When I heard of Robin Williams' death Monday evening, I was sure it was an Internet hoax. At least, I hoped it was.
Everyone has a favorite Robin Williams memory; I have several. Enjoyed him as "Popeye" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," admired him in "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Dead Poets Society," delighted in his portrayal of Armand in "The Birdcage." I even remember the first time Mork appeared on TV, in a 1978 episode of "Happy Days," before he and Mindy got their own spinoff series. But beyond his film and television roles, I loved Robin Williams for his spoken word artistry. His observational humor was brilliant and his improvisational skills even more dazzling. His stand-up comedy always left me breathless, both from his dizzying pace and from laughing until my face hurt.
Clowning around with "Comic Relief" co-hosts Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, or climbing off the stage to interact with his audience, the improv genius seemed most comfortable when he had a comic foil or a partner. But then, even with no one else onstage, Robin Williams was never really alone. His monologues were more like conversations with himself. Or, more accurately, with his selves. With cameos by characters like Elmer Fudd crooning Bruce Springsteen's "Fire."
My late husband, Barry Shannon, remembered Robin Williams as a teenage busboy at the famed Trident in Sausalito during the late 1960s, when the restaurant was owned by the Kingston Trio and frequented by folks like Janis Joplin and David Crosby. Whenever we'd watch Robin's manic antics on TV, Barry would talk about the incredibly talented kid who, at 17, had the Bay Area's rock 'n' roll elite rolling with laughter. With his zinging one-liners, delivered in a wild assortment of voices and accents, the kid stole the spotlight from even the notoriously gorgeous Trident waitresses. Perhaps that's why he worked there only for a couple of months.
It always pains me to hear of someone committing suicide, whether a stranger or a loved one. How utterly sad, that a person could be so full of pain or despair, with absolutely no hope for a better day. And when that person has spent a lifetime making people laugh, bettering their days, my grief is amplified by bewilderment.
One of the sweetest anecdotes that has emerged came from Christopher Reeve's autobiography, "Still Me." Williams and Reeve had been close friends since attending The Julliard School together. After the horseback riding accident that left Reeve a paraplegic and ended his acting career, the comic paid a visit to the former Superman's hospital. Reeve wrote:
"At an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent. He announced that he was my proctologist, and that he had to examine me immediately . . . for the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay."
The motto of "Comic Relief" and its efforts to aid the homeless is "Where there's laughter, there's hope." I don't know whether that's ironic in this case, or just plain tragic. Robin Williams would know. He, like the great George Carlin, was a masterful lover of wordplay, profound and hilarious at the same time.
Carlin said, "I don't wanna die. That's the whole meaning of life: Not dying!"
Williams said, "Death is nature's way of saying, 'Your table's ready.' " I guess he felt he was ready too. I wasn't.
Rest in peace, Robin Williams. I wish I could have given you back a fraction of the joy you've given me.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.