Life Lessons from Robin Williams

The simple things my friend taught me.

My wife and I were blessed to orbit the wonderful world of Robin Williams. His passing in 2014 left a massive void for us, but happy memories of him help mend the holes in our hearts.

Robin wasn’t a teacher or a preacher. He didn’t sermonize or lecture anyone. Instead, he taught by example. Here are a few lessons I learned from him.

Be different. Calling Robin ordinary would be as insulting as calling Einstein a smart-alecky know-it-all. Nonconformity was his keystone. Although he respected the fashionably cool and aloof crowd, Robin identified with the eccentrics and outliers.

His lifelong interests included bicycling, video games, graphic novels, and collecting imaginative toys. For any other middle-aged man, those boyish hobbies might raise eyebrows. Robin didn’t care. He was who he was, and the world loved him for it.

Give back. Few celebrities were so generous. Comic Relief, Challenged Athletes, and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital were among Robin’s favorite worthy causes. He often handed out whatever cash he had in his wallet to homeless people on the streets. When his wallet was empty, he’d borrow money from me so he could give that to the homeless, too.

His USO shows for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were legendary. Military personnel often wrote him to say how seeing Robin Williams at their base was the highlight of their tour of duty. He entertained even when he was ill and his voice was giving out, and he always stayed until every last soldier got a photo or an autograph.

He gave back to fans. After comedy concerts, Robin waded into the throngs of stage door autograph seekers and signed his name to whatever was thrust in his face. In Scotland, a cueball bald man approached him and said, “Mr. Williams, sign my head!” Robin shrugged, took the fan’s felt-tip marker, and scribbled his signature on the fellow’s bare scalp.

Live for the moment. Robin had a Zen quality, a natural ability to zero in on whatever was at hand. Improvisational comedy requires you to have that kind of focus, and nobody was more alive in the moment onstage than Robin. Performing improv with him was like trying to keep pace with a hurricane.

He also lived in the moment by enjoying life’s simple pleasures. One night, my wife and I took him to dinner at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican family restaurant. Nothing fancy, wooden booths, dim lighting, decent food. He loved it and thanked us repeatedly for taking him there, as if it were the most joyous experience of his day. He had that sort of big reaction to small things all the time. He could get excited over a breakfast of scrambled eggs.

On occasions, he stood on his patio overlooking San Francisco Bay soaking in the sunshine and cool breeze, and he would say, “What an amazing day!” He truly meant it. Robin appreciated the simple joys of life. In that regard, he really knew how to seize the day.

Be kind. Comedians can be cruel sometimes, but Robin was a gentle soul.

He was self-deprecating, and his personal foibles were the launch pad of many of his best comedy bits. But he made fun of other people’s faults, too, and he agonized over punchlines that seemed too mean. Making anyone unhappy gave him genuine distress.

On Christmas mornings, Robin visited the children’s ward of UCSF Medical Center. He entered unannounced to give small toys and autographs to the poor boys and girls stuck in hospital beds on the holiday. We snapped Polaroid photos of him at each bedside, and he took his time greeting every child, even preemies in their incubators. There was no fanfare, no forewarning, no announcement to the news media. For Robin, it was just another quiet act of kindness.

Have humility. Strangers who met him for the first time were often taken aback to find him quiet and somewhat shy. In private, he could be modest and retiring.

Some pompous entertainers might grumble about small crowds and small venues. Robin didn’t mind. In the early 80s as his fame skyrocketed, he frequently performed at a closet-sized comedy club in San Francisco called the Holy City Zoo. Maximum occupancy was about 95 people. He loved the place. In preparation for his 2008 Weapons of Self Destruction world tour, he appeared unannounced at an even smaller dive in the Mission District that only had fifty folding chairs. To warm up for shows in London’s West End, we found ourselves in a suburban club that was an underground toilet. Literally. It was below ground and used to be a public restroom. Robin liked it.

Despite his stardom, he didn’t require bodyguards or an entourage to shadow him. Wherever we traveled with him, Robin was likely to wander off by himself. He might’ve been the world’s most unpretentious superstar.

Have fun. Robin treasured the camaraderie of comedians and loved trading riffs with them onstage and off. Keeping pace with him could put even the most self-assured comics off their game, but he never meant to intimidate. He just wanted to laugh.

That was true with everyone, not just comedians. Robin loved to laugh with his family and friends, with his fellow actors, film crews, strangers, with anyone he met.

Oh, the joy whenever Jonathan Winters visited. He and Robin loved playing off one another, adopting and then shedding characters, two grown boys making each other laugh. Robin called Jonathan his Buddha, and watching them together was nirvana.

During Robin’s last comedy tour, at the end of every performance, crowds sprang to their feet to give him standing ovations, and palpable electricity filled the arenas. As he came offstage, Robin would let out a high-pitched giggle and repeated the word, “Wow!” He acted like a teenager who just came off a thrilling carnival ride. Even after thousands of live performances, he knew how to have fun.

Finally, he left us with one last lesson. Death comes to everyone, but how you perish isn’t as important as how you live. Nobody ever lived like my pal Robin Williams.