Actor and Redwood graduate Robin Williams dies at 63

Chloe Wintersteen

Redwood alum, Oscar award-winning actor, and beloved Marin community member Robin Williams passed away on Aug. 11, according to the Marin County Sheriff’s Office.

The 63-year-old resident of Paradise Cay was found dead in his home due to asphyxia, resulting from a suicide by hanging. According to the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, Williams’ ashes were scattered into the San Francisco Bay on Aug. 12.

Williams was a well-known dramatic actor and comedian, whose notable projects include “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Dead Poets Society,” and “Mork & Mindy.” He was a four-time Golden Globe winner for Best Actor, and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dr. Sean Maguire in “Good Will Hunting.”

Prior to attending Redwood, Williams attended Detroit Country Day School in Michigan, where his father worked in the auto industry. Williams attended Redwood for the entirety of his senior year in 1969, as well as part of his junior year in 1968, according to former library specialist, athletic director, and current Redwood archivist Karen Barrett.

Robin Williams poses wearing his varsity letterman jacket. He was a member of the cross country, track, and soccer teams during his time at Redwood.
Robin Williams poses wearing his varsity letterman jacket. He was a member of the cross country, track, and soccer teams during his time at Redwood.

“In the archival boxes, there is a book [Williams] checked out during the spring of his junior year, ‘The Life of Johnny Cash,’ which I thought was interesting since Johnny Cash had dependency problems,” Barrett said.

Two archival boxes containing old news clippings, photos, and magazines solely dedicated to Williams’s lifetime achievements were transported from the library to a secure closet in room 114 by Barrett on the Tuesday morning after his passing.

Since Peter Carroll, head coach and executive vice president of the Seattle Seahawks, also graduated in 1969, copies of the 1969 yearbook had been periodically stolen from the Library archives. In addition to the Robin Williams archival boxes, Barrett also removed the remaining copies of the 1969 yearbook and the entire 1969 archive box from the Library for safety purposes.

Williams was dedicated to sports and physical fitness in addition to the arts. At Redwood, Williams participated in cross country, soccer, and track and field. Later in life, he discovered a passion for cycling, and was commonly seen riding his bike around Marin County.

According to Doug Basham, member of the Redwood faculty from 1965-1995 and Williams’s former geometry teacher and cross country coach, Williams was a very gifted student athlete. He still holds a track and field record as a part of the all time relay team, available for viewing in the Phil Roark Gym.

“He was a good runner,” Basham said. “That record is one of the oldest records we have. It’s going to be tough to beat!”

Basham said that Williams first started developing various comedic voices while running on Redwood’s cross country team.

“He started developing these funny little voices while he was running,” Basham said.  “He would mimic various little animals and things like that. It was just something to pass the time. He actually ended up using those voices in ‘Mork & Mindy’ all the time.”

Though Williams was generally well-liked by his sports friends, most students didn’t know him since he attended Redwood later on in his high school career.

“It was hard for him to settle in because all these kids ran around in little cliques,” Basham said.

The new high school environment also impacted Williams’s academics.

“He was a good student, but not a great one,” Basham said. “He was probably a C or B student in my math class. One of his problems was that he moved around a lot before he came to Redwood, so he didn’t have consistent study ideas.”

However, Basham remembers Williams as incredibly intelligent and funny outside of class.

“His memory and the things that he came up with off the cuff were terrific. He had such a good sense of humor,” Basham said.

Ten years ago, a Redwood Hall of Fame was created, in which members are awarded for their achievements in a ceremony and special dinner. The committee for outstanding Redwood graduates attempted to add Williams to the Hall of Fame.

“They asked him after he’d won the Academy Award but he said, ‘No, I don’t really like that sort of thing,’” Basham said. “[Williams] was a really humble guy.”

According to Williams’ classmate Ken James, Williams was just a typical high school student at Redwood.

“He was just like everybody else. He wasn’t this big comic in class. He was just a regular guy,” James said.

It has been rumored that Williams was named “Least Likely to Succeed” during his time at Redwood, but James disputes the claim. “There were so many other people who would be worthy of ‘least likely to succeed,’” James said. “Robin was with a very smart crowd. They weren’t angels or goodie two-shoes, but they were very intellectual people.”

“I think [Williams] said that in an interview sometime as a joke,” Barrett said. “I have looked that up in the yearbooks and he is not mentioned as ‘least likely to succeed.’”

Williams got his theatrical start in Marin. According to Basham, Williams took a drama class at Redwood, but didn’t fully dedicate himself to the craft of acting until he became involved in College of Marin’s drama program.

According to James, Williams first tried stand-up comedy during College of Marin lunchtime music performances.

Later in his career, Williams tested out his new acts at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley during weekly Tuesday Night Comedy nights with “Mark Pitta and Friends.” Hosted by comedian Mark Pitta, the show is set up as a venue for comedians in the Bay Area to test out new material, and Williams often made surprise appearances.

In 2011, Williams also made a surprise appearance at the Mill Valley Film Festival in support of Glenn Close’s new movie “Albert Nobbs.”

Williams participated in many charity events and organizations, advocating for a countless number of causes, including those relating to human rights, education, health care, the environment, and the arts. Williams is well known for his avid participation in Bob Zmuda’s organization Comic Relief, which raises money and provides comedic entertainment for those in need.

Basham is happy that the media hasn’t solely been reporting on Williams’s mental health issues and has also chosen to enlighten the public on his generosity.

“After I heard that he had committed suicide, I expected the media to hammer him for not being able to handle the pressures, but I’ve been hearing all these wonderful things that he did,” Basham said. “He was generally a very generous, likeable person, but I know he had to try to be funny all the time. He was able to accomplish that pretty well, but that has to weigh on you a lot.”

Numerous tributes have occurred since Williams’ death in order to remember him for his comedic sparkle rather than his mental health issues.

Billy Crystal recently gave a speech on the 2014 Primetime Emmy Awards to memorialize his friend Williams.

Marquees were dimmed outside of Broadway theaters on Aug. 13 at 7:45pm for one minute to honor the acting legend.

At the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York, the current broadway cast of Aladdin paid tribute to Williams, who supplied the voice for the Genie in the animated Disney film, by performing a singalong version of “Friend Like Me.” The song was lead by Tony award-winning actor James Monroe Iglehart who currently plays the Genie on Broadway.

In Marin, thousands have been petitioning on Change.org to rename the Waldo Tunnel just north of the Golden Gate Bridge after Robin Williams. The Waldo Tunnel is characterized by rainbow arches painted on its southern opening, giving it its nickname, “The Rainbow Tunnel.”

Supporters of the petition believe it would be suitable to name the tunnel after Williams since he got his big break portraying the character Mork in Mork & Mindy while wearing rainbow suspenders.

Robin’s legacy and positive worldwide impact will never be forgotten.

“He was a great guy and I hope everyone remembers him as a fantastic actor,” Basham said.