Admired Work

Robin Williams: A brief encounter

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.”


“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.






  • Thank you for stating the uncomfortable truth in your first sentence. Though I have enjoyed all the anecdotes like Norm MacDonald’s tweets about Williams putting on a non-stop show just for one person, or Chris Gethard’s Vulture piece about the night Williams showed up at UCB’s improv and stole the show but between sets stood in a corner silent and morose, as those accumulated it seemed like his manic routines may have been less charming, and in fact more sad and needy. He didn’t exude the anger that so many comedians do, but instead a kind of eager desperation to be marvelled at, a wound that could not be filled.

    As a side note, thank you for your candor about the setbacks, scrambling, rewriting, ratings ploys, and feelings of creative disconnect. Because people have no idea that the strange alchemy, on-the-fly adaptation and collaboration can still make great TV. Sometimes.

  • […] 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…. […]

  • What a stirring tribute. I think there was a time when as an audience member I felt like I “figured out” Robin Williams. But the opposite is true. In revisiting some of his great performances it is that undulating, unpredictable spark just under his surface that is so compelling. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Thanks for the heartfelt story and post. This was the first episode of H:LOTS that I watched after the premiere. I do remember it as an event episode because of RW and how much my best friend and I were mesmerized by his performance. We were also able to “procure” the other episodes from NBC to catch up and were hooked. I suppose because of RW we can be thankful for Oz, The Wire and Treme as well?

  • (David – sorry for the earlier, utterly unreadable, post; would you let this one stand, please? –Inge)

    Second try with the hope I’m less rambly-rambly; high fevers SUCK:

    It does not matter whether or not I have a similarly profound story regarding my own singular encounter with Mr. Williams; David Simon has written such openly and thoughtfully painful insights into Mr. Williams’ life, expressing succinctly yet tenderly so many of the same thoughts I have rolled around in my own head for more than 45 years. I wouldn’t write something like this – which might even be termed an egregious and thoroughly unwanted invasion into grieving lives; however, I think it important to always, always advance understanding of the anguish of mental illness – and the sometime small joys as well.

    I have always believed that Mr. Williams’ desire to not only please *everyone* and be glad for their presence, but to also prolifically and constantly say, in so many words, “f#%k it – and you, and the horse you AND it rode in on” in many ways represents the dichotomous and vast inner shaming – even lack of internal respect – so many of us with mental illness constantly; Mr. Williams’ lived experience thus reveals something exquisitely tender yet damaging in our lives. Many of us with mental illness “listen” to these inner dialogues – inside and out – particularly those items that continually reassert the belief in the utter stupidity of “man” in general and cringe at the wonder we have “made it” (“Made it how?” he would rail.). And that there seems not a single damn thing a group or individual can or could – including any one of the “us” we know; we’re great at fucking things up. All of us.

    The same brilliant comedy (and seriousness) he used to cope – and offered freely and so thoroughly engagingly from his very first entrance on Happy Days (I watched it as it aired) to very nearly the end of his life, was his means of engaging “us” – and perhaps the most ignored cry for help I have “never really seen.” His dialogue on stage, big screen and television *I think* was an unveiled, heartfelt scream – one rarely so clearly expressed – and one rarely falling on more ignorant (universal) shoulders. Yours. Mine. Ours.

    To himself, I believe that Robin the terribly flawed, and – in his eyes – remained for his entire 63 years one of the most thoroughly impotent commentators on items we should all take in and change for the betterment of the world. His message of change and compassion (where compassion, in his thoughts, was needed) was, to him, lost even in dramatic vehicles in which he was able to consider his characters beyond mere caricature and give voice to a beautiful, unsettling clarion call. Just watch “Dead Poets…” or Fisher King” or “Good Will Hunting” to observe that vast desire to inspire us all to dig down and learn to give better within – even well before you distill the very best of what we have to give to others. He expected of the human race, and far more profoundly, of himself, something I think ended up in resonating in an unexpectedly imperfect (to him) way that reinforced his inner belief that he continually offered ineffective commentaries and narratives (it probably did not help the this only Oscar came after a long series of absolutely stellar big-screen performances (rejection comes hard when you are already in a low place). How long can such a brilliant, passionate, deeply caring, and fierce internal fire burn so brightly and powerfully without running out of fuel or causing profound injury – to someone? I wonder if, as with most of us with mental illnesses, he self-assessed the potential of his flame as either a) nothing more than inept attempts to ignite soggy matches, or b) something that could destroy him and those around him.

