The voice on the phone could burst out in improvisational riffs that could put you on the floor. Robin Williams has had that effect on people throughout 30 years of comedy. But today, there are few of the laugh-a-millisecond screeds that fuel his comedy routines, little of the insane cartoon-character voices he's provided in such roles as Genie in Aladdin and Ramon/Lovelace, the mad penguin king, in Happy Feet. He's not roaring "Good morning, Vietnam!" as he did in the Oscar-nominated film of the same name, space-chanting "Nanu, nanu" as he did in his breakout television show Mork and Mindy, or advising his students to "Seize the day!" as he did while playing an inspirational teacher in Dead Poets Society. Today, Williams, one of the most venerable entertainers of our time, who has lit up the screen in films ranging from Good Will Hunting (for which he won an Oscar in 1998) to Mrs. Doubtfire (for which he dressed in drag), is not acting.
Today, Robin Williams is serious about something: his hometown of San Francisco. This city, where he has lived since he was 16, saved him in a sense and gave him not only a home but also a career path. He arrived in San Francisco in 1967, the only child of a peripatetic Ford auto executive and a model turned homemaker. He was a child of privilege who had an overactive imagination and watched Jonathan Winters comedy on TV with his father for fun. He could have followed his father into business. But in the freewheeling San Francisco of the 1960s, he was inspired by a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he saw with his parents at a San Francisco theater. "I was just, 'This is amazing!'" he says. He began acting at Redwood High School in Larkspur, where he was voted "most funny" and "least likely to succeed." After college and a stint in Manhattan at the Juilliard School, he returned to San Francisco comedy clubs, where he so slayed audiences with his stand-up routine that he was soon heading south to Los Angeles--first to star in television and then to take on films.
This month, Williams is back, playing a typically Robinesque character in License to Wed: Reverend Frank is a spunky man of the cloth who won't bless a couple's marriage until they pass his patented, foolproof marriage-prep course, which consists of outrageous classes, outlandish homework assignments, and some outright invasion of privacy.
But despite his success, he has never forgotten or forsaken his city by the bay.
"Noooooo!" he says emphatically when I ask him if he would ever leave. "You mean leaving--living someplace else? With global warming, I think I'll stay as long as possible. It'll be the glass-bottomed tour of the marina, but it'll still be interesting."
Here's a rare glimpse of the funnyman at bay.
Tell us about your first glimpse of the city.
I was 16 years old. My father and mother [and I] had driven across the country. As we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, there was actually fog pouring in. I'd never seen fog in my life. Is that poison gas? No. The way it pours over the hills in Marin County and comes over the Gate--it's quite impressive. That was my first impression--what is this strange smoke?! But it was quite beautiful, seeing the bridge. In Detroit, there aren't many things that are that big. I was also struck that quite close to the city, there's all this nature. Mount Tamalpais State Park. We have the whole coastline--extraordinarily beautiful.
Was it what you expected?
I don't know. The thing that struck me was how beautiful it was. It's on hills, number one. At that point, they hadn't built the larger buildings like the Transamerica Pyramid, which everyone hated in the beginning and which has now turned out to be the one distinguishing building on the skyline. I was struck by that and the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, and this idea of being that close to the water, and the fact that it is this port that's combined with a great openness, both emotionally and physically. Once you walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, it's an extraordinary experience to look out. It's the gateway to America from Asia, from the Pacific. And there are days when it is so beautiful that you're just struck by it.
Where did you live when you first arrived?
We lived in Tiburon, in this little house. There's a great restaurant in Tiburon called Sam's Anchor Cafe, which is still there. It's a seafood restaurant that my father liked because you can sit outside, on the warm days, or inside. It's just an old-school seafood-and-hamburger place, and my father loved the hamburgers.
When friends come to town, where do you suggest they stay?
There's the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins and the St. Francis. Those are three of the old-school hotels.
Where would you start your day in San Francisco?
