Robin Williams, an Appreciation

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.

robin_williams1

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.

 

Images: Hans Roenau, Perros MTBike

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29 comments

  1. Pingback: RKP > VeloNews

  2. Hoshie99

    Like many old time Bay Area cyclists, I saw him out on the roads more than once and had a too short ride in with him and a small crew once. At the time, he struck me as friendly and a true and deep cycling enthusiast like many who participate in the RKP community.

    A huge talent, he will be missed by family and fans I am sure.

    J

  3. JohnK

    Thank you for the terrific tribute and for your observation that achievement is no bane for the demons that chase us. It may be a result of them. Maybe if I get fast enough (or rich enough or successful enough) I can drop that monster on my tail that wants to devour me. The saddest part for me is thinking about the gulf between the joyous and warm public persona and the personal pain. If only he could have saved some of the former for himself.

  4. Robot

    As a fellow traveler on the depressive road, deaths like this rattle my cage. See also, Gary Speed, David Foster Wallace, Philip Seymour Hoffman, et. al. They suggest that neither age, work nor wisdom are necessarily preventative. Money can’t buy you love. You are never past this problem. The only answer is to stay vigilant and honest, I think.

    There will be chaos. Keep pedaling.

    1. Full Monte

      Ditto Robot. As a depressed young man, I credit the bike for getting me off the shrink’s pills, and possibly saving my life. The hard part, at first, was finding the strength and courage to actually commit to my daily ride. I evolved to the stage where my physical pain matched my inner pain, which was a welcome distraction. Then I found that I moved through physical pain, to a hypnotic, non-thinking state. The miles began to change my brain chemistry, flooding my synapses with what my brain craved: adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin. At that point, my struggle wasn’t forcing myself to get on the bike every day, it was finding the time to ride every single free hour I could find.

      The bike took me from a place of profound loss, to measurable, visible, emotional gains.

      I too shudder at the suicide of depressed people, having known the pain so dark, all-encompassing, myself. BTW, rereading Infinite Jest again. It reveals deeper levels of genius every time through it. I imagine with what we’re learning about Robin Williams’ life, we’ll re-watch his movies with deeper levels of appreciation and understanding as well.

      Depression. It’s why I ride. Every pedal stroke my choice for joy, fulfillment, and hope.

  5. Ryan

    Robin RIP thank you for so many laughs, as one who has battled depression I can this death hits me hard, thank you for talking about this Padraig. At one point I thought the only friend I had in the world was my dog, and thank god for him, even though the reality was I had a whole army of family and friends who loved and cared for me. That feeling of being alone really truly sucks. Maybe this tragic passing will get people talking about depression.

    Ryan

  6. Zach M

    Great tribute, Padraig! Robin was one of a kind and made laughter pour out of me even before words came out of his mouth. The sadness for his loss is only part of this story; for me, the bigger sadness is the fight that so many face with depression. Depression remains a silent killer – there is no visible bandage for a broken heart or a broken soul. I give you, Padraig, and the others (Robot & Ryan) who have confessed their battles in this thread a tremendous credit for your admission. It needs to be talked about to increase awareness and break down the stigma that exists in our society. Keep up the good fight, keep pedaling – there is always someone that wants to see you on that next ride……

  7. backofthepack

    I always think of Richard Jeni when I think of comedians with depression. I don’t know that Jeni had any connection to biking, but he and Robin shared a link to depression and both took their own lives. Brilliant, creative men who left us too soon. RIP Robin, I will always remember you as Mork. Nanu, nanu. May you and your “son” Johnathan Winters be reunited in the afterlife

  8. Pingback: Morning Links: Bike-friendly LAPD chief reappointed, suspected DUI driver hits 8 riders in San Diego | BikinginLA

  9. Elliot

    The ride isn’t over for Mr. Williams, it is beginning in a better place. All that we have to appreciate now here on Earth are his great contributions to film and humanity.

    Gone but never forgotten….RIP Robin Williams

  10. Carlos

    My son works at another bike shop, up the road from Bike Effects. A few months ago he asked a gentleman if he could help him with a helmet. It was Robin Williams, he frequented the shop as well. He was kind, gentle, polite and humble to my son. That helped him deal with such a known person. I always wanted to meet him in person. As an immigrant to the USA, I arrived when Mork was big. I sympathized with the man trying to explain or describe “Americans”. I also loved Moscow on the Hudson, he was the only white american in the movie. Several years ago, I got to meet and chat for a long time with Oliver Sacks, the year Awakenings was made. He told me about Williams’ insight and kindness. I loved his movies as an observer or provocateur, besides the ones I mentioned, Dead Poets, GMV, and GWH touched me. I never got to tell him how much he meant to me “coming to America”. My lucky son somehow managed to mention it to him.

  11. SusanJane

    Being bipolar I live with both sides of the coin. Depression can be a place of such utter darkness that there is nothing but constant bone-crunching pain. Physical, mental, emotional. Pain. Robin Williams was in a place so dark there appeared to be no way out. I am thankful that his family has been public about his suicide. We have an opportunity to talk with each other about mental illness again at a national level. Take a moment to learn about depression and suicidal warming signs. If you haven’t suffered depression yourself, you will know someone who does.

    Thank you for this very moving article, Padraig.

  12. Farbar

    I just wish that, on the last day of Robin’s life, he had taken a bike ride instead of staying home. It might have cleared his head.

  13. Joy

    I appreciate that Robin’s death is enabling conversation about a condition that affects so many people (nearly all of whom feel alone, or at least that they must weather their storm in private). He had a remarkable impact while he was alive, and his passing may continue that legacy.

  14. DavidA

    I know that he also shopped at AC in Mill Valley….He was in awe of PRO cyclists and Elites as much as we were of him and his incredible talent and heart. His love of all things bicycle remained as it was as when a child discovers a bicycle can take them away from the sometimes chaotic world they dwell in, to one where the sun and wind and rain is like a baptism, a new beginning each day when we ride…..I think Robin was in awe of the wonder and feelings that cycling can produce, from a dark place into the light. He lived to make others laugh, to forget the dark……to ride into the sun.

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