Robin Williams: A brief encounter

12 Aug
August 12, 2014

This is a grievous thing to say aloud, much less think, but I wish that the suicide of Robin Williams made less sense to me than it somehow does. I say that with very little real knowledge of the man, his inner being, or the whole of his life. I encountered him only once, twenty years ago, but the memory is distinct. I found Mr. Williams good-hearted, hilarious, talented, and remarkably, indescribably sad.

We were in the Maryland morgue on the given day, though the location had little to do with the sadness. Mr. Williams was guesting on an episode of NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street I had cowritten with my college-newspaper comrade, David Mills. It was the first attempt at a television script for either of us, and until Mr. Williams had agreed to sign on as a guest star, our effort had seemed something of a miserable failure.

For one thing, we had originally written the episode for season one of the network drama.  But NBC execs, reading a narrative in which a mother of two is shot to death in front of her husband and children and no warm victories follow thereafter, thought the effort too grim.  Executive producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson pulled the script from that first season’s order of nine episodes, subbing another in its place.

So much for a career in television, we had assumed.  Mr. Mills went back to the Washington Post; I remained on the metro desk at the Baltimore Sun. But after Mr. Fontana had somehow managed a paltry four-episode renewal of the show for a second season, the script was resurrected. Mr. Williams, who had been directed by Mr. Levinson in the earlier triumph of Good Morning, Vietnam, had agreed to take the role of the husband.

This was a big deal. It came at a time before premium cable, and before film stars would be caught dead guesting on network television shows. Moreover, the role called for a dry, humorless tour through post-traumatic stress, guilt and unbridled grief.  It was not a Robin Williams role, to be sure. But he was box office and if he was willing to go dark then NBC was willing to go dark as well, at least for one hour. And so, many months after we had turned our script in to Mr. Fontana, David and I were told that it would be filmed after all.  Or at least half of our script would be.

The arrival of Mr. Williams required some rewriting — given that we had divided the scenes equally between the stricken family and the three young men complicit in the robbery-murder.  One does not acquire Robin Williams in order to have him off-screen in every other scene, and so, Tom and Jim Yoshimura set to work writing additional pyrotechnics for the guest actor and trimming back on the intricacies of the relationship between the three suspects. By the time they finished, a little over half the pages of our original script were still in evidence.

In the communal world of dramatic television, getting half your pages through editing is, I now know, a victory for any freelance writer. But at the time, coming from newspapers, so much rewriting constituted abject failure, if not incompetence. In reading the finished script, I felt embarrassed and unworthy.

What I couldn’t know then was that the entire enterprise was hanging by a thread, that NBC had effectively cancelled Homicide after the low-rated first season, that Tom had talked Don Ohlmeyer into the four-ep renewal over drinks and begging, and that Barry and his partner at the time, Mark Johnson, had secured Mr. Williams as a last-ditch stunt-cast to save the show. Never mind my affections for Scene Two, in which the three corner boys discuss Chicken McNuggets and the corporate co-opting of individuality (yeah, that’s where that schtick came from), the mission here was to have the leading comic actor of his generation carry us up to the mountaintop with a thirty share.

So when producer Gail Mutrux invited me to set to meet Mr. Williams, I was actually torn. David and I both felt that we had failed to deliver a complete script suitable for shooting, but more than that, I was ill at ease with this strange stepchild that had arrived in my city. Based on my non-fiction book, but effectively its own universe, the NBC show was something that I could admire, but not yet accept on its own terms. I didn’t understand a film set. Or actors. Or process.

Even before my edited script was fully published, I had gone on my lunch hour to set during the previous episode.  I suppose I wanted a victory lap for even having my name on a television script, even if half of it had been rewritten. Kyle Secor came up to me first, asking if he would have scenes with Robin Williams.

“No, not that I wrote.  You’re not really big in the ep.  It’s mostly Melissa and Danny.”

Richard Belzer made the same inquiry.

“Not much.  Maybe a line or two.”

That night, the phone rang in my South Baltimore rowhouse.  It was Tom Fontana, calling from New York.  He had some advice for me. At this late vantage, it is, I will attest, good advice by and large.

