Last year, when I was dreadfully ill and (mistakenly) thought I was dying, I made up a sort of bucket list; I would reunite with my best friend from the Seventies. I would visit with my high school English teacher. I would try to reconnect with Robin Williams. I came back from the East Coast having accomplished the first two and noted Robin's July 21st birthday. He was sixty three -- and once again 'number shock' set in -- that symptomatic quantum of disbelief when the figures of life just don't add up. Especially for Robin, who worked very hard at maintaining his inner child.
He looked pretty good on "The Crazy Ones" but the title offended me; it was an unfortunately reflexive response to Robin's gifts. I myself had often been called crazy (for far less expressiveness) and countless times people had asked about my friend Mr. Williams, "He's crazy, isn't he?" I would always counter "No, he's gifted." "No, he's simply inspired.""No, he's been tested- he's hyper-comedic." Today, even in the light of his incomprehensible tragedy, I would still offer that he wasn't "crazy."
Robin was a total sweetheart -- a tzaddik, an avatar, a higher being come to earth. In all the uproar surrounding his death, I haven't heard even one negative word about him. And only once did I ever hear him say anything nasty about someone -- someone who we both disliked.
His suicide, though, was really unimaginable -- it goes against our every preconceived notion of a good life -- that a life that could bring so much joy to billions of people could immolate like that simply violates and trashes our perceived realities.
But he was definitely not crazy. The headlines actually say "Manic comedian dead at 63" and we forget that the word that used to always follow manic was depressive. It's a story far too common to comedians.
There's a book by psychiatrists Rhoda and Seymour Fisher called "Pretend The World Is Funny And Forever" that analyzes the backgrounds of two dozen comedians. Yes, there's a distinct overtone of sorrow in the lives of many comedians, most often brought on by childhood trauma. Robin didn't fit that pattern. When I lent him that book, he was fascinated -- but it was so not him. He was a victim of depression, of faulty brain chemistry. It was a medical condition like diabetes or gout. It should have been controlled, but who would have messed with Robin's brain? Perhaps it would have been better had he been more "crazy" like his idol, Jonathan Winters; he might have gotten the drastic help he needed.
But if you regard time on earth as a vessel to be filled up with life, and that act of blessed infilling as prudent, sane, and natural (Robin would add "moist, funky and incontinent.") tell me who was more life affirming and more sane than Robin?
The other question I would often get was "Is he always on?" My answer was that he was definitely operating on a different fuel mixture than other humans - he was either "idling" in sweet, gentle, generous neutral or "accelerating in a discontinuous array". But unlike the many hyper-human ego machines that populate Hollywood, Robin had the ultimate gift of laughter and no regard for the useless trappings of celebrity. I was with him when a studio exec brought Steven Seagal to the set of "Hook." They had absolutely nothing to say to each other beyond Seagal's "Fuck People magazine." He left. Robin said "Why?"
When my son Daniel was young I would lay with my head on his chest, just to hear him laugh, just to hear the breath of life. Can you imagine the massive waves of ecstasy that would meet Robin on stage? He was the moon, and tides of laughter would rise up to greet him. He was a force of nature, as mood-altering as an August snowstorm. Can you imagine the sheer ecstasy of combat troops hearing him in Iraq or Afghanistan? He always provided laughter. He, like Mother Teresa, was always of service. That was his agenda and he never let anyone down. He was not crazy.
I was blessed enough to be friends with him for almost two decades. We met through mutual pal Harold Ramis (yes, it's been a very bad year) during the filming of the supremely stupid "Club Paradise." We just hit it off. He actually liked me. I couldn't understand it, but I wasn't about to question it. He was with his first wife Valerie then but the marriage was fraying and he was lonely, needy and on the prowl. But he wasn't drinking or doing drugs; Belushi's death had scared him straight. One insane, starlet-infested night at "Helena's" in Silverlake, I'm sure we were the only two sober people in the room. And I thought "I'm with Robin Williams. That's why Mariska Hargitay is sitting on my lap."
I was straight (didn't drink, smoke or do drugs) reasonably articulate, occasionally funny and capable of 'smart' conversation, which he loved. Robin wasn't academic, but he had a method actor's obsessiveness in accessing and transmuting as much detail as possible. He was the consummate gleaner -- he would take in everything, swirl the data in his blender and pour out his wild mash-ups. Once while discussing Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he said he preferred Andrew Dice Clay's "One Hundred Years of Attitude." That led inevitably to three or four minutes of rolling the Dice and me rolling on the floor.
His brilliance was incomparable. Did you ever see The Three Tenors sing "O Sole Mio?" Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras would stand back in awe as Pavarotti ascended to the vocal stratosphere. So it was with other comics and Robin. One night we had Cheech Marin over for dinner when Robin decided to show up. From that night on, I felt a person hadn't truly lived unless he'd played Trivial Pursuit with Robin Williams.