    David recreates here a moment in time of a human being struggling with the most intimately painful intersection of illnesses (of which I share several, including bipolar and clinical depression – not to pop-culture diagnose him – how tedious *that* is, and I apologize. My PhD is not in the social sciences – or even in “P”hilosophy despite the fact I am completing a “Doctor of Philosophy” degree). Thoughts of suicide, yes, prosper when on the road – or the road not taken – all alone, playing any size venue to any audience a person can address. So importantly, those damned lonely hotel nights during which you rarely venture out for fear of being accosted on the street by crazed fans who *only* understand the humor in your craft – and definitely not your need for a walk and some serious, introspective opportunities for fresh air and new sights. You can’t always be *on* – not as an individual, not as a professional. The anger that wells up within you regarding yet more inconsiderate failings on the part of others can overflow quickly – and darkly. These are clear example of loss of “self” when you are *only* referred to (and pressured to fit the mold of) a “funnyman.” Mr. Williams must have chafed when that was all – or predominately – what people took from his performances, yet again painfully tearing at a yearning, bright, kind savant *of* expression.

    I absolutely do understand how that feels… and, for myself, still also bitterly chafe at the pharmaceutical and other therapies that are continually offered and prepared – and that too severely in too many cases these best intent medications ctrl-alt-drl the very essence of the brilliant, quick, sparkling edge that puts you “above.” Is it at all surprising when you view it this way, that so many artists of every ilk despise so many (more and more expensive, less and less well-understood) pharmaceuticals to “cure you” when what results all-too-often tends to kill the essence of your character altogether. And, consider that the constant pursuit of certain illegal stimulants by a clinically depressed individual, brings with it hopes of regaining brilliance of mind and expression – but also often leads to a different kind of “ruination.” But the desire to “be as I was” or to spark far more creativity – whatever the internal “need” – far outweighs the risks for a significant number of sufferers. I am especially thinking of the high-pressure fish bowls of Hollywood and places similar, and rumors that circulate constantly around rumors or confirmations of fatal or non-fatal ODs – or “just” a search-and-arrest traffic stop that reveals less than a gram of, say, cocaine. Producers, investors, and even set insurers, look askance and wonder if the inclusion of “an actor of this sort” is worth the risk if financial exposure and losses (Will this person be high on-set? Will he draw the company into unsavory or unsafe practices?, etc.)

    I consider so many similar “First World” issues as relevant in my own diagnoses and treatments, and must admit I do argue with myself each and every day before I struggle to down my psych meds. I know the pain of thoughts of failure and have considered if titrating off those meds and experiencing the ghastly side effects of “me being the real me” would be worth the return of the brilliance that now feels like emptiness. Just a little bit? Just long enough to finish my dissertation with flair and insight, the vast vocabulary and ideas of my “earlier days” that I wonder is even still there.

    Yes, I have “thought about” suicide – clinically, for certain – and continue to firmly discard that path even though the three major, terrible illnesses of my own (bipolar, clinical depression, and this horrible and very rare immunological disease) make for a lousy life far too often; it’s certainly not terribly satisfying most days, I must admit. But I smile – constantly – and seek out humor whenever and wherever I can. Despite being over 45, I have dimples, not lines, still, except for the hint of smile crinkles on the outside corners of my eyes. Doctors constantly dismiss me because, evidently, a critically-ill person is supposed to *look* as though I am Death’s precariously-placed door stopper. I modeled for years and take pleasure in at least *looking* as though I’m having a good day, even when I have been near death, not expected to live another 24 hours… I think we have all become aware that Mr. Williams was also adept at manipulating his outer image – and, I have to tell you: some of the most ill people I have ever known have looked stunningly healthy. Just because someone “appears” to be coping in no way means that’s not a mask…

    I would also wager – and this is beyond difficult to discuss – Mr. Williams was no stranger to preparing the tools of his demise – that also happen too often, whether it means “trying on” the costume of death (the “instruments” needed to carry out their own last act) – or having the knowledge that “in the back of cupboard A, shelf C, right hand side, under box marked “Condoms,” you have a collection of medications or … whatever. With a long-term mental illness, with the inclusion of suicidal ideation… there is often not just the occasional talk, but the preparation. He knew what he wanted to do in the way he felt most significant or even insignificant. I know he loved his family boundlessly and this was certainly not about hurting somebody – them *or* himself. This was not about selfishness or revenge (except, perhaps, in the “triumph” he so clearly sought over his own set of illness – including addictions) or anything else but profound sadness in his perceived inability to move audiences – and perhaps himself – in life- and world-changing directions. These perceptions of “hollow” and “sham” accomplishments (that are so understandable to me in my own lived experience; I understand the pyrrhic, fleeting nature of hollow victories, and know I am a fraud who will one day be exposed as such. I *know* this. Even while I am scrupulously honest and have never done anything legally-fraudulent in my lifetime.) Perhaps we should explore the idea that long, long ago he had already buried the person inside despite what almost any other person would joyously accept as significant success.

