For Zak Williams, the grief is always there, but the memories come in waves—sometimes small, sometimes tidal. It has been more than four months since his father, comedian Robin Williams, took his own life at age 63. Since that awful day on Aug. 11, “I miss him all the time,” Zak, 31, tells PEOPLE. “Often I see something, or if I’m watching a film, I think, ‘Oh, man, he would have appreciated this’ or ‘He would have gotten a laugh out of this.’ There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think about our dad,” he says of himself and siblings Zelda, 25, and Cody, 23. “The key thing is just to take things a step at a time. I know it sounds a little clichéd, but really focusing on what’s in front of you, focusing on your well-being and then trying to fill our hearts so we can be there for others is really important.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many who knew and loved the late Oscar winner. At the Dec. 12 premiere of Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Williams’s widow, Susan Schneider, joined the cast in support of one of the actor’s last completed films. There was sadness, yes, but also a best-foot-forward determination to honor Williams with joy and laughter. Schneider, 50, “wanted to experience the film with fans,” says Museum director Shawn Levy. “It’s both sides of the Robin Williams that audiences love—he’s crazy funny and heartbreakingly human.”
That duality was at the heart of what drew generations of fans to the star. Although he fought for his sobriety and battled depression and anxiety as well as the early stages of Parkinson’s disease before his death, he was the kind of guy who unwaveringly put others’ struggles in front of his own. “You always thought he was giving to everybody else except for himself,” says his former neighbor Larry Baer, president and CEO of the San Francisco Giants.
But oh, how he was loved. The outpouring of support since his death “has been overwhelming,” admits Zak, whose mom is Williams’s first wife, Valerie Velardi. “It felt global. It’s been helping, but none of it’s been easy. Taking time when I feel overwhelmed is key, stepping aside and taking a moment to breathe.”
For Zak and others, the biggest solace has been in carrying on Williams’s legacy of compassion and generosity. Here, friends share the ways he touched their lives and continues to inspire them.
National outreach director for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
Robin worked with St. Jude for 18 years. He made a real connection with those kids. One of them liked toy soldiers, so Robin sent him his own toy soldiers that he had saved all those years of his childhood. We did an annual St. Jude’s benefit in Los Angeles for many, many years, and one year he was sitting next to me talking about cloning. I thought, “What’s he talking about? That’s weird.” I realized he was trying out his jokes on me. He had prepared an entire act especially for this event that had a lot of things about science in it. I asked Marsha, “Is this something he just came up with for this?” And she said, “He’s been working on this for months.” He did it with such perfectionism.
Robin is all over St. Jude hospital. At the hospital we have this staircase that plays music when you step on it, so we’re calling it “Robin’s Magical Staircase.” We want to memorialize him because he meant so much to the children. When he came there, it was like magic. He was 300 percent there when he was with them.
Member of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation Board of Directors and son of Williams’s close friend, actor Christopher Reeve
Robin was family to us all. So much so that once, many years ago, shortly after my dad’s accident, when everyone was just plain exhausted, he tried to lighten the load by offering to put me to bed for my afternoon nap. I was used to my mom or grandmother tucking me in, but Robin saw the chance to give them a break. He, being the loving and dedicated father and husband that he was, knew how much a few extra moments of peace would mean to them. I, however, was less compassionate. I had a routine: I was to be taken to my room, told a bedtime story and left to sleep.
Aladdin was a box office hit at the time, which showcased Robin’s immense, transformational talent to a new generation. As my energy dipped to dangerously low levels, he pleaded with me to allow him to take me upstairs. “Will,” he said, “I know you like stories. Can I tell you one before your nap? I do funny voices.” I, 4 years old, was unmoved and refused. He kept pitching himself, first as Mork, then as Peter Pan, then as Genie, but always, unfailingly, as Robin, the sweet, gentle man who loved my father and his family so fiercely that he would do anything to make them happy. I still said no and have always regretted it.
Robin was committed to the Reeve family and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and to the notion that life is most fully lived when it can be shared with others.
Comedian and founder of the #BeRobin campaign to help the homeless
I think people don’t realize what an advocate he was for homeless people. Just with Comic Relief he raised, along with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal, $70 million. And on top of that, in his movie contracts he would require that a percentage of the crew were to be homeless workers so he gave homeless people dignified work, which I think was really important. When I spoke to Michael Pritchard, who is another comedian and homeless advocate, and I was telling him that I couldn’t stop grieving Robin, he said, “Don’t grieve Robin. Be Robin.” That was profound. I started this with my friends and now it has grown. Sometimes we can dehumanize people because they look different, and that is an important thing to remember. It’s something that Robin always remembered.
President and CEO of the San Francisco Giants
Robin has a community legacy of working for San Francisco General Hospital, supporting the troops, local comics, his local baseball team. I remember him leaving me a voice mail after the 2012 World Series, and he said, “No schtick. Let me tell you how proud I am of everyone. I followed every pitch, and the team made me so happy, so proud.” He was our family.
Rev. Cecil Williams
Glide Memorial United Methodist
Church in San Francisco
One time he was at a recovery meeting, and he signed something like 250 autographs for people there. He wouldn’t leave until he finished. He said, “These are my brothers and sisters.” These were people who were in recovery and were in pain, and he made a commitment to them.
Neighbor and cofounder of the Drever Family Foundation
As a painter, Susan loves to do sunrises and sunset, so she comes to our place to do that. Robin would come schlepping over to the rose garden to watch her. This is a guy who really had a joy in supporting Susan and supporting their mutual love of the arts. I think you’ll see Susan and his family carrying on that legacy.