TAHOE CITY, Calif. — Robin Williams was a world-wide celebrity who never seemed to act like one — at least when he was at Lake Tahoe.
The 63-year-old comedian and actor whose suicide shocked the world Monday was a frequent visitor to North Tahoe over the past several years, and often brought his family to ski the slopes of Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley.
Several residents remember the Academy Award-winning actor, who lived in Marin County, as “low-key and very approachable.” Others said they were touched by his genuine nature.
“He was a very humble and gracious person,” said Greg Felsch, who, as director of skiing services at Alpine Meadows in the ‘90s, interacted with the multi-talented performer frequently. “He kept a very low-key profile but was also a jokester. He would sometimes break into five-minute routines in the Alpine locker room and have everyone laughing uproariously.”
Felsch got an early glimpse of Williams’ talent as a student at the College of Marin in the early ‘70s.
“We both went to school there and he was in a Shakespearean play,” Felsch said. “I thought to myself, ‘hey this guy is good.’ Next time I see him, he’s on ‘Mork & Mindy.’”
Bob Bush, Mt. Rose ski school director, was an instructor at Alpine from 1990-97 and became Williams’ personal liaison and friend during his frequent winter vacations.
“I organized lessons for his kids and family friends,” Bush said. “I would hand-pick instructors who were not only good, but would downplay that he was a celebrity. He got to know and trust that he and his family would be treated like normal people on a vacation.
“It got to the point he didn’t call the ski school, he would just call my house to let me know he was coming up.”
MORPH AND MULTIPLE
Bush said inevitably Williams would be recognized, and he would sometimes spontaneously morph into one of his multiple characters, especially around kids.
“He was extremely approachable, he never had that ‘leave me alone attitude,’” Bush said. “He was just great with kids and could become these different characters one after another — from a foreign guy with an accent to an old lady — it was just amazing. He was hilarious.”
Bush said Williams surprised him and his wife, Linda, with a gift upon the birth of their first son, Zac.
“A FedEx truck pulled up to our house and delivered a giant box,” said Bush. “It was a kid’s rocking chair. We were very touched. We still have it and will pass it down, along with his story.
“My heart aches for his kids,” he added. “I can only imagine what it would be like to go through this.”
Squaw Valley filmmaker Scott Gaffney met Williams at a celebrity event at the Resort at Squaw Creek in 2003. He too was awed by the superstar’s unassuming nature.
“I mentioned to him how impressed I was that he was so approachable. He shook his head as if there should never be any question about that and said, ‘That’s just the way you have to be.’”
DINING AT WOLFDALE’S
Aside from skiing, Williams also enjoyed dining out locally with family and friends. He was a regular customer at Wolfdale’s in Tahoe City and became close with owner/chef Douglas Dale.
“He started coming in about 20 years ago,” said Dale. “He liked to dine, he liked his food, he liked his wine. I once served him a roasted, stuffed pheasant breast and that became his favorite.
“Through the years he became a regular customer. We always guarded his privacy, and he appreciated that. But he was never stand-offish. He broke those barriers. He was a warm, compassionate person.”
Dale also got to witness Williams’ irrepressible humor several times, but one evening is especially etched in his memory.
“Robin came in with some members of Monty Python,” he recalled. “He was obviously hosting them and showing them around Tahoe. As the evening progressed, it became ‘competitive comedy’ — they went back and forth endlessly. They were having a ball. That was not a quiet night.”
Like most, Dale was shocked and saddened by the tragic news of Williams’ death.
“The world lost a real super talent and a wonderful human being,” he said. “He was an absolute sweetheart.”
Bill Jensen owns and operates Granite Chief Communications, parent company of Squaw Valley Times and Around Tahoe TV, firstname.lastname@example.org.