti-musical, musical that initially flopped. Williams’ follow-up, The World According to Garp, co-starring a young Glen Close and John Lithgow, wasn’t a huge success, but is now held in higher esteem than it was in 1982. It was seen as odd and off-putting. In spite of another good turn in Moscow on the Hudson, Hollywood seemed to have had trouble utilizing his freeform talents. It wasn’t until Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987, where a balance was struck between his freeform talents and acting chops. It was a huge smash, giving him the clout as a bankable star, and loosening up his ties to the Mork character in the public consciousness. He made his manic appearance in The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen in 1988, then appeared in Dead Poet’s Society, an award-nominating turn that stayed in the consciousness of the public at large to this day. He followed this with Awakenings in 1989, a film about the early research of Oliver Sacks. It would make sense in hindsight that Williams would develop such an affinity for Sacks, as they shared a similar altruistic curiosity.


I feel I have to step back and talk about my memories of hearing his first 1979 comedy album,” Reality, What A Concept!” in the early 80s. There are entire skits from that album I still remember by heart. One often quoted:

Soviet Imitation of a New York echo – ‘Hello?’… (Heavy reverb) ‘Shut the fuck up!”

There were moments of real altruistic observation that could be found in his humor. He would often end his show with the germ of an idea – allow for a little bit of madness in your life, just a touch. Not ‘madness’ in the sense of mental instability or anger, but the willingness to think outside of the box, to be brave enough to make connections about the world, about life, that others hadn’t considered, to live freely, as a child. Often his early 80s comedy tours sustained him until his film career took off.

After appearing in Dead Again, Williams appeared in two films that resonated for me in 1991. Hook, as I have written before, being  Spielberg’s good-bye to childish things, and his starring turn in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King.

That film still seems as relevant today as it did in 1991. It dealt with apathy, anger, disconnections, a desperate argument that there is no such thing as ‘cause and effect’ when that simply isn’t true, redemption, forgiveness, and the value of having a greater purpose. Jeff Bridges plays Jack , a Howard Stern-type shock jock, who has a caller that commits a mass shooting at a yuppie bar. His career in tatters after the fallout, Jack is living with a girlfriend, Anne, who runs a video rental store, and spends his time drinking and is full of self pity, all of which Anne tolerates. Jack drunkenly wanders out one night and is attacked by some callous kids. Then Parry appears, a homeless schizophrenic who fancies himself a knight and saves Jack. Parry suffers from hallucinogenic visions of a red knight who stalks him. Parry reveals he is on a grail quest, and needs help to steal the cup from a castle owned by a wealthy man in Manhattan. Jack learns that Parry was one of the victims of the shooter of that club, and that Parry witnessed the savage killing of his wife– the love of his life– by a bullet. Once a college professor of medieval studies, Parry is beyond repair, but Jack tries to redeem himself by helping Parry connect with Lydia, a mousey and clumsy woman.

Things seem to take a turn for the better, and Jack gets another shot at his radio career, after becoming callous towards Anne and reverting to his old ways. Parry is attacked by the same kids. Wounded, but not dead, Parry is catatonic from the trauma. Jack is forced to live up to the grail quest, breaking into this castle for the ‘grail’, a simple award cup. Jack triggers the building alarm as the only way out– not realizing that the rich owner tried to overdose on pills– and leaves. Parry recovers, is united with Lydia, and Jack resolves his issues with committing to Anne. While Parry might remain hopelessly damaged, at least the love of Lydia might make him a little more whole, and one hopes that Jack has gained a little more compassion for the less fortunate. The idea of indirect ‘cause and effect’ is an important point, and illustrated by Jack indirectly saving the rich, elderly man who is suicidal. The religious allegories about redemption speak to those who feel hopeless. Parry has turned his horror, rage, and pain inward and tortures himself, while Jack lashes outward with his pain. Both are dealing with their own emptiness. The film still holds a power over twenty years after its release. Williams’ Parry is raw nerve, and his performance is stunning in how disturbing it is.

