I was lucky enough to be in Los Angeles when Robin Williams was being discovered.
I was The Buffalo News’ TV columnist and taking part in the networks’ biannual unveiling of series.
I saw Williams at Improv one night. This was the period before “Mork & Mindy,” before any of his movies, even before Johnny Carson. Williams was just a comedy club comic in a beret and suspenders and a tight, low-cut T-shirt that revealed an insanely luxuriant tuft of chest hair.
“You may not know the name yet but you’ll never forget the act,” the emcee said that night.
Seeing Williams live for the first time was a landmark life experience.
Who had ever before that seen a hitherto unknown comic who exploded with culture so violently, leaving shards of everything from Shakespeare to prime-time dreck all over the audience?
He prowled the audience. He got in people’s faces. Here was a comic who had learned a bit about avant-garde theater at Juilliard.
As David Letterman – a comedy club denizen at the time – later admitted, none of his colleagues had ever quite seen that before. It was part of the detonation of Robin Williams to take possession of the entire club, not just the stage.
I interviewed him a couple of times, once as a TV columnist a couple of years later and once before the release of “Dead Poets Society.”
It was during that interview you could almost see the silent plea in his eyes that you not ask him a question that would force him into “full goose bozo” mode.
He could always do that – always. And whoever else was in the wrong would always double up with laughter.
But he hungered for a deeper understanding, it seemed.
Williams was whom you called when you were Johnny Carson and you wanted a guest for your final night hosting a late-night TV show.
He was the comic who would know how to make jokes at the same time that he clearly felt the tidal power and magnitude of the occasion.
Williams was the comic who a messed-up Jack Nicholson hauled up on stage at a Golden Globes award show after – incredibly – admitting to the TV audience, “I’ve never been this baked on national television before.”
Williams understood perfectly. And he could, in a millisecond, flick on the “Robin Williams” machine, explode into hilarious fragments and bury, perfectly, Nicholson’s acute vulnerability.
In the business, people instinctively understood that whatever it was that made Williams manic was an overcompensation for some vulnerability.
He told us it all began as a way to entertain a mother who needed it badly.
If show business is just a giant box full of broken toys, Williams was the broken toy everyone else in the toy chest could count on to understand the cracks in everyone else and laugh them all out of them.
He was there that time for Johnny. He was there that time for Jack. He’d be there for us too if, heaven help us, we needed him to be. Somehow we all suspected that.
But the trouble with being the gigantically talented and exquisitely sensitive comic genius who could always be counted on by others is that there seems to have been no one there for him when he was in greatest need.
The trouble with being Robin Williams is that you have no Robin Williams to laugh you out of it.
He had, said the news stories, planned to go back into rehab. Just as Philip Seymour Hoffman had spent many years clean and then, in the addicts’ own words “gone out” (i.e., left the recovery community), so, it seems, had Williams.
He was, said the stories, also suffering from depression. And either self-medicating the old ways or afraid of self-medicating the old ways, or both.
And with a whole country full of people who loved him and virtually thought of him as family, Williams couldn’t find a Robin Williams who could laugh him out of it.
But then, how could he?
Some human vulnerabilities lay too deep.
And there was only one Robin Williams.
A name we all know.
An act we’ll never forget.
For a gallery featuring Jeff Simon’s 10 favorite Robin Williams films, see www.BuffaloNews.com/galleries.