Through the Rainbow Tunnel
An open letter to Robin Williams, on the anniversary of his death.
Williams at an event in Sonoma.
WE, LIKE THE rest of the world, knew you as Mork, Popeye, Garp, Adrian Cronauer, the Genie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, Theodore Roosevelt. You were an Oscar winner, a comic mastermind, and we, along with everyone else, loved what we knew of you. We worshiped your gift, we respected your celebrity. We were in awe of your pinpoint timing, your brilliant acting talent, your exquisite and seemingly effortless ability to improvise like no comic before, or quite likely after, you.
But we, your neighbors, the residents of Marin, we were privileged to know you just a little bit more. Here, in this place, you spent your early, formative years. You roamed our towns and drove our streets as a teen, as a member of the Redwood High School Class of 1969. You trained on our fields and our back roads with the Redwood track and cross-country teams. Your first real exposure to drama came at College of Marin, your stand-up skills flexed during lunchtime music performances on campus.
Then, decades later, after unprecedented success and limitless choices, you elected to return to Marin.
We saw you conducting your self described “mobile therapy”: pumping along bike paths throughout the county, furiously pedaling the curves of Paradise Drive, instantly recognizable by that pelt of fur covering your body — “sweater by Darwin,” you called it. Girl Scouts lucky enough to ring the bell at your home in the Cay were treated to an array of falsetto shrieks — “No one at home just now!” — before you threw open the door and bought up their cookies.
We chatted with you as you pumped gas on Tiburon Boulevard, ordered breakfast at La Boulange, picked up takeout Thai in Sausalito. We ran into you in cafes in Larkspur, in Nordstrom, buying running shoes at ArchRival. We exchanged glances, shared smiles, made eye contact. You were of us, one of us.
At a 2005 social event.
We were privy to stories, at least some of them, of your incredible philanthropy, on scales large and small. Your financial generosity is legendary, but many of us witnessed smaller incidents of you, for example, as local lore has it, quietly giving one of your bikes away on an off-road trail to someone who needed it more than you. While supporting dozens of national charities and troops overseas, you also gave of both your time and your money to the Marin Community Foundation and myriad local causes. At 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley — a venue where you, usually unbilled, popped up on stage to toss off a genius set of improv — you threw fundraisers to help the place out.
After unanimous votes in both the state senate and assembly, we renamed the Rainbow Tunnel after you, a bit of an on-the-nose move that will inexorably connect the landmark with those garish suspenders of your Nanu Nanu days. Christening the entrance to Marin after you seems like the least we can do to honor your memory in this county.
Your death can’t help but recall a story you told as Parry, one of your most powerful, and perhaps most under appreciated, roles. Only those closest to you know if perhaps you were speaking of more than the legend of the Fisher King when you recited these words: “… the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded. Now as the boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die …”
We loved what we knew of you. And we cherished what we learned about you as a neighbor, as a fellow resident of this county you called home.
How we wish that would have been enough.
Rest in peace, Robin.
The residents of Marin