Williams turn at voiceover animation came with ease in 1992 with Aladdin as the genie. In 1994 he would follow this with the beloved Mrs. Doubtfire. He continued to grow his range with Being Human, and such faire as Jumanji. After years of Williams playing gay queens in his act, Williams took the benign  role over Nathan Lane as a gay couple in Mike Nichols The Birdcage (Williams was simply following in the tradition of Bud Abbott to Lou Costello, Or Dean Martin to Jerry Lewis, by playing the more grounded character). He appeared in Kenneth Branagh’s excellent Hamlet in a supporting role, then won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting. Some of the Disney projects he was involved with weren’t my cup of tea like Flubber, and he could fall into sentiment with films like Patch Adams and August Rush. Films like What Dreams May Come have had a great effect on some who saw it. Films like Bicentennial Man dealt with his abiding interest in Artificial Intelligence, and he appeared as the voice of Dr. Know in Spielberg’s futuristic fable A.I. – Artificial Intelligence. But Willams matured to work on darker material in the 2000s with such dramas as One Hour Photo, and Chris Nolan’s Insomnia. Death to Smoochy is one of the blackest comedies Williams is known for being attached with and the interesting film, The Night Listener hinted at an underside I intimately understood (but won’t go into here). While he could have fun with light fair like RV, Night at the Museum, and the better Happy Feet, Williams could misfire with projects like Old Dogs, and had his memorable turn as Eisenhower in Lee Daniel’s The Butler. The darker material hinted at his underlying sadness, and a quiet rage that could bubble over, but it often reinforced his complexity. Many of the films he was most involved with held an underlying theme at their best--a faith in the better angels of humans, to do what was right, what was best, and to set an example.

The house used in Mrs, Doubtfire, On Steiner and Broadway Street.


Some have already suggested his career was already in a decline when he signed on to work on The Crazy Ones for CBS, but if that were true, it would only have been recently, as his relevance had been just as potent in the early 2000s. Publically, Williams was known for being involved with a great many charities and telethons, But his work with the Comedy Relief shows will likely remain the most remembered.

Personal connections

Robin attended the same high school in Marin in the late 60s, that I attended– Redwood High. To my age group, my fellow alumni, there was a kinship, if not a little point of pride, that Williams was an alumni. Yet it was known through the grapevine of my peers that Robin’s view of his Redwood experience was ambivalent. I have read accounts from classmates from that era, when he graduated, Williams wasn’t popular there. He was thought of as a quiet geek, who was nominated as ‘the most funny’, and the ‘least likely to succeed’. Robin, like myself and friends of mine, ran on the Cross Country / track team. A number of times our coach Doug Basham would regale a story when pressed by team mates, that while running, Robin could be heard using funny voices. A great many classmates had indirect encounters or knew Robin’s mother in Tiburon.



I have classmates from Redwood that remind me of Robin. They share of the same qualities, a keen sense of observation, altruism, and a high level of intelligence, yet they manage to remain relatable. There are other high schools in America that cultivated a circle of important figures, but Redwood High left unique in cultivating intelligent, driven, caring, and memorable individuals. I need to qualify that of course the school represented the upper crust of Marin, which made it demographically probable that it would draw upon a higher caliber of people. I need to contextualize the above points. In terms of districts, Redwood represented Ross, Kentfield, Larkspur, Tiburon, and lower income areas like Corte Madera. When I state ‘lower income’ I need to qualify the point by adding that many people in Corte Madera were homeowners, aside from renters, so we are not talking about the same kind of class hardship that exists in other parts of America, like Detroit. But Redwood, when I attended, was a very good melting pot that allowed individuals to safely find themselves, regardless of class distinctions, and inspire each other to aspire to something more. To take a broader view of the world. Many friends have gone on to become successful, or important figures on some level, and many went on to just lead interesting lives. But I think for many alumni, there was a rarely spoken connection to Robin. I was privileged to be a part of that environment, and grateful to the friends I remain in contact with.


Dock at Tiburon, Bon Voyage.

