by Steve Wagner
For the past two days, like most everyone I imagine, I have been simply devastated by Robin Williams’ passing.
This one hit hard.
It is always more difficult to lose the clown—the person of mirth and laughter who we rely on to take OUR pain away—and Robin was THE clown for our time. He was an immense talent and, by all accounts, a generous, self-effacing, supportive, charitable, and very kind man. The media attention is of course sickening—I know we want this information, and these are the times we live in blah blah blah—but there is something about this tragedy that calls for a certain restraint, a graceful response, and of course this is not what our media is geared for in the least.
It is heartening, though, to see the subject of depression at least being referenced in most of the coverage. One can only hope that, like for instance after Rock Hudson’s death, a light will be shone on an issue that we must face and, somehow, together, find a true solution.
Robin was a huge favorite of our Flick Nation team, and we had a few memorable brushes with him over the years. When the tragedy occurred, our hosts Dennis Willis and Steven Kirk took to the microphones and “covered” the story, to the degree that one can even speak coherently amidst such a confusing situation. They gave a heartfelt and, to my mind, very thoughtful eulogy, focusing mostly on the problem of depression, while also calling to mind all of the reasons why Robin affected us so deeply. There is nothing more I can add to what they said, and in truth I feel quite lucky I was out of cell-range when it was time to record that sad segment. This is perhaps the hardest aspect of broadcasting, and I can say that, in this case, my feelings are precisely… “What they said.”
Thanks, guys, for carrying that weight.
We then discussed how we might honor Robin by recalling our professional connections with him, and decided that the written word would be the more respectful and heartfelt approach. My particular anecdote will be a very fun one to tell, because the night I met Robin was simply one of the most fun nights of my life. And, in a sense, that’s the point: It was simply impossible to not experience immense joy around the man.
It was April 1998. Dennis Willis and I were hosting and producing the FilmTrip television show for KGO 7, and San Francisco seemed, at least to us, to be at the center of the entertainment industry. We were in the midst of the dot-com boom, and in addition to the gold fever and entrepreneurial excitement, the City had become one of the most coveted locations for major Hollywood film shoots. There always seemed to be something big happening, and we were, for a time, given access to a great deal of it. The night we had Robin Williams on the show represents, for me at least, a certain high-point to that incredibly charged time period.
The San Francisco International Film Festival—a two-plus week affair attracting filmmakers and actors from all over the world—was honoring Nicolas Cage (one of our City’s favorite sons) with the Peter J. Owens award at the opening night gala. We had been invited as guests and were also invited to film the red carpet arrivals along with the heavy hitters: MTV, Entertainment Tonight, etc. The morning of the event, I got a call from the SFIFF publicist with an amazing development: Nic had just granted me an exclusive interview, the only one he agreed to give that evening.
I had just interviewed him a month before in Los Angeles for the film City of Angels and we had a cool connection, albeit for the seven or so minutes I spent with him. I told him about FilmTrip and that we had in fact devoted an entire show the previous year to his incredible trajectory as an actor. He must have remembered the conversation, and was now offering his support for our efforts in the form of this exclusive access.
After a few phone calls, we were set to go: I would conduct the interview using a KGO production crew, and the shoot would be coordinated by our long-term colleague, correspondent, and associate producer Amy Miller. Arriving at the Hotel W, we set up shop in the green room, the backstage nexus, and were ready to go just as the stars started coming in the door and past the long line of reporters and cameras. Amy and I shook hands with Tom Waits and Peter Coyote before settling in and waiting for Nic.
The room was soon packed with celebrities. I remember Sharon Stone shooting me a “don’t even think about it” look when I took a half-step in her direction (I settled for a short conversation with her then-husband, San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein). At one point I was hovering over the food table, when I looked up and realized Robin Williams was standing just a few feet away. I reached out and shook his hand, introduced myself and congratulated him on his recent Oscar win for Good Will Hunting. I said, “We were really pulling for you on the show, Robin. You really deserved it.”
He smiled and thanked me, and then asked for directions to the smoking lounge. I pointed a finger and he walked away. It was surreal to say the least, even in the midst of such serious star-power. I mean, this was Robin Williams. And I really remember how calm and sweet and even shy he seemed at that moment.