If you head north, there are the old coffeehouses, like Vesuvio. It's truly an old Italian neighborhood. In the morning, you would see the old Italian guys having a double espresso. I mean, they were doing cappuccino when there were people coming looking for gold. [He continues in a gruff gold miner's voice.] "What is that?" "Steamed milk!" Vesuvio was the first place I ever saw a foosball machine. Then, later on, those became hip, but it was like, "What is that?" "Foosball!" With real guys hanging off a pole.
If you were to keep walking down from North Beach, you could see Alcatraz Island, right?
Yes. I went there with Richard Pryor because he had a weird request. Before he died, his wife said, "Richard really wants to go there and see Alcatraz." I said, "All right. We'll set it up." His MS was pretty powerful at that point. We got a plane and a bus, and we hooked up with the ferry so they could give him special wheelchair access. The wonderful thing is our guy was a big fan, loved all [Richard's] comedy. And he gave us the special tour, the back history. How the Bird Man of Alcatraz really was a [jerk]. He was not the kindly, good man that they portrayed him as. The sad, kind of brutal thing about Alcatraz is it was within hearing distance of the city. So the guys there, on any night, on a beautiful night, could hear music. And especially on New Year's, they could hear people really enjoying themselves. That's a double whammy. You could rub it in that way. "You ain't getting this, boys!"
Because you're behind bars just off the coast of the most beautiful city in the world?
Yeah, and you've also got a pretty good view of where you are too. "How romantic." "Isn't it, Tim? Look from here." You realize why they picked it. It's surrounded by brutal currents, supposedly sharks--the whole number.
Okay, back to North Beach. What do you like to do when you're there?
There are a lot of cafés all up and down North Beach. There are a bunch of restaurants that have been there for a long time. And it kicks at night--all up and down North Beach. I think people are going more for like Tosca, City Lights, and all the restaurants there. City Lights is a great bookstore. It's wonderful. Green Apple Books is another great bookstore, for new and old books. They call Jeannette Etheredge [owner of Tosca] the Night Mayor of San Francisco. A lot of people hung out at Tosca: Hunter Thompson, the cast of The Right Stuff when they were shooting the movie. It's almost like the Russian embassy too. Because she knew like Baryshnikov and Nureyev and all of those guys. It has a pool table in the back, and it has its own clientele. People like it dark and kind of moody. On an on night, it's pretty wild.
When you returned to San Francisco in 1976 after attending Juilliard, had the city changed?
Not that much. It was before the dot-com boom, so it was a quieter time. I went back and was taking workshops. It seems like fern bars were big then. Most of them are gone. Washington Square Bar and Grill is very much still there. That's where you used to go and see Richard Brautigan. That is actually a very sweet place to go. There's another great restaurant on Washington Square--Ed Moose owns it--called Moose's Restaurant. Traditional, but they've got an interesting clientele. They have a great history. Washington Square Bar & Grill was kind of like a writers' and poets' bar. Specifically, I remember seeing Brautigan in there a lot--in different states of disrepair.
What are your favorite sites?
The Golden Gate Bridge. Fort Point, which is under the Golden Gate Bridge, is kind of impressive because it was this old battery, and then you look over, and you're right under the Golden Gate Bridge. Golden Gate Park is quite lovely. Oh, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum is amazing. It's quite beautiful. It's very impressive from the outside because it looks kind of like a samurai fortress done by Frank Lloyd Wright. But it's quite beautiful in the sense that once you walk in the space, it's really extraordinary in how it accentuates the art. But you're also just struck by how the space works. Way beyond feng shui.
Where do you like to go for lunch?
There's Eliza's, which has great, not-full-blown Chinese food. It's on California Street. Oh, there's the very famous Ton Kiang, which is a dim-sum place. Among San Franciscans, it's huge--always crowded. That's on Geary Street and is just as good as anything in Chinatown. During the day, the food is brought by on different carts. "Shrimp? Shrimp with meat?" You say "Yes, please" or "No," and they leave the plate and mark it off on your check. One of the greatest waiters was at Sam Wo's. I don't think he's alive anymore, because he was pretty old when I was in college. He was very abusive, and he would say, "Water's not for you!" We would say, "What's the special tonight?" "Everything is special! What are you, nuts? Why you think we call it special? But not for you! These people order better than you!" He was the equivalent of the Carnegie Deli waiters, except Chinese. "What are you talkin' about? Get out!"