In Terra Linda, just past San Rafael, my grandmother had neighbors move in to the house beside her, a couple with children. The husband worked as a soundman for features like On the Edge, and television programs like Desperate Housewives. His wife warmly told me several tales of being entertained by Robin on the set of a film. One friend who runs a comic book store has commented that Robin would come in for comic books, and news is coming out about Robin’s connections to the gaming industry, and his geekish love for computer gaming. I had one indirect connection to a Robin Williams film, having worked for a few days, pre-production on Bicentennial Man, which wasn’t particularly a good experience for me. My one encounter with Robin, other than seeing him in comedy clubs, was crossing paths with him at a local diner called Miz Browns on California Street in the early 2000s. He was with his wife, and I believe, Cody Williams. He was very quiet, unassuming, and dignified. I simply gave him a ‘hello’ and keep up the good work. That diner is gone now, a by-product of changing times. A lot of Bay area residents were in the know enough to keep their distance from him out of respect for his family. Many felt an abiding respect for him for everything he had done for the community, as well as the knowledge of what an exceptionally nice man he was to everyone who encountered him.


Over the past week, I did my own pilgrimage to sites where people were offering flowers, condolences. I began on Steiner and Broadway, at the house that was used in Mrs. Doubtfire. I visited the coastline of Tiburon, at a dock fittingly named Bon Voyage, and another display in the town square. I was aware of where Robin lived in Tiburon and Mill Valley, but I feel it would have been too ghoulish to exploit that, and lastly, I took shots at the front of Redwood High. Those pictures are featured here.

The Price

A lot have often written about the dangers of the Hollywood machine, and celebrity, and how easy it is to lose one’s bearings and perspective. Once an exceptional talent earns millions, they are told to maintain the image by buying mansions, ranches, as many cars, motorcycles, and planes as much as possible, then in turn they have to hire handlers, and staffers, and then the talent has a entourage dependent on their career. Money comes with pressure. With lesser talents it becomes easy to see them crash and burn, but it is no less true for the great ones. Robin’s drug problems have been well documented, and he has been very candid about them. But Williams was sober for twenty years at the height of his career, yet the narrative was somewhat different than for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Williams seemed wise enough to see the mechanizations behind the indulgences of Hollywood. It had been documented for decades that the death of John Belushi scared Williams sober, as well as the birth of his son. Williams had seen the price paid by Richard Pryor and Sam Kinnison, and in his Marc Maron interview he had observed the side of fans that wanted to see Williams self-destruct. We seem to have this morbid instinct to slow down and watch the accident. Fame bites back, and it bites hard, and fans build up expectations that are a double-bladed sword. Williams had matured to become an elder statesmen to comedians on the issue of excess.

“Being angry at a drunk is like bitch-slapping a cow.” – Robin Williams

But it has always been my observation that highly creative people are wired differently; they have a different brain chemistry that cuts both ways. Creative people have receptors that take in everything at once, the physical world, and emotions, and they use this to aid their art, but it is a duel-edged sword, which is why artists really need to take care of themselves, stay healthy, centered, focused and grounded. This is also the reason why I suspect many fall into drug use, to numb those stimuli. I have found that creative geniuses have an existential sadness, and an implicit understanding that the world isn’t fair or just. Robin seemed to have the wisdom to understand this, which makes his death so unnerving on a certain level. I feel there so many factors to consider yet.

There’s also another point to consider: The high price of celebrity divorces. Williams had been married three times, and a natural component to being involved with a celebrity is the expectation of maintaining a certain lifestyle. If the relationship ends, even in cases where the relationship is amiable, the cost is in the multi-millions in most cases. I won’t go into the issue of whether the spouse is, or isn’t deserving of such settlements, but I also don’t doubt that Robin wasn’t an easy person to live with.

