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Robin Williams dead in suspected suicide

Updated 10:22 am, Tuesday, August 12, 2014

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  • Robin Williams at "The Crazy Ones" Press Conference at the Four Seasons Hotel on October 8, 2013 in Beverly Hills. Williams was found dead at his home in Marin County on Monday, Aug. 11, 2014. He was 63. Photo: Vera Anderson, Wire Photo / 2013 Vera Anderson
    Robin Williams at "The Crazy Ones" Press Conference at the Four Seasons Hotel on October 8, 2013 in Beverly Hills. Williams was found dead at his home in Marin County on Monday, Aug. 11, 2014. He was 63. Photo: Vera Anderson, Wire Photo

 

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Robin Williams, the manic genius of comedy who rose from small clubs in San Francisco to become a worldwide television and film star, was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Tiburon home Monday, authorities said. He was 63.

Williams was found in the home by family members, who called for help. Marin County sheriff's deputies and local firefighters were dispatched to the home at 11:55 a.m., officials said, and Williams was declared dead at 12:02 p.m. He had last been seen alive late Sunday night.

"Mr. Williams was located this morning shortly before the 911 call was placed to Marin County communications," sheriff's officials said in a statement Monday. "At this time, the Sheriff's Office Coroner Division suspects the death to be a suicide due to asphyxia, but a comprehensive investigation must be completed before a final determination is made."

Williams had recently battled severe depression, said Mara Buxbaum, his press agent. The performer fought cocaine and alcohol addiction but had spoken little about mental illness. In 2002, he admitted during an interview with the New York Times to occasionally feeling depressed.

"There's a lot that happens in the world to make you depressed," he said. "My mother died. Did that make me depressed? Yes. I am also manic when I am onstage. Does that make me manic-depressive? No. But people might not believe me."

Battling addictions

This summer, Williams admitted himself into the Hazelden rehab center in Minnesota to "fine-tune" his sobriety, according to representatives. In 1988, he told People magazine that he had had used cocaine "to hide" but had quit when his first wife, Valerie Velardi, became pregnant with their son, Zachary.

"This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings," Williams' current wife, Susan Schneider, wrote in a statement.

"I am utterly heartbroken," she said. "On behalf of Robin's family, we are asking for privacy during our time of profound grief. As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin's death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions."

The news of Williams' death shocked the nation and the world, with fans flocking to his Tiburon home, his former home in the Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco and the Pacific Heights house where "Mrs. Doubtfire" was filmed to leave flowers and messages.

President Obama, in a statement, said Williams was "an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien - but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit."

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said Williams' death was a "profound loss" for the city.

"Despite his success, he has never forgotten San Francisco," Lee wrote. "He was a philanthropist who gave generously, and he was a friend of the city."

'He never complained'

Comedian Debi Durst, who first met Williams in 1978, said she last saw him two weeks ago at a friend's barbecue.

"He seemed OK. He was quiet. He was quiet when he was with friends. If he knew you, he was just a guy," she said.

"In public," she added, "it was very difficult for him to be able to go someplace and be himself. Even if another comedian walked over, he was always expected to have the funny line. ... It had to be difficult to have the eye of the world on you constantly. But he never complained."

Born in Chicago, Williams grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. His family moved to Woodacre, in Marin County, when he was an adolescent, and he went to Redwood High School, where he overcame his shyness in the drama department. He studied theater at the College of Marin before he was accepted to Juilliard, graduating in 1976.

Williams worked briefly at Sausalito's famous Trident Restaurant, according to a former employee, who said Williams once streaked naked through the restaurant on a dare and jumped into the bay.

He got his start as a comedian at Holy City Zoo in San Francisco. He first played the alien known as Mork from Ork in the television series "Happy Days." It was that stint that led to his starring role on the series "Mork & Mindy."

