And while there were plenty of great stories and tributes from comedians Johnny Steele and Steven Pearl, as well as from Mill Valley Film Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin, it was Williams himself, unsurprisingly, who completely owned the event through a series clips of his films and from the 1988 MVFF trailer.
“Robin Williams: A Celebration” kicked off with the 1988 MVFF trailer, with Williams, playing campy film critic Lex Leed, hosting a panel of five filmmakers, all played by Williams as over-the-top caricatures – “a veritable bouillabaisse of culture.” The directors included a local surfer dude who remade the 1913 film Battle of Waterloo into a surf movie, complete with a soundtrack by Van Halen, as well as “the wunderkind of German cinema” who’d made a “funny fascist film.”
“That’s just one example of the many ways that Robin Williams showed his generosity, in this case to the Mill Valley Film Festival,” Fishkin said, noting that the actor committed to three days of shooting the trailer at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic.
Fishkin recounted how impulsively generous Williams was with his time, from when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest composer Jack Nitzsche got stage fright at an event at the Warfield, so Williams jumped onstage with him to do sign language as Nitzsche fumbled through the text he was reading to jumping up to accompany Bobby McFerrin at an event honoring Bill Graham, using his body as a percussion instrument in doing so.
“We had a long relationship – what a kind, warm and amazing person he was,” Fishkin said. “We’re here today to show love for Robin that maybe at times he felt and maybe at times he didn’t – we want to let him know that we’re thinking of him.
Steele, the veteran Bay Area comic who grew up in the East Bay “on the other side of the Culture Stop (Caldecott) tunnel, recounted one of his sets at the Throckmorton years ago in which, with Williams in the house, he made a joke about the abundance of 55-year-old men on $6,500 bikes – the “Tour de AARP.” He also juxtaposed the reality of waterfront property in Marin being occupied San Quentin State Prison “while we make law-abiding citizens live n Hayward.”
Williams approached Steele afterwards and said, “you nailed Marin.” The two struck up a friendship, with Williams encouraging Steele to start cycling, which Williams called his “mobile therapy.”
Steele said Williams invited him to his Tiburon house, showed him his collection of at least 35 bikes, and offered to have one of them remade by Williams’ pals at The Bicycle Odyssey in Sausalito to fit Steele’s much taller frame. When that became problematic, Williams simply whispered into one of the shop mechanic’s ear, said he had to run off to a meeting, and Steele ended up with a brand custom titanium bike.
“I road with him so many times after that, and he would always turn back several times during the ride and say, ‘is this pace good for you boss?’ Our last ride together was a week before he passed.”
Steven Pearl, who knew Williams since the early 1980s, shared a number of tales of the late actor’s generosity towards him, including inviting him and his wife along when Williams had events of film shoots in places like New York or Las Vegas.
“Losing Robin to me was like losing John Lennon again – except I this time I knew John Lennon,” Pearl said. “I’ve got a lot of stories form the early days but most of them would get me arrested – we called them the ‘nobody sleeps’ years.”
But the highlight of the event was easily a series of clips of Williams’ films. The clip reel had been created for a 1999 MVFF tribute to Williams, an event that featured a screening of one of his most renowned films, The Fisher King.
In each of those clips – from his deliriously funny riff as radio DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam and Sean Maguire’s poignant, deathly serious speech to Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting to a frenetic turn as the Genie in Aladdin and a wild dash to save face in Mrs. Doubtfire.
One of the final stories shared by Steele and Pearl was one of seemingly infinite number of times that Williams, at the height of his stardom, popped into a comedy showcase out of the blue and took the place by storm. It was Las Guitarras in Novato, and his arrival in the tiny, 25-person room left people with “half-eaten plates of guacamole” in disbelief.
“He filled the room with energy and madness,” Steele said.
Two months after his death, he did just that again at the Throckmorton on Sunday afternoon.