I humbly submit my voice to the chorus of grievers over Robin Williams’ death with these anecdotes.
Mid-80’s. San Francisco. An intimate comedy club just doors away from where I live on Chestnut St. A friend and I go to see featured performer Sam Kinison. Once on stage, he is kind of out of it, and not very funny. Furthermore, he continues to drink. The crowd is getting uncomfortable. From the back of the room, a voice emerges. It’s Robin’s, and he brilliantly, seamlessly, works his way into Sam’s routine, (if you could even call it that), as if he were a heckler. Robin finds his way onto the stage, keeping everyone immensely entertained to the point we’re not sure if this was all planned. Once on stage, the comedy escalates, even as Sam deteriorates, because Robin is incorporating everything that is happening — Sam’s descent into a thicker fog, the audience’s wondering if they are about witness a train wreck– as part of his extremely and profoundly funny routine.
At just the right moment, before Sam falls on his face, Robin ushers Sam off the stage with incredible grace and wit. He manages to provide his friend with great dignity in an otherwise undignified situation. The generosity of his spirit, and unparalleled brilliance, were in full evidence that night.
A decade later, we — my then partner Oliver Stone, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, and myself — are to have dinner with Robin to discuss his playing Harvey Milk. We meet at Michael’s restaurant, a bit of a formal setting for such an untamed individual. Robin arrives “on”, and stays “on”. He is terribly funny of course, but we want to talk to him, the person. We cannot get to him. By the end of the evening, we are left wondering if he were truly interested in the role despite being told he was.
(The film later made by other producers features Sean Penn who does a superlative job, and it was our oversight to have not thought of him in the role.)
Of the two memories I have of Robin, the former is indelibly printed in my heart for its extraordinary act of kindness.
I only wish someone could have been there to usher Robin off his stage with grace and dignity as well.