“You talked to the actors.”

“Ummm…”

“Never talk to actors.  Never, never, never, never talk to actors.”

He proceeded to explain to me how any actor who was unable to share a scene with Mr. Williams would be in open rebellion against the production and that I had revealed myself, in the most off-handed way, to be a babbling idiot. Do not, he said, talk to the actors about anything, ever again. Click.

So, yes, the invitation to return to the film set and meet Mr. Williams during the ensuing episode had me at odds with myself. On the one hand, I had the ire of Tom Fontana ringing in my ear. On the other hand, I was a  crime reporter in Baltimore and Robin Williams was a mighty cultural icon, a singular talent of a kind that someone of my station might encounter once or twice in a lifetime. And yet, again to the first hand, I was still ashamed of having failed to deliver a full script; some of Mr. Williams’ most notable scenes were at the pen of others more talented.

In the end, I went; I couldn’t help it. I dumped my worn LP of “Reality…What A Concept” in the back seat of my car and drove to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, palms sweaty, trying to think of something, anything, clever to say to one of the planet’s fastest and most comic minds.

Except when I got there, everyone warned me that Mr. Williams was not in that frame of mind. The crazed, manic stand-up routines, the machine-gun witticisms and impersonations — all of it was on hold as he tried to live in the shattered soul of a husband and father who had just lost his wife to sudden, implacable violence. He was, I found, the most in-character actor on that film set.

So there I stood, a putz with a dog-eared comedy album under my arm, waiting my turn for god knows what, as Mr. Williams sat in a small conference room, alone and ignored, while the crew set up lights and turned the camera around for another shot. When Lt. Gary D’Addario, one of the original Baltimore detectives in my book and then a tech advisor on the show, finally screwed up enough courage to disturb the man, I watched, stricken, as the lieutenant produced the same comedy record for an autograph. Shit, no. I went back to my car and dumped the LP. Never go civilian, I chastised myself.

Instead, I watched them film a scene, half-written by David and myself, then wandered over to craft services to liberate some Fig Newtons and a bottled water. And there, to my surprise, was Robin Williams, prowling the table, still seemingly wearing his character’s pain. I swallowed and offered my hand.

“Mr. Williams? I’m David Simon. I wrote the script, or some of it anyway. Thank you for everything you are bringing to the performance.”

He smiled, thanked me in return for the work, and asked if I had been writing for Barry and Tom for long. No, I explained, it was my first scriptwork and in reality, I was a newspaper reporter here in Baltimore. In fact, I needed to get back to the office before too long. He showed some mild surprise, and then we stood there, without much else to say. I wanted to offer something — anything — and I thought about the Penn Street morgue in which we were standing.

“Have you ever heard of the Nutshell Studies?”

He had not, of course.

“They’re upstairs, off the hallway up there. I can show you. It’s not anything you could imagine, and since we’re actually in the morgue today…”

He nodded, a bit wearily, I thought, and a nervous production assistant followed us upstairs as I tried to explain the dollhouse-sized dioramas that were on display at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner here in Baltimore. Created as part of the Francis Glessner Lee Seminar for death investigation, a training regimen for police detectives originally funded by Harvard University, each diorama featured the occupants of a dollhouse room in the aftermath of violent death. The scenes were carefully detailed, and a detective in the seminar, as part of his final exam, could stare down at a tableau and determine, from the evidence in each room, whether the doll in question had died accidentally, taken his or her own life, or been willfully murdered.

Mr. Williams looked at each of the rooms, asking questions, fascinated by the macabre display. He guessed at a seemingly accidental death that was in fact a murder, then guessed again at a kitchen suicide by a young girl that seemed at first glance to be a stabbing. I could offer solutions to most of the displays only because I’d learned the answers, years before. The actor took it all in, clicking the buttons to light each diorama and then staring at all of the morbid goings-on until the P.A. told him he was needed back on set.

“How long has that been here?” he asked as we walked back.

“They’re from the 1940s, I think.”