    Suicide is always a jarring expression for a family member or friend or acquaintance or fan. (“Couldn’t I have done more!?” remains one of the most-often expressed and agonizing wails of survivors – and of the distress of survivors’ guilt.). But, I wonder if anyone can truly understand the painful depths of self-loathing and the complete lack of self-respect or self-love that bring on suicide. Yet, many die on the most beautiful of days and leave for their family letters that can be among the most loving and kind expressions of their care and compassion for them. Indeed, many suicides are the thoughtful, considered actions many severely-mentally-ill and hopeless-feeling individuals who, more and more, have seen their internal pain wreaking havoc – pain so many times reflected in spouse’s and children’s and friends’ eyes. That is a pain I don’t ever want to see cross my husband’a face again, even though I fail in that substantively and profoundly nearly every day. But, I treasure that our love and marriage – and each other – transcend the bounds of my illnesses for now. I hope they will continue to lead toward ever more frank and generous love – and a long lifetime together.

    Thank you to a dear friend for the link here, and, thank you, David, for such a wonderfully-written and honestly-prepared remembrance. I think you really and truly “get it” and deeply appreciate your kind and insightful approach to mental illness, in particular. I hope I have on my end gained more understanding of Mr. Williams – and myself – as a result of your gentle and thoughtful prose

  • I just finished reading both Homicide and The Corner and I’m trying to get started on the TV adaptations of them. The books were fantastic and made me really understand what was going on under the surface of The Wire. I also just re-re-re-re-watched your appearance in the Festival on Dangerous Ideas and thought it was wonderful. I just want to say thank you Mr. Simon; your work is tremendous and I hope for many thrilling and deep television series from you in the future!

  • Mr. Simon:

    Much respect and gratitude to you for sharing your experience with Robin Williams. It is just another example, to go along with the countless amount of others, that shows the true warmth and generosity of a man who has touched many through his work, professional and otherwise.

    I hope what I am about to ask isn’t disrespectful to RW or just disrespectful or in bad taste, period. I don’t want to take away from the mourning of his life or the celebration of his work. But sadly, we often wait until it’s too late or after the fact to properly recognize or celebrate someone’s impact on us. We are all obviously here on this blog because of believe in you as a man and the work you have done and continue to do as well as your idiosyncratic perspective and point of view. So my question is, who was your Robin Williams? I’ve seen countless stories of his comedic peers speak of his genius and his warmth and generous spirit. I heard a famous actress speak how RW put her through college. I myself can speak of countless memories of enjoying his work. So is there someone, famous or not, that influenced or inspired you that would deserve public recognition for their work or how they were just nice to you or helped you in some kind of way? Thank you.

    • I have had great editors and mentors: Rebecca Corbett at the Baltimore Sun; John Sterling on my books and Tom Fontana and Jim Finnerty in the realm of television writing and production. I owe each a very significant debt.

  • I can’t believe it. I remember that episode when it was aired, and I remember thinking that only Robin Williams could play this role. His dramatic work has always been unfathomably deep, but that performance was above and beyond. And you’re right: this was years before there were stories compelling enough to bring A-list movie actors to TV. Bravo to you for creating this story to begin with, and for sharing with all of us your grief at the loss of this immensely talented artist.

  • I thought when I saw it (way back when it originally aired), and still do, that it’s one of the best hours of television drama ever broadcast. Everybody in that show just nailed it, as usual, but Williams owned it.

    • I agree. I think the episode in question manages to incorporate Mr. Williams without letting the other characters (including the young shooter) get lost in the shuffle. I introduced my girlfriend to Homicide last year, after introducing her to The Wire the year before, and when we got to “Bop Gun” she immediately identified as a David Simon-written episode. Enough of the original script got left in to allow for all sides of the story to be told.

  • Beautiful piece. Thank you.

    I had the opposite reaction to hearing the news: I thought it was someone else. I caught a glimpse, scanning thru emails, of a headline that said ‘RIP Veteran actor Robin Williams’ and maybe it was the use of the word ‘veteran’ but I instantly thought of some poor old actor, probably trapped on soaps for decades, playing doctors, a George Gaynes type, and then poor old Mork had come along and absolutely blown him out of the water, but veteran actor Robin Williams had soldiered on and now at last his obituary was probably confusing a lot of people and making them think the unthinkable…

    It’s the kind of instantaneous thought we all have all the time — worth mentioning not only because it was that unthinkable to me, that Robin Williams would be dead, but because that crazy meteoric train of thought – that fantasy – is somehow fitting. A rocketing nutso crazy funny alternate reality: that’s where Robin Williams took you. And somehow he managed it, at least with me, to the very end.

