Robin Williams died one year ago today. This article originally appeared on August 12, 2014.
Robin Williams died yesterday from an apparent suicide at the age of 63. I met him once, at the Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah, back in 2002.
At the time, I was a fledgling filmmaker. I had, along with a team of folks called Pie Fight Films, made a movie (WATCH – The Human BEEing) that was like an old-time William Castle picture, the Tingler maybe, or perhaps Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman, but it was done as a comedy – if those old horror films aren’t already comedies. Our film wasn’t actually screening at Sundance, but had been accepted in two of the auxiliary festivals that ride the Sundance coattails – Slamdunk and Digidance. A group of us drove to Utah from Los Angeles and bunked in the same room. Everyday we would do handouts on the street, wearing black and yellow bee-colored scarves and baseball hats monogrammed with our first names, trying to hustle up an audience for one of the screenings of our film, going old school for our marketing in a world before the internet had taken over all things.
Despite our film’s minor league status, it felt like a big step up. It was the first “real” movie that I had made (and it would turn out to be my last) and being in proximity to Sundance, since Park City is essentially one main street, felt like a big deal. We went to parties, made lots of contacts, and did three screenings of our film. All in all a good run at it. But of everything that happened, the memory that seems most clear now all these years later is meeting Robin Williams, even though the meeting, such as it was, lasted all of two minutes. Still, l felt like this too was a big deal, getting a chance to shake his hand when he was walking down the street.
I collect handshakes the way some people collect comic books or stamps. I guess I started doing this after I read This is Orson Welles, which was a series of conversations between Welles and Peter Bogdonavitch in which Welles said:
This hand that touches you now once touched the hand of Sarah Bernhardt – can you imagine that? She had a wooden leg and she was playing vaudeville, and I was brought backstage, aged four or five, I guess, and led into a bower of dark-red roses where that marvelous old lady sat in her wheelchair refreshing herself from a tank of oxygen. That hand I took was a claw covered with liver spots and liquid white and with the pointy ends of her sleeves glued over the back of it. When she was young, Mademoiselle Bernhardt had taken the hand of Madame George, who had been the mistress of Napoleon!…Peter – just three handshakes from Napoleon! It’s not that the world is so small, but that history is so short. Four of five very old men could join hands and take you right back to Shakespeare.
Certainly the idea of six degrees of separation (or of Kevin Bacon) is a popular cliché, but the detail of Welles’ anecdote stuck with me and I thought – wow! And I hoped that by collecting handshakes some portion of the personal magnetism of the people I met might rub off on me. Along the way, I’ve been fortunate to shake the hands of a number of luminaries involved in various fields of enterprise including Ray Bradbury, Johnny Depp, Jimmy Fallon, and Bill Clinton among them. And Robin Williams.
Walking down the street at Sundance, he turned to the group of us doing handouts and said “You look like a hive of bees.”
My god, I thought, he understands. I was delighted. I asked if I could grab a photo with him and he obliged throwing his arm around me. I asked him, during that brief space of time while someone was rustling up a disposable camera, if he had any advice for an aspiring filmmaker like myself. He looked me square in the eyes and said “No. I don’t. I got my break playing a man who sat on his face.” I laughed, although at the time I didn’t really know what he was talking about. I thought he was using some kind of slang. I had all but forgotten about his turn on Mork and Mindy at the beginning of his career, since by the time I met him he was a bona fied A-list movie star. I thanked him and shook his hand, and we parted ways.
Later that evening I put it together, and it was even funnier to me. Mork sat on his face. Aha! (In fact, as it turns out, the face sitting was how Williams landed the role in the first place). And now, thinking about it, it actually makes even more sense. What he was communicating to me was that any advice on a Hollywood career was largely pointless. Anything could happen for any reason and nothing really makes sense.
Certainly not the suicide of one of America’s most beloved actors.
Robin Williams – RIP
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