He nodded solemnly. Not a joke to be had. I tried to prompt him:

“Dollhouse from Hell.”

He smiled for just a moment, but followed the P.A. back downstairs to the set, where the grips and gaffer were still lighting. And then, suddenly, it happened. Nothing specifically to do with the dollhouse horror show, or even the fact that we were filming in a working morgue, but instead the arrival of Mr. Levinson, the executive producer, set him off. I wish I could remember the sequence, but there is no way in hell:

It began, I think, with something about Barry arriving as a mohel to circumcise the cast and crew, replete with an imitation offered up with Hasidic accent, then lurched into a string of jokes about how reluctant crew members could opt for an antemortem autopsy downstairs if they didn’t want to be so fixed by Mr. Levinson. There was a segue into all the other morbid Baltimore locales that would be featured in the episode, and all of the ghoulish degradations that would be endured by the crew, following by some savagery about the film caterer and then some banter with Mr. Belzer, who tried to hang for a few bon mots. But no, Robin Williams was firing all rockets, leaving earth’s orbit. I can’t remember all of the sparks of comic synapse, the absurd connections, the twisting journey from one punchline to the next.  I have a specific recollection of him announcing Mr. Levinson’s new NBC drama as “The Pope and Judy,” a warm-hearted romp that would make everyone forget that depressing mess about murders in Baltimore: “He’s the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church; she’s an adorable puppet.”

And then a mock-Italian voice, as a pope tries to fellate a falsetto-voiced puppet — the comedian’s left hand — with a communion wafer.

You had to be there. And, yes, I know that the phrase is used to connote moments that are less humorous in retrospect, but with Mr. Williams the live-wire volatility, the no-net comic gymnastics was part of the allure. If you were there, and I was, then you could scarcely breathe from laughing so hard and so long. The crew stopped working, forming a semicircle around him. Word went down the hallway and out to the trucks. More people rushed in to catch the shooting sparks, so that the entire production came to a halt as Robin Williams, quiet for days in the role of a grieving, wounded man, finally exploded. He was soaring for at least another five minutes before Mr. Levinson gave the slightest nod to his watch: We were losing the day.

Mr. Williams caught the look from the producer and ended the impromptu routine abruptly, with an awkward smile. His breathing was labored, and he looked to be genuinely embarrassed by his demonstration as cast and crew applauded with warm delight before returning to work. But it seemed that the actor had gone there as much for his own needs as for the audience, that he had come back downstairs from the dollhouse of the dead, readied himself to shoot another painful scene of grief and guilt, and then, in manic desperation, reached out for as much human comedy as ten minutes will allow.

I last saw him in the hallway, using the few remaining minutes before filming to face the wall and reacquaint himself with whatever horror he was trying to channel. He was sweating, too, as if it had taken all he had to rise to that warm summit and provoke such laughter. To my great surprise, his face was that of an unhappy man, and I retreated, saddened and surprised by the thought.

His performance in that Homicide episode was brilliant and thorough, and when broadcast, the ratings assured that the NBC drama would run another five years. Yesterday, after the news broke, Jim Yoshimura wrote to me his sadness and reflected on the fact that he would be a starving playwright now or worse if not for Robin Williams. Me, I’d be on a newspaper copy desk somewhere. David Mills, too, would have departed this vale as something other than a dramatist. All of our lives turned because a very rare and talented man came to Baltimore for a week and a half to film a television episode.

I know it’s of little moment compared to his greater achievements, and it matters not at all now to his friends and family, to those who knew and loved Robin Williams and held him close. But I for one am deeply grateful, and today, despite myself, I can’t help but think of that last, hard moment, alone, in the morgue hallway.

 

 

 

 

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  1. Stephanie says:

    A wonderful story of this lovely, sad man. Also read the one by Chris Gethard mentioned by another commenter here. That’s another amazing contact with Robin story. http://www.vulture.com/2014/08/what-it-was-like-to-do-improv-with-robin-williams.html

    Great to hear from the backstage staff, the actor waiter, and others who had contact with Robin and knew him to be kind, empathic, generous, loving. In a way, this makes his death that much harder to take. Why do the good always die young or at least prematurely? I am fascinated by so many aspects of this story, this man, and in the end, I am grateful for the laughter he has given to me. Whatever it was that caused the deep sadness, the pain for so many years deep inside of him, we know he is at peace now. It’s very sad. Thanks for this amazing article.