  • When I was a reporter in Tokyo during my 1991-1996 stint at the Daily Yomiuru English newspaper, I had a chance one day to meet Williams when he came to Tokyo to promote one of his movies in around 1993, the name of which i forget now at age 65. there was a press conference first with about 5oo office ladies, aka secretaries in nearby offices who snuck in to the hall to see Robin answer questions for the Japansee media, with about 12 camera crews in the back. after the press conference was over, everyone left the hall, but i lingered hoping there might be a chance to get a quote from him or soemthing. so i hung around, the room emptied out. I walked over the Robin who was sitting down on a chair in a corner and sat down next to him. we chatted for about 5 minutes. off camera, and off BEING ON, in other words, just being himself in a quiet time in Tokyo, he was gracious, friendly to a stranger, warm and boy next door in demeanor, and how short he was! I was surprised because i am considered short in the USa at 5/8 but he was abiut 5/6 or 5/5. Movies make him seem taller of course. so that struck me first of all, what a small short man he was, and full of warmth and good cheer. no jokes, he was not on, we just chjatted about life in Japan, and as we left, he did a namaste Indian goodbye to me and said “see ya” and that was that. my memeory of him that day was as the guy next door, not a VIP or movie STAR and not at all arrogant and thinks he’s better than others, the way some movie stars i met are. ROBIN WILLIAMS, Namaste! RIP and bon voyage back to the galaxy you came from ! —

  • David ….can i share this?

    re ”When Robin Williams lampooned his alma mater”
    David Amos wrote:

    SAN DIEGO — The tragic death of comedian Robin Williams on August 11 reminded me of a personal story to share with you.
    You may know of my passion for humor. Not necessarily the kind that uses slapstick and shock, but humor that has a clever play on words, which provide the element of surprise with the unexpected or double meaning. Being a child of many languages, cultures and influences, I admire and at times create humor by seeing a word or a phrase which could be interpreted for its face value, as most people see them, or with a slight twist, create a meaning that escapes most others. Yes, even the lowly pun can be part of this harmless and entertaining madness.
    But, Robin Williams carried his imitations, parodies, and references to pop and serious culture to levels I have never seen anyone else approach. His rapid fire delivery and laser-like focus defied what a normal brain can deliver in timing, considering the initial gag, its being spoken to the audience, the necessary pauses for proper comedic effect, and the gauging of the reactions from the audience as to where to go from that point. A complex process indeed, but Williams was the supreme master in implementing this difficult but valuable art form. It came so naturally to him!
    What we see of his acting and comedic talents on television or film is proof enough of how popular and successful he was, starting with his hilarious Mork and Mindy, the television sitcom of many years ago. This was even more evident in his live comedy specials, many of them aired on cable, where he unleashed all his energy and inhibitions, and left us with a legacy in comedy which will possibly never be matched.
    But one dimension of his enormous talent was manifested to my wife Lee and me about fifteen years ago, when we saw him perform live in a fairly intimate venue.
    We were invited to a private party sponsored by the Alumni of the Juilliard School. Although we are not associated with this famous school of music and drama, we were there as guests of a real alumnus and Hollywood composer. There were around 80 people there, seated in ten tables in groups of eight. Among them were many well known film, entertainment, and classical music luminaries. Robin Williams, the guest of honor, was at the table next to us.
    The dinner progressed correctly and politely. After we finished with the food, the President of Juilliard, Mr. Polisi, took the podium and gave us a report on the progress of the school, its ambitious future plans, and a brief and positive financial report.
    Then, he tried to introduce the special guest, Robin Williams, who was a graduate of the Drama Division of Juilliard. Well, he tried. As soon as his introduction began, long before mentioning his name, Williams was already stalking the podium, at first from the floor, and then on the lectern behind Polisi, making faces, remarks, grabbing the microphone, and making a hilarious pest of himself. At one point, still in the introduction, Polisi buried his head and hands into the podium, knowing that he no longer controlled the situation, joined the rest of us in hysterical laughter, and quickly returned to his banquet seat.
    Then, Robin really took over.
    His 20 minute routine was not relying on material he may have used before, but was entirely based on Juilliard, and with remarks he heard while eating his dinner a few minutes before. It was a study on how a genius thinks and works. Someone who was sitting at his table told us later that during the food portion of the dinner, Williams was not saying much, but putting together his routine from the comments of others. He showed rapid eye movements, as his mind assembled the jokes and funny lines he was about to use.
    What all of us experienced was a routine which made fun of aspiring students, the autocratic Russian teachers and their harsh manners, and the mostly old fogies in the audience. It was done with words, various accents, movements, and references to what was said earlier.
    I, along with everyone in the room, was overwhelmed at the limitless talent and energy before us. I have never seen such a display of wit, energy, and lightning delivery of subjects he would never use on HBO or late night interviews. All of it made up on the spot, on the very subject the audience could joyfully relate, with classical music references, ethnic quirks, actors’ phobias, and anything you can imagine. He even made light of one of his movies that bombed, The Cadillac Man.
    Of the many tributes that I have seen in the last 24 hours in television and print, two films have not been mentioned, but they did leave an impression on me, along with his more famous ones. One was Moscow on the Hudson, and the other Jakob the Liar, about a poor Jew in a ghetto, keeping a few friends optimistic in spite of the ever-present Nazi oppressors. In many of his movie roles, his serious acting talents were magnificently displayed, and won him awards, accolades, and respect among his peers.
    May he rest in peace.
    David Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra (TICO) and has guest conducted professional orchestras around the world.

