Fate threw me in Robin Williams’ path more than once, and I never forgot any of the encounters. He was such a wired, complex, brilliantly funny individual, no connection with him was anything like ordinary.
Though Williams, who died Monday at age 63, appeared in dozens of films, getting Oscar nominated for four performances and finally winning for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” it was as a dazzling, unknown stand-up comedian that I first met him. In a pair of linked meetings, he made an impression on me that in an unnerving way connects in my mind to the tragic way his life ended.
The year was 1978, I was a freelance journalist newly arrived in Los Angeles when an editor I knew at Rolling Stone called me with a quick last-minute assignment.
A TV show called “Mork & Mindy” was being filmed, and though it hadn’t aired yet, the word was already out that its star, a young comedian named Robin Williams, was going to break out.
In addition to filming the show, Williams was doing occasional stand-up at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. Would I catch one of his shows, do a brief interview and write a small story for the magazine? Who could say no to that?
The Comedy Store was half-asleep and half-empty that night, Williams was the last performer on the bill, and did he wake the place up. The astounding routine he went into would defy description even if I could remember it word for word.
He took on different characters with different accents, roamed to all kinds of locations, both physical and metaphysical, made lightning-fast comic connections in time and space that were at once hysterically funny and like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was no surprise people in the know were buzzing about Robin Williams, no surprise at all.
After the show Williams and I had a quick bite in a bustling place on the Strip called the Copper Kettle. It was jammed with people, and absolutely no one cared or even looked up when he walked into the room. How are you going to handle it, I asked him, when your show airs and everyone knows your name, when you won’t be able to walk into a place like this without causing a firestorm.
Oh no, Williams insisted, stubbornly — or perhaps nervously, at this point I can’t be sure — refusing to acknowledge the tsunami everyone around him knew was headed his way. That’s not going to happen, he said, confidently shaking his head, nothing like that is ever going to happen.
Cut to several months later. “Mork & Mindy” is the hottest show on television, and Williams is the talk of the town. I was covering the AFI Life Achievement Award for the Washington Post and, by pure chance, walked into the hotel entrance right behind Robin and his date.
I tapped him on the shoulder, he turned around and gave me a big surprised grin. So, I asked him, as the line to the ballroom snaked forward, how has this celebrity business turned out for you? He was about to say something when we turned a corner and the mass phalanx of photographers caught sight of him.
“Robin, Robin, look this way, Robin, over here,” they screamed in a “Day of the Locust” frenzy as waves of flashbulbs flashed in unison. Robin smiled, waved and mugged and then all of a sudden turned back to me. With the brilliant improvisational mind that defined him, he said something in a stage whisper that was immediately recognizable as a riff on the terrifying plea for help that closes the 1950s science fiction classic “The Fly.”
“Help me, Ken,” he said in a perfect imitation of the film’s tiny, doomed fly voice. “Help me.” Then he turned back to the photographers and was gone.
Because it was as stand-up of genius that I first encounter Williams, that’s how I always thought of him, even when he transformed into a formidable actor Oscar-nominated for “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Dead Poets Society” and “The Fisher King” before his “Good Will Hunting” triumph.
It always seemed to me that the restlessness, the search for experience and knowledge that characterized his comedy as well as his very physical presence compelled him to go into drama, to take on not only comic roles but also dark ones. Roles that in some ways seemed out of character with his stand-up voice but from another point of view fit right in.
I ran into Williams one more time, several years later at a press lunch at the Cannes Film Festival where he was in full performance mode, keeping a table full of journalists roaring with laughter at the frenzied nimbleness of his attack. But even at those high-octane moments, even when he won his Oscar, I could never get that “Help me” moment out of my mind. When word came in Monday about his death, the thought of it made me shudder, it really did.