The world premiere of the musical Popeye, a live action movie based on the iconic spinach-eating comic strip character, written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Robert Altman, music by Harry Nilsson, was held on a warm December night at the legendary Mann’s Chinese Theater on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.
The actor chosen to play Popeye was a young comedian named Robin Williams. At that point, Williams’ claim to fame was Mork and Mindy, a hit comedy series. That’s about all I knew about him–I don’t think I’d seen an entire episode of the show–when I arrived at the theater for the opening of what was supposed to be one of the year’s big hits.
It is safe to say that I had no interest whatsoever in Robin Williams. I had recently been named the Toronto Star’s movie critic. I wanted to interview real movie stars, not TV comedians.
It is also safe to say that I had never experienced a premiere like the one Paramount put on for Popeye. That night, the studio pulled out all the stops to create the sort of old-time glamor that Hollywood seldom indulged in any longer.
Klieg lights swept the forecourt of the theater. There was the sort of electrical energy in the air, a sense of excitement that only Hollywood can produce. When the movie ended we all exited into the street, and marched happily along to the buoyant sounds of Harry Nilsson’s Popeye soundtrack, a throng of celebrities that included the movie’s producer, Robert Evans, and Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner.
We arrived inside a huge marquee erected in a nearby parking lot where we were feted with copious amounts of food and wine. Late in the evening, Robin Williams was introduced. I groaned inwardly. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be in front of the microphone for long, and we could all go home.
Up onto the stage bounced this small, slim, guy with soft features, a wickedly gentle smile, and a gleam in his eye. To my astonishment–and to the surprise of a great number of the other guests as well–he launched into verbal warp speed, spewing a series of comic one-liners and impressions like spitting bullets from a machine gun. The audience was convulsed with laughter, including one dubious critic from Toronto. I hate to say something as cliché as he had the us rolling in the aisles. But, in fact, he had us all rolling in the aisles.
What was so amazing–what was always so amazing about him–was that the entire routine was improvised, an inventive flight of hyper imagination created on the spot. I had seen lots of comedians in action, including the great Bob Hope, but they all worked from written material. They had a set routine and that’s what they did night after night. Not Williams. Part of his attraction was the slightly dangerous prospect of not knowing what he was going to say next.
That night he was at the peak of his comic genius, starring in a big Hollywood movie, the town’s movers and shakers howling with laughter at his feet.
That first night I saw Robin Williams he was on top of the world.
Now, of course, I couldn’t wait to meet him. I hurried over to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel the next morning where a slightly nervous Williams wearing a western-style shirt waited in one of the hotel’s suites, accompanied by his equally nervous co-star, Shelley Duvall (she played Olive Oyl in the movie).
We stood around trading pleasantries. He was plainly dazzled by the glamor of the previous night’s premiere, somewhat awed at the Hollywood publicity machine working full throttle to make him the center of so much attention.
I gushed about how remarkable he had been on stage. Duvall joined in the praise. Williams looked suitably shy and somewhat embarrassed. He said he had no idea where his comic inspiration came from. He simply opened his mouth and there it was.
I’m not certain how we got onto it, but somehow the topic of cocaine addiction came up and he uttered the line that he was to use many times with such searing comic accuracy: “Cocaine is God’s way of saying you earn too much money.”
He said he had played around with drugs, but no longer. I floated away that afternoon thinking I had met a star in the making, a smart, likable, funny actor with a huge career ahead. You could only wish the best for him.
In the years that followed, I interviewed him more times than was probably good for either of us. I talked to him in connection with some very good movies (Moscow on the Hudson) and I encountered him when talk was more difficult around a dog like The Best of Times.
I continued to think of him as a brilliant improv comedian, but on occasion the improvised one liners, the comic voices and impressions, wore a trifle thin, and more than once it occurred to me that being constantly on was an effective way of ducking anything like a serious question.
Ironically, the only occasion I experienced him in a reflective mood was the last time I talked to him–in a Toronto hotel room when he was out promoting Dead Poets Society, a movie that I suppose lent itself to reflection.
But still it was hard to imagine Williams as anything but the merry, manic Mensch. Even when he announced that he had his demons and discussed stints in rehab, you couldn’t take those confessions too seriously. They were always cushioned with telling wit. Robin Williams would keep us laughing through his tough bits.
He experienced career problems in the last few years. After starring in a series of bland family comedies (Mrs. Doubtfire, anyone?) that made him one of Hollywood’s biggest and highest paid stars, he was forced to retreat back to television in a show that lasted only one season before being cancelled.
Lately, he had starred in The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, a lame movie that went straight to video. Did those failures lead to the depression that caused him to commit suicide yesterday at his home outside San Francisco? Or did the demons he talked about finally overwhelm the comic façade he presented so brilliantly to the world?
There will be endless amounts of dime store psychoanalysis in the weeks to come. For now, in the shocking wake of his tragic death, I prefer to recall that magical night when Robin Williams was on top of the world, and remember with pleasure how he briefly brought a few of us along with him.
Laughing all the way.