  • It’s a beautiful anecdote. I remember that episode so well, and doubly so because Tom Fontana went to speak about it up at the Canadian Film Centre. I was in the audience, and his descriptions of making Homicide that day – and even the way he mentioned the provenance of the script, how it was your first effort, tipped me over the wall of being a young TV producer cutting stories to thinking, “I have to make the effort; I have to try to become a TV writer. I’ve gotta do it, and not just think about it.” It would take me several more years to get there. But I did. And it started by watching that remarkable episode, the best TV I’d seen in the pre-HBO cable days — and thinking, “that’s for me.”

    Things ripple out so far, and touch so many, who never ever know what effect they had.

    Thanks for sharing your story with us David.

  • Beautiful piece. I’m a huge fan of “Homicide”. Where can I see the episode with Robin Williams?

  • You buried the lead. If you’d opened with, “The one and only time I met Robin Williams was in the Baltimore City Morgue, and this is a story about it”, you may have caught a few more readers, which would have been cool, for them, because it’s the best tribute I read on Mr. Williams.

  • Regardless of what is said here, it is truly a great experience to have an intelligent interchange of thought. I still think the pressures placed on someone who is expected to entertain, are beyond what is to be believed. At some time we reach a point of exhaustion and no longer have the energy to answer to the call. The pain of the failure becomes too great and we decide to take a rest. God bless him, he was truly a gift to us from God.

  • I loved both the book and TV show, Homicide. I remember this episode very well. He was truly a great actor, who happened to make people laugh. A wonderful gift. I hope he has found the peace he seemed unable to find here.

  • This has got to be the most remarkable piece I have read so far. And in reading references to his great performances in the comments underneath – it is as if sitting in a dentist’s chair, after a procedure and being probed finding a sensitivity you thought was no longer there.
    My fifteen year old son shares the same capacity for deep feeling, then free wheeling into manic performance that is sly, breathtaking, witty and slapstick all in one…sometimes with rap. I feel the flap ofndark wings overhead. I can’t stop them flying.

  • I’m now smiling envisioning a frantic last-minute rewrite of the swingset and interview room scenes to incorporate Bayliss into them.

    I wanted to watch one of his performances last night but didn’t have time for a movie, so I ended up rewatching this episode. It holds up spectacularly well. I have no qualms about calling it one of the best performances of his career. The scene where he’s unable to identify the suspects was particularly extraordinary, placing all his feelings of inadequacy onto Felton and lashing out at them. He was a brilliant performer, and I can’t help but selfishly think of the performances we now won’t get.

    While watching, I also noticed for the first time how you could see a faint reflection of Melissa Leo in the glass during the final scene in the visiting room of the prison. Guess previous televisions were too small to notice that brilliant bit of shot composition.

    Now, it’s time to watch The Fisher King.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this story. In the film industry myself, never had the chance to work with Mr. Williams, but grew up and in someways was raised by him. Robin Williams taught me a lot about my relationship with my father, although my father never cross-dressed (once he dressed up as Peter Pan and skated the Dutch Waltz with me for a family figure skating competition) Mrs. Doubtfire always reminded me of my father. So losing Robin Williams although I was a complete stranger to him, he was a father figure to me. I enjoyed your story of your connection to him, and the connection between his talent and how that talent launched the careers of so many others such as yourself. I’m from the Toronto Film Industry and have worked on shows produced by those same producers who made Homicide: Life on the Street, and many of my colleges in Toronto have wonderful tales of Mr. Williams from the set of Man of the Year and Death to Smoochie. I’m saddened by his passing and grieve for his family, his wife who lost her partner, and for the children who lost their father, and to the world who lost someone who is the definition of entertainer. Thank you again Mr. Simon for this beautiful piece of writing. I wish the world would stop creating wars to fight, and start helping fight those with wars within.

  • Slight correction: “some of Mr. Williams’ most notable sccenes were at the pen of others, more talented.”

    Scenes is misspelled; a mere typo surely.

    Also, isn’t it “chastised” and not “chastised?”

    Lovely piece also! I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist the urge to copyedit David Simon. It’s an honor 🙂 A bit like cleaning up paint splatters after Vermeer has finished a painting. Yes, I’m embarrassed about my gushing. No, I won’t stop.