    Reply
  2. Carrie G. says:

    Extremely insightful and touching essay; thank you.

    And while I’m here, a belated THANK YOU for “Homicide.” Both the book and series continue to amaze and inspire me decades later.

    Reply
  3. Heidi says:

    Mr. Simon,

    I am sure you don’t have time to read all the comments but in case you do I want to say thank you for your thoughtful post.

    One of my favorite shows growing up was Homicide. I would watch every episode several times including muting the sound to really study its execution on every level. Last year I actually binged watched the series and let me say it holds up really well all these years later and the next time you speak to Mr. Yoshimura tell him from a fan that the “Hate Crimes” episode of his was my favorite. Ironically, like you I started off pursuing a normal career before getting into TV probably on subconscious level because of HLOTS and you are on my short list of people I hope to work with.

    Anyway, when the news first broke I thought of his role in Homicide and shared the same clip you did. And of course broke out the DVD box set that night and watched the episode in its entirety. That scene with him and Kyle Secor out on the swing set is phenomenal and the look and when Robin holds the gun – wow!

    Being an uber fan I was already aware of how Robin “saved” Homicide but I am really glad you wrote about his time on set and your astute observations not just because it’s a great little known ‘Hollywood tale’ but because you pick up on something that has been missing from our national dialogue on this.

    “Sometimes the person who tries to keep everyone happy is always the most lonely person, so never leave them alone because they will never say that they need you.”

    As a society we have become so disconnected and self absorbed that we aren’t they’re for each other. We have become just good time friends who don’t want to be bothered with other people’s issues. And then the people who need the help are afraid to reach out for they may lose their “friends” or they are worried they may become labeled as a mental case. And no one wants to burden or worry their family and close loved ones and risk being seen differently in their eyes. So they often suffer in silence even as they make us laugh.

    It’s just my two cents but I think we all just need to do a better job being there for and really checking in with those in our lives and even strangers. You never know when that one smile or hello will change someone’s day.

    If you are actually still reading this, I wish you nothing but much continued success!

    Reply
  4. steven zhou says:

    Damn. This is some real shit.

    RW interviews used to make me so uncomfortable. I’d terminate every viewing after about 30 secs because he wouldn’t stop with the jokes/impersonations. The interviewer could hardly get a word in. I actually thought Williams was showing off or something, unable to sustain himself without being applauded for his schtick.

    I went back and watched a few interviews in full and realize now that I was pretty damn wrong for the most part. Had I bothered to look closer, I’d have noticed the look of an “unhappy man” too. It’s very brief in the edited interviews anyway, but it’s there. It’s like he had to launch into those mini performances in order to deal with something quite unbearable in the “real” world.

    It’s so easy to assume that we know something about someone, especially if s/he’s famous. Some ting money and fame can’t make go away, or fix, I suppose.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      I have a friend in AA who took in a meeting with Mr. Williams in San Francisco by chance — one at which Mr. Williams was giving testimony. I will respect the anonymity of the rooms by not quoting anything; suffice to say that Mr. Williams was not for a moment comic or performing. He was dead-on sincere — and smart — about his own struggle.

      Reply
      • kt says:

        I know we’ve moved on to other subjects, but I was thinking about this topic of anonymity and how it does or doesn’t work for people like Robin Williams. I’ve tried to research it, but I can’t figure it out, exactly. Does anyone know what the AA/NA policy is on breaking anonymity at the public level when it’s already been broken for you, or when you had no choice but to discuss your sobriety publicly due to your stance as a public figure?