What can you do outdoors?
You can do anything outdoors. If you sail, you have a bay. If you ride bikes, you can rent bikes and go over the bridge. If you need to buy a bike, there's City Cycle and Bicycle Odyssey. The bike paths in Marin are huge. You can ride Golden Gate Park. Walking around the city is great. There's hiking in Marin, at Mount Tamalpais State Park. You have to be careful at the beaches because there is usually a big, heavy current, and the water is really cold.
What's the famous Haight-Ashbury district like these days?
The Haight is a weird combination of kind of old head shops and kind of new clothing stores. But it's more for young people. There's a great clothing store called Villains. There's a store called Giant Robot that sells Japanese toys. There's True, which is a great store that sells almost what you would call urban wear. There's another great bookstore, the Booksmith on Haight.
What about Castro?
Castro has one of the greatest old movie theaters left in the city, the Castro Theatre, where they do a lot of retrospectives. It's just a gorgeous old theater. Here's an example: They'll do silent movies with the accompaniment, with the score, a guy playing the organ. As the big theaters die off, to go and see a movie there, especially an old movie, is really amazing.
Where do you like to go for dinner?
The Slanted Door is a great restaurant in the Embarcadero. There are a lot of small restaurants down in the Embarcadero. The Ferry Building is full of restaurants, shops, and bookstores, and if you want, you can take the ferry over to Marin from there. Mojito is a Mexican restaurant. The Slanted Door is one of the best restaurants in the city; it's hard to get in. Make your reservation early. They have an automatic reservation service, so you can't even pull face there. Kind of Vietnamese, pan-Asian. They do a lot of combinations of a lot of different food. I'll give you some small restaurants: PJ's Oysterbed in the Sunset, which is a really fun neighborhood restaurant in one of the old, classic neighborhoods in San Francisco. There's also E'Angelo's Restaurant, which we love just because it's a great, small Italian restaurant. Oh, God, there's a lot of Italian.
Tell me about Rubicon, the restaurant in which you have an interest.
Sweet, small restaurant. We've always had great chefs and a great wine list. It has an upstairs and downstairs because it was a bank. It actually had three floors. It's just a very good, more quiet place. It used to have the artwork of Robert De Niro's father. Even though we own interest in it, we like going there because it's just a good place. Another great restaurant is Jardinière. The chef is Traci Des Jardins, who just won a James Beard Foundation Award for the best chef in the Pacific region. Another wonderful restaurant, for lunch and breakfast, is Citizen Cake--very sweet place. The Zuni Café is great. That's one of the first places my wife, Marsha, and I used to go to, and we've seen it grow from one room to two to three to four to five. Their Caesar salad is my favorite thing. I kind of survived on that for a long time. They serve a latte that almost comes in a small tub--it's in this huge coffee cup that you're going, Oh, what is this, a pool? And they have a great, wood-burning pizza oven. You could spend days in Berkeley. Chez Panisse is just wonderful because it was one of the first organic restaurants that specialized in California cuisine. Alice Waters has always been very much about growing the food and being really whole and pure. She knows where the vegetables come from because she grows many of them.
Are you a fan of the San Francisco Giants?
Yeah. We have season tickets. AT&T Park is one of those new stadiums. It's really beautiful. The location is great. The old Giants stadium used to be so windy, and when the fog came in, sometimes guys would lose the ball in the fog. The stadium has really just got a great feel to it. No matter how the Giants are doing, it's always full, which is a great sign. The fans are there, I think, for the experience of the stadium as well as for the team.
Is there a nightlife place that you really like to go to?