The death of Williams hit Bay Area residents hard. His rapid-fire delivery and mirthful face were so familiar that people felt they knew him, and many people had bumped into him as he ate at restaurants in San Francisco and Marin County or pedaled around Tiburon on his racing bike. He often made impromptu appearances at local comedy clubs.

Dozens of neighbors and well-wishers stood outside the Tiburon home late Monday, many in disbelief.

"I still don't believe it's real," said Megan Thorpe, a 25-year-old Novato resident who used to nanny for a neighbor down the street. "But we're here. It has to be."

Thorpe, like several others, brought flowers to lay at Williams' front fence.

'He was very San Francisco'

Fans also gathered at the large tile-roofed home in San Francisco's Sea Cliff neighborhood where Williams used to live and left bouquets of flowers, balloons and notes. One said, "You are my idol."

Jason Wertheimer, a 39-year-old Presidio resident, said Williams had come outside to help him and a friend fix a bicycle after it broke down in front of the actor's house about 10 years ago.

"He just wanted to help. He seemed excited to help," Wertheimer said. "I felt like I had to come here and be reminded of that time I met him. He was very San Francisco and I love this city, and I felt like I wanted to remember that moment when I met him."

Jonathan Logan, a 39-year-old Mission District resident, said he saw Williams a few months ago in San Francisco. The two locked eyes for a moment.

"I thought to myself, 'Now Robin Williams knows I exist.' " Logan said. "I was humbled and flattered. I feel particularly horrible for his wife. This great man had such a fragile existence, and now he's gone."

The actor's death reminded Carol Emerich, a 64-year-old retired teacher from the South Bay, that depression can lurk under the surface for a long time and go unnoticed.

"You look at them and think they have everything," she said. "Many people who you'd never imagine are depressed or suicidal end up killing themselves."

Comedic, dramatic roles

Williams had a gift for improvisation and physicality. But as his career developed, he also took on both comedic and serious roles in movies and onstage.

His most celebrated film roles included a wartime disc jockey in "Good Morning, Vietnam" and a prep school English teacher in "Dead Poets Society." In "Mrs. Doubtfire," he played a father who disguises himself as a nanny to spend time with his children after a bitter divorce.

For his role as a therapist in "Good Will Hunting," he won the Academy Award for best supporting actor. He was also widely acclaimed for his voice work in animated movies, including his turn as a genie in "Aladdin."

Along with his wife, he is survived by brother McLaurin Smith Williams; sister-in-law Frankie Williams; children Zachary Williams, Zelda Williams and Cody Williams; and stepsons Casey and Peter Armusewicz.

Timeline of Robin Williams' career

1976

Williams is a finalist in the First International Open Stand Up Comedy Competition, held at Joe Nobriga's Showcase, a nightclub in San Francisco.

1977

Appears in episode of the remake of NBC's "Laugh In."

1978

First appears as Mork in an episode of "Happy Days."

1979

Nominated for a prime-time Emmy for lead actor in a comedy series for "Mork & Mindy."

1986

Co-hosts the Academy Awards.

1988

Nominated for the best actor Oscar for "Good Morning, Vietnam."

1989

Honored with the Man of the Year award by the Hasty

Pudding Theatricals at Harvard University.

1990

Nominated for best actor Oscar for "Dead Poets

Society."

1992

Nominated for best actor Oscar for "The Fisher King."

1998

Wins the best supporting actor Oscar for "Good Will Hunting."

2005

Receives the Cecil B. DeMille Award for career achievement from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

2006

Seeks treatment for alcohol dependency.

2007

Receives the Peter J. Owens Award from the San Francisco Film Society.

2009

Has surgery to replace an aortic valve.

2013

Begins a new television series, "The Crazy Ones," his first starring TV role since "Mork & Mindy" three decades earlier.

Peter Fimrite, Vivian Ho, Kurtis Alexander and Hamed Aleaziz are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. E-mail: pfimrite@sfchronicle.com, vho@sfchronicle.com, kalexander@sfchronicle.com, haleaziz@sfchronicle.com