The question was "What was the smallest of the twelve tribes of Israel?" Cheech, a very smart man who's won Celebrity Jeopardy, answered correctly "The Cohens." Robin, not to be outdone, instantly countered with "The William Morris agents." He then started yelling into an imaginary intercom as Abe Lastfogel; "Todd, bring me another phone book, I can't see over my desk." Incomparable.
I think I served two purposes in Robin's life -- I was his "Go-To- Jew." He would call when he needed Semitic shtick. This was born out of our habit of sitting on benches in Tiburon or San Francisco or New York and pretending to be old Jewish guys on an imaginary Miami boardwalk. Robin was the best old Yid ever -- if I'd call him Henny, he'd say he'd prefer to be Milton's schlong. Once we had an entire conversation consisting only of punch lines to old Jewish jokes. He won.
He liked Jewish. He dug the whole "Fiddler on The Roof" precariousness of life, plus the fact that most of his comedic idols were Jewish. He also loved and lamented that he had missed that fabled land called The Borscht Belt -- "Imagine a place where the Joker is the King. Oy, I could've been a tummler, a waiter, a mohel. You could've been a knish." Our friendship survived.
One time he called when I was on the phone with my brother Ken. I asked if I could conference the two calls, give my brother a thrill? Robin's first words were "I've never been on the phone with two Jews where one of 'em didn't want ten percent."
Robin wanted some material for a U.J.A. dinner honoring Billy Crystal. I answered "Why? He's not even Jewish. His real name is William Waterford Crystal." Robin cried "Great! I'm using that." I would feed him lines that stimulated him, like for the 1998 Academy Awards. I'd say "Moses, the artist formerly known as Prince of Egypt" and he'd say "The Charlton Heston Story -Guns and Moses."
He liked my imagination. Our friendship progressed to the point where he'd ask me to go to club dates as his 'Improv-ocateur." It seems he was often disappointed in the ordinariness of audience suggestions -- he'd ask for say, an occupation and someone would yell "School teacher" or "Fireman." I'd yell "Nazi fitness instructor." You can just imagine what he made of that. The best one came one night at The Comedy and Magic Club in Manhattan Beach. He wanted to have an imaginary conversation between two historical figures. Someone yelled "Abraham Lincoln." I yelled "Gandhi." But Robin misheard it -- "Gumby! Gumby! Tell Pokey the Union must be preserved."
That night, on the ride home the riff morphed into Gumby vs. Gandhi, who wanted to know if the relationship between Gumby and Pokey (his Claymation horse) was a traditional marriage: "Bridal or Bridle? Youth wants to know." He was inexhaustable. Driving back to the Bel-Air Hotel (where he would register as "Mr. Goldman", his character in "The Birdcage") we talked about time and velocity. He was finally 'off' and able to have a quiet, serious conversation. I said he was impossibly fast. I had asked others who dealt with speed, like baseball great Fred Lynn (who said he could see the ball turning) and NBA player Nate Archibald: time slowed down for them. Robin said the same thing -- the ad libs that seemed like lightning in a bottle were often carefully selected from his vast mental Rolodex. Still, they emerged like miraculous burst of mercury to us Earthlings.
In the last two days people have said repeatedly "I feel like I knew him." My answer was "you did know him." Whenever I saw him as an actor, I always felt "Oh, that's Robin." Christian Bale, Daniel Day Lewis -- Robin wasn't a transformer like them. As great an actor as he was, to me his highest genius was his spontaneous comedy. There were only two comedic geniuses in my generation -- Robin and Richard Pryor. Together they were like the Beatles and Dylan -- everyone else was a runner-up. He had his Relativity Theory: his equation was Time and Velocity = Improv.
My other thoughts are mostly anger -- that no one realized what was happening and intervened. Why wasn't he on a 24/7 suicide watch? The story, true or not, will come out. And it won't change a fucking thing -- nobody stepped in. They never do. Robin, Belushi, Kurt Cobain, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Elvis, Michael Jackson etc. -- no one had the strength to dissuade these "forces of nature."
I hadn't seen Robin in a number of years and never met his third wife, Susan. I was pleased that his manager, Larry Brezner, thought she was great for him. Our friendship had simply dissolved in the acidic air of Hollywood. But I held no negative thoughts towards him -- he was busy befriending the world. I simply regret having not called him on his birthday.
Still, my most delightful yet poignant recollection is of his 'Secret Room," built in the mid-nineties when he and second wife Marsha moved to their villa in Pacific Heights. I think they also had a "safe room", but this one was purely Robin's. Reached through a wall panel, it was filled with his immense childhood collection of thousands of toy soldiers, pewter, iron, wood, plastic -- all lined up like... toy soldiers. There was a chessboard, Slinkies, maybe some Silly Putty and a CD player (I think "Don't Worry, Be Happy" was his favorite song.) I called it "Fort Arrested Development" -- he liked that. He showed the room off like a ten year-old with a fantastic tree house. He had, in there, all the essentials of an eternal childhood.
I hope he's in his Secret Room.