        The best I can find on this in the AA literature is that they acknowledge that this happens, and that it’s a matter of individual conscience, but that the majority of members do not approve. I get it — anonymity is essential to the integrity of the organization, and the anonymity policy was developed to prevent the potentially disastrous consequences that result from famous people announcing they are members, in the first place. And admittedly, a few bad consequences did result from Mr. Williams speaking about it publicly (when he died, a CBS local interviewed an AA member that claimed to have known him through meetings, thus outing that member and breaking confidentiality rules, and a number of tabloid sites ran a picture of him in a meeting, thus jeopardizing the anonymity of the other members in the picture).

        But it’s a tough question, I think. How could he have done otherwise? He had announced going to rehab, as the paparazzi would have found him there anyway. And reporters subsequently asked him direct questions about going to meetings. It isn’t good for an addict to lie, either. And creative people of his type — comics particularly — need to talk publicly about what they are going through. It’s part of their work.

        Furthermore, the worst thing for an addict is an enabler and celebrities, especially ones as universally loved as Mr. Williams, face nothing but a world full of enablers. I recall an old interview with Penny Marshall where she talked about John Belushi walking down the street and hordes of strangers handing him every kind of drugs, which he promptly consumed. How to say to the public, please don’t enable me, I am an addict, without acknowledging that you’re working a program? Individuals are able to do this with their friends and families and it’s a very important, arguably vital part of the sobriety process. But celebs cannot do it with the public.

        I know, I know, nobody has sympathy — poor little rich people and all that. And I do think AA/NA is still somewhat helpful for public figures regardless of their inability to take full advantage of the privacy it offers as a general rule. But I’ve often wondered why there hasn’t been some sort of supplemental treatment program developed for people who, by nature of being household names & faces and paparazzi targets, cannot be anonymous. Heck knows there would be plenty of money in it.

        Reply
  5. Matthew says:

    There is a documentary on the dollhouse murder scenes called “Of Dolls and Murder”.

    http://m.imdb.com/title/tt1588446/

    Reply
  6. Randy Reichardt says:

    Mr Simon: Thank you so much for this heartfelt tribute to Robin Williams. I remember that episode clearly, as H:LOTS was my favorite 90s series. I specifically remember the scene where he says to Melissa Leo, “I hope I never see you again.” I didn’t realize until now how important his participation in that episode was, that it had such an impact on the health and longevity of the series.

    Thank for you sharing this story.

    Reply
  7. Susie says:

    Thanks for sharing this story David. I remember David Mills telling me about the experience – for him the excitement of working in television, an experience that changed his life. He also gave all credit for that experience even happening for him to you and the fact that Robin Williams agreed to do it.

    I was so interested to know what it was like to work with Robin Williams and his impression was the same as yours. He felt the darkness. Williams was nominated for an Emmy for that performance most deservedly. You and Mills also won very deservedly.

    It is a special gift for a writer or performer to lay bare the rawness of painful human experience for public consumption, wherein we feel extremes of emotion. One must be willing to not only go there but to be there and clearly it takes a toll on the performer – Phillip Seymour Hoffman comes to mind as does Heath Ledger.

    I worked with Mills when he went to dark places in his writing and I saw him create distractions to manage it, but I also saw him inspired and excited by the truth of it.

    It seems like the creative voices who lift us up and make us feel connected to our lives and each other through their artistry are the hardest to let go – I feel so sad for Robin Williams family and friends and for all of us because he will not be here to create more “moments”, but I am very grateful for the body of work he left behind.

    P.S. Can just anyone go and look at the death dollhouses? I have occasion to come through Baltimore and that’s something I would really like to see the next time I come through town.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Very kind. But I recall nothing about any Emmy for that script. Perhaps I was misinformed.

      I do miss David, though. Rarely a day goes by.

      If you call the OCME and speak with someone there, I’m guessing they will arrange for you to visit the Nutshell dioramas. I assume they are still displayed, though it has been some years since I was in the medical examiner’s office to check.

      Reply
      • susie says:

        My oldtimers confusion – that was the Corner you guys won for but he still always said he wouldn’t have made the jump into TV if you hadn’t given him the opportunity on that Homicide gig.

        DM is one of the unforgettables for sure.

        Thanks for the info on the dioramas.

        Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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