      • It’s spelled “thanks”. (Just kiddin’.)

        Just taking the excuse to bemoan my own constant typos here, since we can’t edit/correct comments. Guys, when I said “was continued” below, I meant “was continuing”. I swear I can speak, and even type English. I SWEAR!

    • I met him once, Robin Williams, when catering a screening of Toys in the early ’90s at the MOMA in New York. In the middle of the party, I broke the first rule of catering a star-studed Hollywood event: don’t talk to the guests. I had only worked for the company for a week, so when I approached him in the center of the room, I was taking my job, with rent due, into my hands. Instead of being angry when I introduced myself, Mr. Williams flashed his familiar beaming smile and warmly shook my hand. I told him I was applying to his alma mater, Juilliard, and he went on to tell me precisely which teachers to study with, precisely which teachers he himself had studied with, however many years before. Instead of treating me like the cater waiter that I was, he treated me as a colleague, a fellow actor, who merely wanted some guidance from an experienced veteran and giant. While it’s clear to see the incredible energy that emanates from Mr. Williams in his work, it is all the more incredible to have that life force focused directly at you in person. While I am no longer an actor, having given it up many years ago, I will never forget the generosity of spirit that Mr. Williams showed me that evening. In that moment, he was not some Hollywood star detached from the rest of us, he was a genuine and humble human being. You got the sense of simply this: he loved us. That was his secret. He gave all of himself to inspire us with his love in all of its myriad forms. And it is that light, in this often dark world, that we will miss most.

  • To me, Robin Williams – like you, David Simon – shared his remarkable insight and gifts to help people feel – just feel – in a world where so many walk around with dulled senses. His choice of works spoke to me in a way that made me feel a sense of shared purpose. I’m not surprised at all that you were connected in the what turned out to be profound way you just shared, and that he helped you on your journey. And I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there were times you helped him, too, for my guess is he followed your trajectory and was heartened like so many of us who read (or hear) your insightful stories or columns about things that matter, thus making this world a better, more “just” place. A little bit of peace goes a long, long way. Thanks for sharing your Robin Williams encounter and bringing a little peace to all of us.

    • Very kind. But the connection was pretty remote and random, and entirely unmotivated on my part. More accurate to say I was one of many beneficiaries in the wake of his remarkable career. It’s more a testament to Barry Levinson, Mark Johnson and Tom Fontana that he agreed to take on the role.

  • Damn straight, David.

    I keep reading these otherwise good pieces on Williams that seem to lay part of the blame for his depression and suicide on his performances. Manic, right? Looks like a crazy man. Your first commenter even falls into this trap. He was spent, just tired. As if he were some sort of triple-A batter who’d simply run out of juice.

    If I’m reading this right, the implication in this story is that it was actually the opposite. The performances, manic as they may have been, may have been the moments during which he felt most sane. We all want that connection and what better way to connect with your fellow man than to have a dozen of them circled around you, gasping for air because you’re making them laugh so hard they can’t breathe? This is when some horrible cliche like “when the laughter stops” pops into your head and you start questioning everything you just wrote. But that’s what I took away from it.

    Anyway. It’s all just theory now. Thanks for sharing.

    • I have no real insight into Mr. Williams. I only have my one encounter, in which he showed wild comic prowess and a capacity for real sadness. I don’t even know if the sadness was conjured for the role, or if it was his own, or both. I don’t know anything, honestly. But I admired his talent and I am sad for him and his family.

      • Leave it to me to assign meaning to the remote and random. 🙂 I’m sad for Robin Williams and his family, and grateful for what he left behind and the inspiration in his wake. I didn’t know until reading your piece here that you were part of that, too. Maybe that’s what I’m not surprised about. Two class acts, both doing stuff that matters…

    • I haven’t read any articles making that implication, but if so it is a woefully ignorant idea. No form of mental illness is caused by any form of performance style. And he was performing that way for 40 years…if it were the cause of his problems I think it would have killed him a lot sooner.

      What I’m taking from this story, and Amy’s below — and one from my sister, who ran into him years ago in an otherwise empty restaurant and was happily regaled for an hour with the same types of riffs — and all the countless others that have shared similar stories — is that while he may have been performing those routines, he wasn’t acting. It wasn’t rehearsed or pre-planned. That’s just the way his mind worked, for better and for worse.

      Imagine having that much cultural knowledge in your head, and being able to leap from idea to idea, making connections no one else would ever dream of — at lightning speed! It’s wonderful to have such an active mind, but terrible, at the same time.

      • Wow, that last paragraph, it really was his genius. No wonder he had so much admiration for Jonathan Winters. They shared that same gift you described. Robin took it to another level. R.I.P. Funny Man.

