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Friends, fellow comedians react to Williams' death

Updated 2:02 pm, Tuesday, August 12, 2014

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  • Robin Williams on Chronicle Comedy Day - July 25, 1987. Polo field, Golden Gate Park. Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice, The Chronicle

    Robin Williams on Chronicle Comedy Day - July 25, 1987. Polo field, Golden Gate Park.

    Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice, The Chronicle

 

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(08-12) 11:00 PDT San Francisco -- Friends and colleagues shared thoughts about Robin Williams, his work as a comedian and actor and his death.

Debi Durst, comedian

I first met him when I was doing improvisation with Spaghetti Jam- 1978-79 at the old Spaghetti Factory. We actually did a little sketch together once at the Savoy. I knew him when he had one pair of pants. I'm devastated. I am beyond words. I'm just so numb and somehow very angry. He was just a great person. He was a lot of fun. He was crazy. He had an energy comedy hadn't seen yet. It was fun to feed off because you need that in improv. It was like playing catch with someone real good. It was fun to see how he played.

We all hung out at the Holy City Zoo. In the '80s and the heyday of comedy, he was always at the Zoo. The last time I saw him was two weeks ago at a friend's barbecue. Kind of like a little comedy family get together type thing. He seemed OK. He was quiet. He was quiet when he was with friends. If he knew you, he was just a guy.

In public, it was very difficult for him to be able to go someplace and be himself. Even if another comedian walked over, he was always expected to have the funny line. It had to be difficult to have the eye of the world on you constantly. But he never complained. He was so nice.

Stanlee Gatti, designer

I knew him for quite some time. I guess people have to meet someone only once to know someone was unhappy. I always think we feel worse when someone dies when you know that person had hurt and grief in their life. He loved making people happy. He could turn on the brilliant, brilliant comedy in a second. He just didn't realize that some people saw the tragedy. He's our lives' greatest example of comedy and tragedy.

People can look at someone like Robin Williams and say, my God he was rich and famous... But this is the hard thing about comedians. He was brilliant but he was not normal. He was really not and we loved him because he was not normal.

Don Novello, comedian

I've known him since 1973. We started doing stand-up at the same time. From the beginning he was just great. He just never changed, the nicest person.

Sadness? Sure, well, he's a comedian. He went through some stuff, divorce, I saw him working with those things. He was just the same person, as kind and nice and caring as he was when he had no fame. He was... smiling and warm and open.

Kurtis Matthews, owner of San Francisco Comedy College:

As a comedian, all of us loved his work: how brilliant he was, how fast he was, and in his later years, how insightful he was... What you can't teach a comedian is to love your audience. It's not just getting up there and being funny and goofy, it's getting up there and letting people know you appreciate their attendance. Humility is one the greatest things he taught us ... The sad thing is that he probably wasn't doing enough for himself. He didn't reach out to the thousands of people who would have lent him a hand or given him an ear.

Robin was one of those guys who was fighting his demons. He was like many of us, trying to get his life together. Some of the most brilliant people are the loneliest and some of the saddest. It's playing with a double-edge sword sometimes: the gift you have to go out and be funny, well the flip side of that can be loneliness.

Ben Fong-Torres, Chronicle columnist who wrote a Parade magazine cover story on Williams in the early 1980s:

When he broke through to Hollywood, he maintained his Bay Area connections. He was always known to be one of our guys. He didn't disappear to L.A. or New York.

At Halloween he used to hand out candy in Seacliff. That was a big stop for all the kids.

Will Durst, political satirist:

First time I played the Holy City Zoo when I moved here in 1979, I had to follow him on stage. People came streaming in from all up and down Clement Street. They came in from Zanzibar and Churchill's. Word had gone out that Robin was there, and it was dead packed all the way out to the sidewalk. Then he got off stage after 45 minutes and I was supposed to go on. People leaving the club in such a stream, I couldn't even make it to the stage. I was just shocked. (Mike) Pritchard went on before him, he did 20 minutes. Now, how am I going to follow this? Host was John Cantu. He pointed to the street and Robin was just standing there with his hands folded in front of him.

He was always so supportive backstage. I remember he did a guest set at Last Big Fat Year-End Kiss Off Comedy Show... but he didn't want to do stand-up because he was afraid to take focus off us. So we did an improv man on the street. So thoughtful about not ruining the show. Because in comedy there are stage hogs, and he was always over-protective to rest of the show.

Off-stage sometimes he seemed distant, but I think that's because everyone wanted a piece of him. People called him by his first name. His first name became codified.

Fun to get him talking about politics. He liked that, not doing shtick. He was dead blue San Francisco. He belonged here. Even when we were talking serious about politics, he would always put his finger on the joke, right away, he would always find it so quickly. This is a tragedy not just for Marin or San Francisco, but for the whole planet.

M.T. Caen, book agent and Herb Caen's ex-wife:

It was Bill Graham who introduced me to Robin Williams. I used to go to watch Robin in all these little clubs. ... The first time Robin did a big show was at Bimbo's... It was hilarious and he had the most enormous crowd and he covered politics, birth control, religious, parenthood ... there was not a single subject that he didn't cover... Hysterical, absolutely hysterical. Just dazzling. He was so damn funny that I missed between 20 and 30 percent of what he said because we were all laughing at what he said.

You never got all of it. He wasn't like every other performer who waits until his audience reaches the end of the laughter. He just kept plowing. You couldn't possibly keep up with him.

Jeannette Etheredge, owner of Tosca Cafe:

I'm so devastated I can't even talk. Had a lot of great times in the back room... He used to sit at the end of the bar with my mother practicing his Russian when he was making "Moscow on the Hudson." At a film festival, when he was on stage, the year he got an acting award, he said Sean Penn had called me the night mayor of North Beach. And Robin said, 'She's the nightmare of North Beach.'

Mark Fishkin, director and founder of the California Film Institute, which puts on the Mill Valley Film Festival, where Williams was honored him in 1999:

It's terrible, we're so sad, we're practically speechless. We had the honor and the privilege of his generosity for many years, supporting us by allowing us to honor him, and when we honored other people he knew and loved - Glenn Close and Jonathan Winters - he was there for them ..... So over a long period of time, he was not only the comic genius. He was so sincere, and also one of the kindest most sensitive people that I have ever had the privilege of knowing. At times just being around him was a humbling experience.... It was like, God, I want to be like him.

We conspired to surprise Jonathan Winters at his tribute. When Robin came up on stage, Jonathan's whole demeanor just changed, the bond between the two of them was amazing. They ad-libbed for 45 minutes. Anything on stage or within reach of the stage was a prop. People came out of that show, and felt like they'd been at the best possible place in the world - with Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters.

When we honored Robin, at the after-party, he would go around to everybody who worked at the restaurant. The chef, the cook, the busboys, and shake their hands, and he would go around and talk to them. Outside the theater, he would take the time to respond to people. And his answers were always so genuine, came from such a wonderful place, I would just sit there in awe. .... It's a tremendous loss.

Geof Wills, President, Live Nation Comedy

Words cannot express our heartbreak over Robin's death. His performances were filled with humanity and heart and he brought joy to so many people around the world, particularly to Bay Area audiences at the Punchline and Cobb's. We will miss him so very much.

Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor

Am saddened to hear about my friend@RobinWilliams' passing. He was a name and personality synonymous with the Bay Area, not only for his comedy, but also for the quieter work he had done on homelessness and poverty. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.