A few minutes later they cued us that Nic would be there shortly, and in walked his then-wife Patricia Arquette, an actress that both Amy and I adored. She told us that it would still be a few minutes, and suggested we had time to sneak in a smoke before Nic showed. We three stepped out onto the deck and talked some David Lynch—she had just starred in his film Lost Highway. I remember thinking she was a uniquely beautiful woman, quite petite in person, with a very sweet vibe.
We went back in and got to work. I interviewed Nic, and he was once again very cool. We spent maybe ten minutes talking about his being honored by the festival, his deep family ties to San Francisco, and his upcoming film Snake Eyes, directed by Brian DePalma, and then he was out the door and off to receive the prestigious award. We all congratulated ourselves on a well-produced piece, and the crew started striking our set while I wandered off in search of the bar. I ordered a single-malt on the rocks and stood at the back of the banquet hall, watching the proceedings and just taking it all in. I was just about through my second scotch, feeling a bit tipsy with excitement and alcohol, when Amy ran up and grabbed me. “We have Robin Williams sitting at our set waiting for you—you’re going to interview Robin Williams!!!”
She was already pushing me down the hallway as she explained what was happening. She had literally gone up to Robin at his table and talked him into doing a sit with us just as the ceremony was coming to its close. Now, Amy is strikingly attractive any day of the week, but this particular evening she was dressed to the nines, with her hair up high and riding classy black high heels, and she was feeling her power. She was also really coming into her own as a producer, and this was a producer move par-excellence, on the fly as it were, delivering one of the biggest stars in the world through sheer confidence and character. I’m still amazed she pulled this off, but now that she is a multiple Emmy winner for a variety of PBS programs, I guess it shouldn’t be that much of a surprised that she had this in her.
Amy pushed me, literally, into the room, where I saw Robin Williams and director Barry Levinson sitting in front of the cameras. There were a good thirty more people in the room, ringed around the walls, ready to see and hear the one and only Robin Williams. This was perhaps Robin’s greatest milieu, the talk show. We had all witnessed for years Robin slaying audience after audience on the Tonight Show and its many doppelgangers. There was only one problem: I was completely unprepared, half in the bag, and more than slightly nervous. I mean, this was Robin Williams! ANYTHING could happen. The room was charged with anticipation.
I nervously shook hand with Robin and Barry, and while the sound man was affixing me with my lavalier mic, I mentioned that maybe we could talk about Hollywood’s migration up North to San Francisco. Just before we started rolling tape the tech guy reached over and adjusted Robin’s mic, and then brushed something off the front of his shirt. Robin looked at me and exclaimed, “Only in San Francisco will sound man touch your nipple and say, ‘We have tone!’”
The room exploded in laughter, and we were off and running.
Robin just kept going. He pretended to be a filmmaker from India who had just relocated to San Francisco, and was delivering one gold-liner after another. At one point Barry Levinson interrupted him and said “Excuse me, but with that accent you have, where exactly do you come from?” Robin answered, “You know that bothers me, too!” He was incredible, hysterical, in his element, having fun, and trying to crack up Barry more than anything. I just sat there, laughing my ass off with everyone else in the room, mostly forgetting why I was even there, just going with Robin’s flow. I don’t know that I had a question to ask, and thankfully, he never gave me the chance to stumble over one. He simply riffed for about 10 minutes, then just abruptly stood up and shook my hand, saying “Dude!” before trundling out the door with Barry.
Everyone was star-struck. I was in awe. I had just interviewed Robin Williams, and I never had to say a word.
One of the people in the room watching this exchange was none-other than Cheech Marin, who had recently moved to SF to co-star with Don Johnson in Nash Bridges. After Robin and Barry left, Amy directed Cheech to the chair in front of me and he graciously gave us a wonderful interview on the spot.
The whole evening felt like a dream, one of those right place/right time kinds of things. Most of all, I will cherish those ten minutes I shared with Robin, when he made it feel that time had stopped, and perhaps instinctively grokked that I was in a bit over my head and needed him to come to my rescue. And he did. He could have messed with me big time, using my nervousness to fuel his comedy. Instead, he gave us a singular performance that left everyone reeling with laughter.
That, I think, is the kind of guy he was. He was about us. He brought joy and happiness to the world, and the world loved him dearly, more than he could ever know. I believe we all wish we could have personally been the one to help him see that when he was struggling through the darkness of his depression. Robin was truly loved, and will never be forgotten.
We hope you enjoy this short clip from our coverage of the 1998 San Francisco International Film Festival, and our unforgettable encounter with the late, great, Robin Williams.