Remembering Robin Williams

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BillMoyers.com

Remembering Robin Williams

Robin Williams. (Photo:  Steve Jurvetson)

Two memories of Robin Williams. The last time I was in his presence was during the 2007-08 Writers Guild strike. Robin showed up to walk our picket line at the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, just a couple of blocks from where the Moyers & Company offices are now.

He came bearing bagels. Lots and lots of bagels. He was, as a colleague said last night, a mensch.

The first time we met was in 1986, backstage at the Plaza Hotel. I had been hired to write the script for a gala benefit in honor of The Acting Company, the classical theater touring troupe, and its founder, John Houseman, the producer, writer, actor and director whose career stretched from Citizen Kane to The Paper Chase to commercials for the Smith Barney brokerage firm. (“They make money the old fashioned way. They EARN it.”)

Robin was one of the performers in a cast that included Patti LuPone, Geraldine Fitzgerald, David Ogden Stiers (MASH) and Norman Lloyd (St. Elsewhere). The joke was that when Houseman was director of the drama division at the Julliard School here in New York, Williams was one his students and John had kicked him out. True story.

So at the gala, the joke continued, Robin Williams finally would have the chance to make his rebuttal.

I scripted everyone else that night, but not him. I didn’t dare. His improvisational comic genius was such that you just wound him up and pushed the start button. He was a force of nature, a nonpareil. So instead of trying to give him lines, when I reached that point in the show, I simply had written, “Robin Williams: 10 minutes.” Backstage, I told him to let it fly, and off he went.

I don’t recall much of what happened next, but I do remember that it was hilarious. And that he did a spot-on imitation of Houseman’s plummy, upper class accent.

What a loss. Not only a brilliant, unique comic talent, political satirist and actor but also a deeply caring and motivated activist. A mensch for sure. RIP.

Michael Winship

Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America-East, is senior writer for Bill Moyers' new weekend show Moyers & Company.

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