  • I am so glad you wrote something on him. I met him on the set of TOYS. I remember the encounter vividly. I said, “I like your blonde hair.” He said, “Yes, it is true that blondes have more fun, but only above the waist.” Then he launched in to what you described as shooting sparks. We were all around the craft table, laughing. I thought…this guy isn’t acting. This is who he is who he really is!

    I was shocked by the news of his suicide, but then again…

    I read something on suicide/depression on Libba Bray’s website I really liked called, “Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land.” I’m posting the link. It is worth a read.
    There is often a link between artist and depression. I agree with her when she writes, “Artistic expression is not a symptom of depression so much as a response to it.”

    She tweeted, “Dammit. #RIPRobinWilliams” 18 hours ago. My sentiments exactly.

  • I think many suicides are initially shocking, and then, after a moment of reflection, seem inevitable. Robin Williams was clearly a comedic genius of boundless energy, and yet, there was a deep compassion that absolutely radiated from him that cannot come from anything but personal suffering. He would not have been so believable, so touching, and so unforgettable in his dramatic roles if that quality hadn’t been present.

    It is a terrible irony that so many comedians struggle with depression — that old Pagliacci parable. I’ve heard it theorized that the roots of human laughter lie in our early mammalian tendency to use it as a defense mechanism to ward off predators. Can it be that this is still in our vestigial DNA? Do those that fear the dark things in the night laugh the hardest to scare them away? Or is it simply that they long to make others happy when they cannot do so for themselves?

    I’m also struck by the method he chose. He had struggled with addiction; it would have been natural for him to hole up with a bottle of Scotch and some pills and go out in a way that would have provoked a lot of “did he” or “didn’t he” and arguments that even the toxicology report would not have ended. In our culture we don’t like to believe that rich or famous people can be unhappy. We will stretch all credibility in order to believe something else. Maybe it was an accident; maybe he just partied too hard. Maybe his wife had him murdered (a la Kurt Cobain conspiracy theorists)! ANYTHING not to face up to the fact that the shallow materialism we’ve structured our entire society around does nothing to empower or satisfy the soul.

    I don’t know that there was a lot of conscious choice involved, really. Clearly he was not thinking rationally. But to me, the method says that he wanted it to be very clear what he was doing and why. For the rest of the world, it may seem as though he capped off a happy story with a sad ending. It’s not one that’s dramatically satisfying for us. But for him, it was a sad story all along. He must have wanted us to know this, even if he couldn’t bear to be the one to tell us.

    63 years is a long time to struggle, and to do so joyously, while giving great pleasure to others. My hat’s off to him for making it as long as he did. For all the times he made us outrageously, ecstatically happy, I think it’s only fair for him to get to make us sad — just this once. Personally, I wish he had asked us to be sad for him sooner, and more often, and in a less final and permanent way. I don’t know about you all, but I wouldn’t have minded.

    God’s laughing a lot harder now. Maybe She needs it more than we do. I bet She does.

  • Thanks for sharing. This is one of a small hand full of episodes of Homicide that I still remember very clearly, and I appreciate getting this look behind the scenes.

  • Loved this story — thanks for sharing.

    I’ve been overwhelmed by all the trite comments postulating why someone so funny and/or rich could resort to suicide. It’s utter nonsense. Funny doesn’t equate to happy; in fact the funniest people I’ve known or seen have a visible edge of despair along with a strong sense of the ridiculousness of life. You don’t get there by floating on the surface.

    And money? Shoot, I would have paid anything to buy my way out of diseases that have affected me and the people I love. Sadly, that ain’t how it works.

    I wish we’d take this chance to understand that mental illness is a real thing that needs better treatments and less stigma. And maybe a humble acknowledgement that we might not know as much as we think we do. But I’m afraid this is just a part of our society’s weird fascination with celebrity — we’ll wail and gnash our teeth, talk about what a shame it is for a couple of days, then back to our reality tv until the next thing happens.

    If you’ll permit me to link-drop, here’s the hotline information for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). 1 (800) 950-NAMI (6264), Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., EST. They can offer referrals. For a crisis, there’s the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, staffed 24/7. (800) 273-TALK (8255)

    Thanks again.

  • I worked as a stagehand in Las Vegas for quite a while and was once given the assignment of shepherding Mr. Williams backstage at a benefit of some kind. He was, without doubt, one of the most gracious people I have ever met. You can tell a lot about a performer by the way they treat the crew and I don’t think I was ever treated more kindly and more importantly, as a partner in making the show happen, than I was by him.

    There was indeed a reservoir of pain behind all of the improv, the need from others to be ‘on’ must have been crushing. What it costs some actors to give what they do is almost unimaginable.

  • WOW!

    As always – your pen of words captivate;
    and tell a tale that will long be reflected upon.