There are a lot of places; there are a lot of clubs and things. One thing for me--I'm just out of rehab, so don't ask me about bars. But there are so many. There are also a lot of music clubs. For comedy, there's Cobb's, and there's the Punch Line. The Fillmore is back. It closed briefly, and it's a great place to see a show. There's also Bimbo's, a wonderful club to see music and comedy at, and it's still around. Bimbo's is a sweet, sweet place. It's old-school. It's almost like the Copa, aboveground. It's a '50s-style dinner club, but they do very few dinner-club events. The seating is at tables and in a beautiful, old, intimate room. Norah Jones played there. People go back and play there because they like the feel of the room.
Tell me a funny story about something that has happened to you in a public place.
I can't, really, because nothing really funny has happened to me. No, it's been really sweet. That's why I like living here. One time, when I was walking in the Castro, there was a very famous drag queen named Sister Boom Boom. And he saw me and went, "Oh, there goes the neighborhood!"
He Said: Why Robin Williams won't leave San Francisco
The Fairmont San Francisco, very expensive, (415) 772-5000, www.fairmont.com/sanfrancisco
InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco, expensive to very expensive, (415) 392-3434, www.san-francisco.intercontinental.com
The Westin St. Francis, expensive to very expensive, (415) 397-7000, www.westinstfrancis.com
Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café, California cuisine, very expensive, (510) 548-5525, www.chezpanisse.com
Citizen Cake, California cuisine and desserts, moderate to expensive, (415) 861-2228, www.citizencake.com
E'Angelo's Restaurant, Italian, moderate, (415) 567-6164
Eliza's, California/Chinese, expensive, (415) 621-4819
Jardinière, California/French, very expensive, (415) 861-5555, www.jardiniere.com
Mojito, Mexican, moderate, (415) 398-1120
Moose's Restaurant, American, moderate to expensive, (415) 989-7800, www.mooses.com
PJ's Oysterbed, seafood, inexpensive to moderate, (415) 566-7775, www.pjsoysterbed.com
Rubicon, California continental, expensive, (415) 434-4100, www.sfrubicon.com
Sam's Anchor Cafe, seafood, expensive, (415) 435-4527, www.samscafe.com
Sam Wo's, dim sum, moderate, (415) 982-0596
The Slanted Door, eclectic Vietnamese, expensive, (415) 861-8032, www.slanteddoor.com
Ton Kiang Restaurant, dim sum and seafood, moderate, (415) 387-8273, www.tonkiang.net
Vesuvio, coffee and cocktails, inexpensive, (415) 362-3370, www.vesuvio.com
Washington Square Bar & Grill, moderate, (415) 982-8123, www.wsbg.citysearch.com
Zuni Café, California cuisine, moderate - expensive, (415) 552-2522, www.zunicafe.com
Alcatraz Island, (415) 981-7625, www.nps.gov/alcatraz
AT&T Park, (877) 473-4849, www.sanfrancisco.giants.mlb.com
Fort Point National Historic Site, (415) 556-1693, www.nps.gov/fopo
Golden Gate Park, (415) 831-2700, www.parks.sfgov.org
The M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, (415) 750-3600, www.thinker.org/deyoung
Mount Tamalpais State Park, (415) 388-2070, www.mttam.net
Transamerica Pyramid, (415) 983-5420
A Bicycle Odyssey, Sausalito, (415) 332-3050, www.bicycleodyssey.com
The Booksmith, (415) 863-8688, www.booksmith.com
City Cycle of San Francisco, (415) 346-2242, www.citycycle.com
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, (415) 362-8193, www.citylights.com
The Ferry Building Marketplace, (415) 693-0996, www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com
Giant Robot, (415) 876-4773, www.gr-sf.com
Green Apple Books & Music, (415) 387-2272, www.greenapplebooks.com
North Beach, www.sfnorthbeach.org
True, (415) 626-2331, www.trueclothing.net
Villains, (415) 626-5939, www.villainssf.com
Bimbo's 365 Club, (415) 474-0365, www.bimbos365club.com
The Castro Theatre, (415) 621-6120, www.castrotheatre.com
Cobb's Comedy Club, (415) 928-4320, www.cobbscomedyclub.com
Fillmore, (415) 346-6000, www.thefillmore.com
Punch Line, (415) 397-7573, www.punchlinecomedyclub.com
Tosca Café, (415) 986-9651