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Robin Williams’ legacy of generosity in Sonoma County (w/video)


Robin Williams leaves behind a sprawling vineyard estate straddling Sonoma County’s border with Napa and a local legacy of generosity, often delighting crowds with his wit at Santa Rosa’s comedy clubs and charitable events.

Williams’ charisma was perhaps only eclipsed by that of his older brother, local wine broker Robert “Dr. Toad” Williams, who founded Healdsburg’s Toad Hollow Vineyards. Robert Williams died in 2007.

“In a lot of places around America, I’m just Toad’s brother. That’s so cool,” Robin Williams told a Press Democrat reporter at the time of his brother’s death.

Local food maven and radio host Marcy Smothers said she met Williams several times.

“In my experience he was just as brilliant, funny and as kind as what you saw on the television and in the movies,” Marcy Smothers said by phone Monday. “I knew he struggled with alcoholism and depression and that’s a terrible combination.”

A thick folder in The Press Democrat archives chronicles Williams’ often spontaneous appearances around the county.

The comic ran the steep, sweaty six-mile course of the Kenwood 10k in 1984 and also around that time took his son Zachary to a Halloween festival at Dunbar Elementary School. Williams encouraged nightclub entrepreneurs to include comedy and helped connect them with people in the business who helped open Santa Rosa’s long gone Daily Planet nightclub. Once the club opened, he surprised and dazzled guests with an impromptu 45-minute performance.

In 1992, Williams walked into a Sonoma Plaza art gallery and handed then-owner Mike Michlig a shiny jacket with “Dead Poets Society” on the back. Just one week before, Michlig had told the star, who had come down into the town to take in some art, that the movie’s seize-the-day message inspired his family’s move to open the art venue in Sonoma County.

The next year, Williams showed up unannounced at a fundraiser during the search for Polly Klaas, who at age 12 was kidnapped from her Petaluma home and would later be found dead. At the event held to raise money for the search, Williams confiscated a baseball signed by Willie Mays, added his signature and with his best Bill Clinton impersonation, urged the crowd to bid.

“Buy this baseball,” he said according to Press Democrat archives, “. . . and you will receive your own American Medical Express Card, which can be used anywhere in the country. It’s good for one operation — or circumcision. Your choice.”

He sold the ball for $1,750 to buy postage stamps for the effort to find the child.

Williams spent a portion of his childhood in Marin County. Lore has it that his bosses at the Lark Creek Inn didn’t allow Williams to work as a busboy on weekends because he slowed down the crew by making them laugh.

Williams made San Francisco his home base but he and his family had various properties in Sonoma County, including Glen Ellen.

In 1994 Williams began purchasing parcels that would eventually become a 650-acre estate atop the Mayacamas along the border of Sonoma and Napa counties. The estate, called “Villa Sorriso,” was listed for $29.9 million in April, down from its original listing price of $35 million in 2012. Adjacent to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park on the Sonoma side, the property has a 20,000-square-foot Italianate manor with five bedrooms, a home theater and three Kevlar-wrapped safe rooms as well as horse stables and a tower.