    Reflections of your (and your co-workers) anxiety, about being vexed on all fronts, feeling inadequate – serves to endear you to fans all the more.

    And — to think – Robin Williams, in High School, was voted least likely to succeed.

    Already miss him much!


  • The media say he was depressed. But epidemiological research shows that unipolar depressed patients tend NOT to follow through with suicidal thoughtsl. It’s the BIPOLAR patients who commit most suicides. It’s an all-too-common mistake for psychiatrists to treat bipolar as if it were unipolar, with the result ending in suicide. Robin Williams appeared for all the world to be bipolar if anything. I hope the facts of his treatment and substance-abuse status come out some day as a lesson for us all.

    And there’s one more moral of the story: Remaster The Wire in high definition and publish it on blu-ray before we loose another icon of talent.

    • Well, he went back to rehab a month ago, so there’s your answer on that status: he was continued to struggle with it, as people do throughout their lives, if they have those issues.

      And while I agree with you that I would be very surprised if he were not bipolar — being a textbook study in mania — I’m not sure if he was ever diagnosed or treated for such. I suppose it’ll be up to his family, whether or not they choose to make that information public.

      • KT,
        That he was at rehab a month ago doesn’t tell us what is drug profile was in the days and hours leading up to his suicide.

        Clinical mania doesn’t look anything like Williams’ entertainment. Clinical mania is ugly, tragic, and disturbing. But a patient need not display mania to be properly diagnosed as bipolar.

        The point I make is that one of the worst psychiatric mis-diagnoses might have been what lead to his death.

        • Gotcha, I didn’t realize you meant his drug status that particular day. I’m not sure I would glean a lot of insight from that information personally — we already know he struggled with it.

          And I disagree with some of the rest of what you’re saying — but I guess I should ask for clarity first: if you don’t think Williams’s public demeanor (which he also carried on off-stage, as Mr. Simon’s story and others indicate) and way of speaking indicated potential mania, why do you think he appeared to be bipolar?

          • You never came back to answer that, Bernard, but I thought I’d follow up on a few issues anyway because I think they’re important.

            Mr. Williams’ wife released a statement today confirming that he was sober at the time of his passing and that in addition to suffering from depression and anxiety, along with his heart health issues, he was in the early stages of Parkinsons. I’m not sure how much more insight that brings other than confirming that he was very firmly in a high-risk category for suicide — older middle-aged white men, with a history of depression and substance abuse, and one or more chronic health problems.

            The point I did want to disagree on is that Williams’ entertainment was not anything akin to clinical mania. That just isn’t true. Full mania CAN be horrible to witness, but in its milder form (hypomania) people can be very productive and creative. Indeed I suspect that people are misdiagnosed so often b/c perhaps — I can’t be sure, but this is a guess — they are presenting more often for treatment when they are depressed than when they are manic, because the depression is what is, for the most part, interfering with their ability to function on a daily basis. The mania can, conversely, actually feel good.

            I’ve been manic before and I have to tell you I was never funnier in my life. I had a comeback for everything. I was so funny, in fact, that nobody around me even knew anything was wrong until my rapid-fire wisecracks progressed to rapid-fire expressions of abject paranoia and terror. They just thought I was in rare form, and to be totally honest, they were entertained, and in some cases, egged me on. I know this because several of them expressed great guilt about that later.

            It’s difficult to imagine that any psychiatrist with a license and y’know, a pair of eyes and ears would not see Robin Williams and at least consider bipolar as a potential diagnosis. But mental health professionals are not infallible, and I’m not sure what forms of therapy he pursued (other than the group therapy of AA, which he spoke about in interviews — a byproduct of the unfortunate fact that AA/NA does not work as well as it should for celebrities, since they cannot be anonymous) anyway.

            In any case we must always remember that the study of the mind is in its infancy, barely more than 100 years old. Psychologists and psychiatrists now are akin to surgeons in ancient Rome. Methods and treatments that are cutting-edge today will be passe in 25 years and considered horribly savage in 100. Our understanding of mental conditions is changing all the time.

            We must stay vigilant about pushing for funding for research and treatment, erasing stigma, and helping to evolve this field. Look at all we stand to lose otherwise.

            • I saw a headline today that Williams had Parkinson’s Disease. To me, that changes all these discussions. It’s an evil disease with a horrible trajectory. Might have been a factor.

              • Oh, definitely. Any health problem is a risk factor and that is a very tough one. That having been said, people do sometimes live as happily as is possible with that condition, or even more debilitating ones.

                I mentioned above that he was in a high-risk demographic, but I didn’t mention that the suicide rate in that demographic skyrocketed about 40% between 1999 and 2010 and mental health professionals don’t yet know why. They don’t know if it’s an environmental factor, or a biological one, or a generational thing. But more research into this is clearly needed, as age and health problems come to us all…

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