Robin Williams: an Appreciation

Robin Williams has left us. The comings and goings of Hollywood’s elite aren’t the editorial mandate for RKP, but Williams is different because he was one of us. He was an enthusiastic cyclist.

Williams was so funny, so acutely empathetic in the roles he played, we didn’t need him to be a cyclist to connect with his work. Despite the fact that he was a complete nut, with a wit faster and more unpredictable than the movement of an atomic particle, he made us collectively a little less weird, a little more human.

His suicide serves as the saddest of reminders, that achievement is no bane for the demons that may plague us. While he will be best remembered for his talent for comedy, he deserves to be remembered for his extraordinary warmth, which came through in his dramatic roles in films like Awakenings, Dead Poets Society and What Dreams May Come, though perhaps none are as regarded as his turn in Good Will Hunting, for which he won an academy award.

As a cyclist, his jokes about our proclivities, about the Tour de France, about the bike itself gave us permission to see ourselves through other eyes, to laugh at ourselves. What a gift.

Williams was a customer of City Cycle in San Francisco and Bike Effect in Santa Monica, and I suspect other shops as well. That I even learned he was a client of City Cycle and Bike Effect happened through back channel means. Both shops guarded him and his privacy. He built an extensive bike collection and gave numerous bikes away for charitable auctions. Over the years I saw photos of him astride Treks, a Cannondale, a Pinarello, a Pegoretti and a Cervelo. I’ll admit that I felt a pang of heartache some years back when I saw his custom Seven was being auctioned.

He once donated a single-speed Bianchi ‘cross bike to Trips for Kids and signed the top tube, “Team Viagra, ride hard, ride long … Robin Williams.”

It’s hard to find a record of a cycling charity auction that didn’t include a bike from Williams. In addition to Trips for Kids, he donated bikes for the Davis Phinney Foundation, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the Children’s Cancer Foundation and more.

Tales from those who bumped into him on rides universally share in common how he led with humor and was unfailingly gracious, always taking time to listen to a fan extol their favorite of his films.

In the fall of 2003 I was in San Francisco for the San Francisco Gran Prix. I was there to promote my magazine Asphalt. How I had expected to do that with zero marketing budget I no longer recall.  At the time, I was beginning to struggle with depression, one that would deepen over the following winter, but I’m fortunate to say I enjoyed a bright spot the morning of the race.

Waiting outside the media room for my credentials, I noticed Robin. I opened my courier bag and pulled out a copy of Asphalt. I walked up to him and gave him the magazine, saying only, “I’d like to give you this as a way to say thank you.”

He looked surprised and with raised eyebrows said, “For me? Thank you.”

I wanted to say more, but it felt like I’d already intruded too much.

I stepped away, but a few moments later he looked up and said, “This is beautiful.”

I thanked him and we talked for a moment; near the end I asked if he’d want to do an interview and talk about his love of cycling. He said yes and gave me the contact info for his publicist. Of course, the interview never happened. The publicist dodged me for a dozen or more calls before saying “Mr. Williams expressed no interest.”

It’s possible that Williams was just being polite, but I’ll always believe that he had liked the magazine and wanted to do the interview.

What I didn’t know then was that we had more in common than just cycling. We both faced depression, perhaps at different times, but in familiar ways. Those in depression share in common the feeling that they are alone; it’s an irony that one can only appreciate as one emerges from the state and talks with others who have been there.

My heart rends for his wife and three kids. It is said that there is an underlying sadness to all comics, that they are tragic and flawed characters. However, for his family, he was a husband and a dad, a person on whom they depended, someone they needed as much as they loved. All deaths leave holes, but a suicide imparts the darkest cloud over grief, one rarely cleared.

Rather than finish on such a dire note, it’s more fitting that we remember him for his talent. Here are but a few lines from over the years that I’ve put into service to my favorite mistress, laughter.

[Warning, some of this gets pretty spicy.]

From Good Morning, Vietnam:
“My name’s Roosevelt E. Roosevelt.” “Roosevelt, what town are you stationed in?” “I’m stationed in Poontang.” “Well, thank you, Roosevelt. What’s the weather like out there?” “It’s hot. Damn hot! Real hot! Hottest things is my shorts. I could cook things in it. A little crotch pot cooking.” “Well, can you tell me what it feels like?” “Fool, it’s hot! I told you again! Were you born on the sun? It’s damn hot! I saw—it’s so damn hot, I saw little guys, their orange robes burst into flames. It’s that hot! Do you know what I’m talking about.” “What do you think it’s going to be like tonight?” “It’s gonna be hot and wet! That’s nice if you’re with a lady, but it ain’t no good if you’re in the jungle.”

“You are in more dire need of a blowjob than any other white man in history.”

From Live at the Met:
“Cocaine—hmm, what a wonderful drug, anything that makes you paranoid and impotent, give me more of that.”

From Reality: What a Concept!:
“See, the problem is that God gives men a brain and a penis, and only enough blood to run one at a time.”

From Weapons of Self Destruction:
My favorite athletes of any Olympics are always the African distance runners. You never have to drug test an African distance runner.

“Are you on drugs?”

“No, I’m looking for food.”

And I’m sure in Kenya they have a chicken that can run a sub 2-hour marathon. One of my favorite runners of all time was Abebe Bikila. He was an Ethiopian distance runner and he won the Rome Olympics running barefoot. He was then sponsored by Adidas. He ran the next Olympics, he carried the fuckin’ shoes. No performance enhancement there.

I walked into my son’s room the other day, and he’s got four screens going at the same time. He’s watching a movie on one screen, playing a game on another, downloading something on this one, texting on that one, people say “He’s got ADD.” Fuck that, he’s multitasking.

When I was growing up they used to say, “Robin, drugs can kill you.” Now that I’m 58 my doctor’s telling me, “Robin, you need drugs to live.” I realize now that my doctor is also my dealer…

These drugs have side effects that go on for fuckin’ days, like tendency-to-grow-another-head, oh my God! When we were growing up we knew the side effects of the drugs we were taking. Cocaine, side effects were paranoia, ninjas-on-the-lawn; quaaludes, side effects were talking in tongues, English as a second language; marijuana, side effects were laughter, Frosted Flakes.

Thanks Robin, we will miss you.

This originally appeared at Red Kite Prayer, August 14, 2014

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