I haven’t really been comfortable with the rapid narrative that the media jumped on when news of his death circulated. The equation of a comedian being depressive is too much a generalization, and seemed done to avoid a certain culpability with some issues the media would rather sidestep. While it’s nice that focus on depression is in the forefront, and should be, the medical profession might have to be held in account as far back 2010, which I’ll get into in a moment. I have written about the health and mental illness profession’s woeful lack of ability to take preventative measures with mental illness. We react when something tragic occurs, but we continue to not offer the resources that could prevent such tragedies. Statistically, when someone suffers a heart condition and has to experience surgery, the percentage who suffer from postoperative depression is staggering for men and women. Yet medical doctors often do not co-ordinate with health care professionals for patients to get treatment. This is a staggering lapse in a field that prides itself over its scientific advances. Millions are spent to renovate hospitals tied to universities, yet is there a financial incentive to improve this cross-communication? It angers me to ponder the possibility that this could have been avoided if Williams could have gotten help to deal with postoperative depression. We will never know.

There is also the new revelation that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s, a cruel disease. While Alzheimer’s takes away a person’s mind, Parkinson’s takes away a person’s body, and I am fairly certain that it didn’t escape Robin that such a disease would strip away his dignity in time, or that would be the perception. Yet again, he wasn’t in his right state of mind, as it’s been statistically shown that the early diagnosis of Parkinson’s leads to depression.

Robin Williams was highly eccentric, like many eccentrics from the Bay Area, and what has troubled me with the media narrative has been what’s been implied – there is something wrong about being eccentric, and that is simply not true.

I wanted to address the most likely explanations first before I address the final points, and some of my earliest gut observations. My first thoughts went to– “I hope the increasing levels of bad news around the world, the growing disillusionment in America, and this aimless anger compelled Robin to lose hope.” The two prior articles just published had warned about growing feelings of despair, disillusionment, and the kind of aimless anger that causes people to lose their bearings. There’s a real cause and effect to that kind of energy. When I see people on the blogosphere write with such detachment about the collapse of the American Empire, as if somehow they will be separate and immune, and not take into account that real people are paying and will pay a real price for this social disintegration, then it just isn’t enough to point out the problems. You have to find workable solutions, and tell the truth about the kind of work it will require.

If there is any good that can come from his death, I am hoping it acts as a reset, a re-calibration, a re-pivoting. That we will all re-examine how we approach each other, that we can re-think our anger and confusion about the world. That we will start to reject, really reject, anger as a form of identity, or branding, or messaging, that we will reject the celebration of ignorance, or accepting crassness as the norm, or jaded and cynical attitudes as a form of branding–as opposed to them as attributes within a person’s make-up. This isn’t to suggest that someone shouldn’t have a certain degree of cynicism or pessimism, as it is healthy and needed, but these attributes have been taken so out of proportion. I recall a lot of cynicism in the 70s and 80s, but it was never at the proportion that I see now, and it has become breath-taking. All of the above points have reached toxic levels and it can’t be sustained. We have reached a turning point here. We have to admit we are killing ourselves with these attitudes that are being fostered upon us.

I have one last point to everyone who reads this blog, as I know it’s fairly wide-reaching around the world. To the young artists in any medium and especially aspiring comedians, YOUR TIME HAS COME. We need artistic voices of substance, we need those ‘bleeding heart’ truth tellers to help keep us sane, and give us bearings. Be real, be unwavering, have the tenacious self-belief to do your thing. Don’t let anyone tell you your brand of art, or humor, isn’t marketable. Find a city, region, area that allows you to foster your talents and thrive while you seek out and find your own voice. Robin Williams had the fortune of finding a city and community that allowed him to find his voice. Don’t let any obstacle get in the way of getting your unique point of view out there. Don’t accept those roadblocks. Find positive ways to overcome them.  Frequently, it is the people who think outside of the box that have the greatest impact. Don’t forget this, for it is the best way to honor Robin Williams’ legacy.

Robin was wise enough to see these days would come. Over the coming years, heed that wisdom. It was always what he gave so freely.



Profound thanks to XScribe for editorial assistance, and to Belis for the ‘head’s up’ about the Marc Maron interview. Please give to the suicide prevention organization of your choice.


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