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Robin Williams' heart never strayed far from San Francisco

Heart in S.F.: Small clubs here were 1st stage in soaring career
Updated 3:46 pm, Tuesday, August 12, 2014

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  • Robin Williams (left) and director Chris Columbus pose atop the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco. Photo: Robin Weiner, SFC
    Robin Williams (left) and director Chris Columbus pose atop the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco. Photo: Robin Weiner, SFC

 

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The irrepressible Robin Williams' frenetic humor, pop-culture zingers, hilarious impressions and much-honored film career gained him international stature, but the Oscar-winning actor's heart never strayed far from his adopted home of San Francisco.

Even as Williams, who died Monday in an apparent suicide at his Tiburon house at age 63, was starring in such movies as "Good Will Hunting," "Dead Poets Society," "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "The Fisher King," he did local gigs for everything from a "Save the Old Spaghetti Factory!" benefit in the 1980s to more recent appearances at Neil Young's Bridge School benefit concerts.

It was not unusual to see him around town, which he considered "a very large asylum."

"I can walk down the streets of San Francisco," he said in 2007, "and here I'm normal."

But Williams' career was anything but normal, as he skyrocketed from stand-up comedy in small San Francisco clubs to become a network TV superstar on "Mork & Mindy" in 1978, before putting together an impressive film resume that spanned decades.

'One of our guys'

Ben Fong-Torres, a Chronicle columnist who wrote a cover story on Williams for Parade magazine in the early 1980s, said Williams was "one of our guys."

"When he broke through to Hollywood, he maintained his Bay Area connections. ... He didn't disappear to L.A. or New York," Fong-Torres said. At Halloween, "he used to hand out candy (at his former home) in Sea Cliff. That was a big stop for all the kids."

The San Francisco comedy and arts community took his death particularly hard. "Tales of the City" author Armistead Maupin shared a recent photo of himself with Williams on social media, with the caption: "How is it possible that I won't see this face again?"

"The best. (We) lost the best," Williams' longtime friend and fellow San Francisco comic Will Durst wrote on Twitter. "Robin could do it all."

Former Pickle Family Circus member Peggy Snyder, who worked with Williams on the movie "Popeye," told The Chronicle: "Things would just come out of his mouth at a furious rate. It was remarkable. I don't think I've ever seen another performer who was like him."

Laughter and sadness

Williams' work, including his comedy, had an underlying sadness, which gave some of his performances disarming depth. But a joke was never far away, onscreen or off, even when he was battling addictions or facing health problems.

When Williams, who had just gotten out rehab for a drinking problem, was honored at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2007, he joked that it was "great to be honored at a festival sponsored by Skyy Vodka. I keep meeting guys who say, 'Can I buy you a drink?' "

After surviving open-heart surgery in 2009, during which one valve was replaced and another repaired, Williams wiped away mock tears and told The Chronicle: "I don't think they gave me a new valve but a tiny vagina. I don't know. I'm just so emotional these days."

Yet the gravity of the situation made him reflective, too. "It's like this weird thing to know you have been opened up but you are alive - big time," he said. "It really makes you appreciate little things, like your breath. I realize life can be short. It is a little longer now with the new parts. You go, 'This is your window. What do you want to do with it?' "

Shy as a child

Robin McLaurin Williams was born in Chicago on July 21, 1951, and lived in the Detroit suburbs, where his father was a sales executive with Lincoln-Continental. The family moved to Woodacre in Marin County, and Williams went to Redwood High School in Larkspur.

He was a shy boy - he said television was his closest childhood friend - though that changed in high school when he became active in the drama club. He attended the College of Marin for theater before enrolling at New York's Juilliard School, where he worked under actor John Houseman.

In 1976, he was back in San Francisco and emerging as a prominent figure in the city's stand-up comedy scene, even if he was an obstreperous one. He drenched the stages of places like the Other Cafe and Joe Nobriga's Showcase with sweat and profanity.

The first Chronicle review of his stand-up act, by critic John Wasserman in August 1976, was a pan: "Motherf- can be funny if used in the right place at the right time, but there is nothing amusing about the word per se, and the sooner Williams perceives this, the more effective he'll be with any audience old enough to dress themselves."

A life-changing part

In short order, though, his life changed dramatically. He unveiled "Mork," the alien from the planet Ork, in an appearance on "Happy Days," and was granted his own series, which ran from 1978 to 1982.

The nation's critics soon came to embrace Williams' quirkiness.

Months before he broke through on "Mork," (and just after the famous "Happy Days" episode), Williams said he considered San Francisco the best place in the world to do stand-up.

"The audiences are intelligent, yet not cruel, so you can develop a certain style," he told The Chronicle. "It's a great incubator for a comedian; they love madcap, wonderful things."

In his first stand-up performance after "Mork" was canceled - a six-night residency at San Francisco's Boarding House in 1982 - he teased himself and his catchphrase from the show.

"Another one of these," Williams said, raising a wine glass, "and I'll be out in some bar in the Mission going, 'Remember me? Nanu nanu.' "

Film career

But Williams' hot streak did not end with his TV show. He played a series of borderline maniacs with good hearts in hits including "The World According to Garp," "Dead Poets Society" and "Mrs. Doubtfire."

The latter film, one of his bigger hits, was set in San Francisco, the city where he raised his children.

Still, he continued to visit the small comedy clubs in the city, often with no warning.

Although best known for Hollywood blockbusters like "The Birdcage," "Night at the Museum" and "Happy Feet," Williams had a longtime association with independent cinema. He won an Oscar as best supporting actor for 1997's "Good Will Hunting."

Indeed, Williams was a more versatile actor than some gave him credit for. He could provide comic genius at warp speed, evident in films like "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Aladdin." But he could get sentimental, as he did in "Patch Adams" and "What Dreams May Come" And there were some dark roles, including a psychopathic killer in "Insomnia" and a drugstore clerk who stalks a family in "One Hour Photo."

Williams' sense of humor made him a great interview, never sticking to the script, even while on a grueling press tour.

'Want to be like him'

Mark Fishkin, director and founder of the California Film Institute, said: "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.' "

Williams considered Jonathan Winters a major influence, so Fishkin conspired to have the comedian appear at a Mill Valley Film Festival tribute to Williams in 1999.

"When Robin came up on stage, Jonathan's whole demeanor just changed - the bond between the two of them was amazing," Fishkin said. "They ad-libbed for 45 minutes. Anything on stage or within reach of the stage was a prop."

City Arts & Lectures founder Sydney Goldstein, who knew Williams when he was a student at the College of Marin, said: "Everybody knew he was really, really talented. It was so obvious that he had a gift. Unfortunately, it was the same high-horsepower intelligence he had about human beings that probably did him in.

"It made life more difficult for him. Most people he knows are getting old. He didn't get a chance to get old."

Peter Hartlaub, Leah Garchik and David Lewis are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. E-mail: phartlaub@sfchronicle.com, lgarchik@sfchronicle.com, davidlewis@sfchronicle Twitter: @peterhartlaub, @leahgarchik, @davidlewisSF