Whether meeting him in an elevator, glimpsing him at a party, serving him a drink or watching him on TV as millions did, everyone felt a connection with Robin Williams.
After the death Monday in Tiburon of one of America’s favorite funnymen, Napans who knew or met Williams expressed sorrow about the loss of the beloved comic.
Williams, who most recently owned a large estate on Wall Road bordering Napa and Sonoma counties, now on the market for $29.7 million, spent a fair amount of time in and around Napa County. He was seen at various community events and supported a number of local causes.
In 2009, “We were lucky enough to have five shows with Robin ‘trying out new work,’” wrote former Napa Valley Opera house artistic director Evy Warshawski.
“The five shows sold out within minutes,” recalled Warshawski. Sixty percent of the proceeds went to charities that he had chosen in Napa County — “selections that the groups did not even know about until they received checks,” she said.
“He was a pleasure to work with, very unassuming,” Warshawski said. “He didn’t have a whole entourage. When approached for autographs, he was as accommodating and as nice as ever. Backstage, he was friendly, quiet and very funny. We had a gift with Robin.”
Julie Dalrymple, formerly the director of marketing at the Opera House, recalled meeting Williams during those shows. “It was one of the most exciting times” during her tenure at the venue, she said.
She once escorted Williams in an elevator on the way to his dressing room. “He was unexpectedly quiet, shy and reserved, not like you expect a legendary comic,” she said.
And naturally, Williams was hysterical when he performed. “My cheeks hurt from laughing so hard,” she said.
The Pathway Home of Yountville was one of those nonprofits that benefited from Williams’ generosity at those Opera House shows.
“It was a nice surprise,” said Fred Gusman, CEO of The Pathway Home, Inc. “He was a very generous soul,” said Gusman, who never met Williams.
Later, Williams also narrated a video for the group.
“You don’t see his face but you know his voice,” said Gusman. While post-traumatic stress is a serious topic, “He had a way of saying something serious with a comical twist so that it made more of an impression.”
Gusman said that Williams’ death should be a wake-up call. “Just like post-traumatic stress doesn’t discriminate, depression does not discriminate. Anyone can have it. People need to be aware and supportive.”
Electrical contractor Myles Davis recalled being invited to Francis Ford Coppola’s home for his annual harvest party. “Lo and behold Robin Williams and his family is there,” wrote Davis. “His daughter was maybe 3 years old. He spent the whole party playing peek-a-boo behind a tree with her.”
Davis said he’s been a fan since Williams’ “Mork & Mindy” days. “He was an amazing talent,” said Davis. “This one really hit close to home. It’s really sad.”
Williams continued to frequent the Opera House, sometimes as a patron. In October 2010, he slipped into the Café Theatre at the Opera House just before showtime to watch comic legend Mort Sahl do political satire. Sahl held the spotlight on stage, while Williams, with his explosive, throaty laughter, set himself apart from the rest of the audience.
Napa musician and photographer Jeff Madnik never met Williams but credited him as “one of the most influential artists” of his life.
Williams inspired the then-high school student to take drama and join a thespian group, he said. “I named my cat Shazbot. I wore rainbow suspenders. He introduced me to Jonathan Winters.”
One Madnik favorite was his 1979 recording “Reality – What a Concept.” “I listened to that record so many times I probably wore it out,” said Madnik.
“I found my voice through his,” said Madnik. “We’ve lost one of the greats.”
Lexie Boezeman Cataldo, a former Napan and photographer who now lives in Los Angeles, has a picture of her then-4-year old daughter, Asia Cataldo, with Williams on the set of the 1999 film “Bicentennial Man.”
“He was so nice, and really gave her special attention,” said Boezeman Cataldo. After hearing of Williams’ death on Monday, Asia Cataldo called her mother and asked for the photo of the two on the set. “She said, ‘Mom please make sure you send it to me.’”
“All I can hope for is that he’s really at peace now,” said Boezeman Cataldo.
In the early 1980s, Diana Gelow Cybulski was a waitress at the then-Washington Street Bar and Grill in Yountville.
Williams was a regular “and he always ordered a Perrier with three ice cubes,” she recalled. He usually wore some kind of funny hat. “Everyone knew who he was but he wanted to be incognito,” she said.
Williams left generous tips and made it a point to talk to the wait staff. “It wasn’t the VIPs he chatted with. It was us workers,” she said. Hearing the news of his death, Gelow Cybulski said, “I feel badly for his kids.”
“They need to figure this out,” Gelow Cybulski said of depression, which had dogged Williams. “Too many good people are dying from this.”
Vintner Garen Staglin, who founded the International Mental Health Research Organization (IMHRO) and One Mind For Research, recalled when Williams showed up at Auction Napa Valley one year “and spontaneously became an auctioneer and brought the house down. He bid against himself. He was quite entertaining and magical, as he often was.”
Staglin, who has raised tens of millions for brain disease research, called Williams’ death a tragedy.
“Robin died from a brain disease,” said Staglin. “We use this term ‘committed suicide’ but it’s brain disease that caused this to happen.”
Staglin said he hopes that ultimately, “It will serve as a call to action…this isn’t something we can ignore anymore. We need to work together to fund research.”
Staglin urged anyone exhibiting warning signs of suicide to call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Friends and family also need to pay attention, he said. “Most people, before they take this action, they reach out to somebody. They are signaling they are in a desperate place,” Staglin said.
For parents with a child facing mental illness, “the most important thing is to provide unconditional love,” he said. “Tell them you are not going to allow them to not get better.”