I didn’t expect Robin Williams’ death to hit me as hard as it did. When it was reported this afternoon that the actor and comedian had been found dead at 63 in his Tiburon home, a suspected suicide, the loss felt profoundly personal in a way that was strange given that he was someone I’d never met. It had been years since I’d followed Williams’ career closely. I was dimly aware that he’d been starring in a television show with Sarah Michelle Gellar, The Crazy Ones, which CBS canceled after one season, but I hadn’t seen it. He’d been popping up in movies regularly in recent years, but the last things I’d actually seen him in were his 2002 one-two punch of dramatic roles in One Hour Photo and Insomnia.
But when I was a kid, Robin Williams was my hero, easily one of the greatest influences of my childhood. I never wanted to be a comedian myself (at least not that I can recall), but I was a big fan of comedy — and of his comedy in particular.
Like most kids of my generation, I first knew him as the sitcom space alien Mork from Ork, not just on Mork and Mindy but the strange guest appearance on Happy Days that introduced the character. When I was in fourth grade circa 1980, going to public school in Oakland, I happened across an interview with him in one of those gaudy fanzines for kids, Popcorn or Bananas, in which he revealed that other kids used to pick on him at school until he learned to make them laugh.
Now, as it happened, I was getting beat up a lot at the time, so this made a huge impression on me. I tried to be funny. Honestly, I did. I’d talk to my milk, dance with mops, introduce people to my invisible friend, dangle from third-story railings. But grade schoolers lack a fine appreciation for the absurd. After that I wasn’t getting picked on just because I was shy and awkward, but because I was a weirdo.
However dodgy my experience with taking his advice turned out to be, that didn’t sour me on Robin Williams. Far from it. When the movie Popeye came out, I stuck around in the Grand Lake Theatre and watched it three times in a row (partly because the clowns I loved from the Pickle Family Circus were in it — Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle and Larry Pisoni). I practically wore out my LPs of his standup-comedy albums Reality…What a Concept (1979) and Throbbing Python of Love (1983), listening to them over and over until I’d memorized them (not intentionally, just inevitably). In fifth grade my friends and I would sit around at recess reciting his routines to each other.