Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Time I Interviewed Robin Williams

Cover of "The World According to Garp"
Cover of The World According to Garp
When I was 23 years old I was producing a talk show on cable television called "Celebrity."  The hostess was Alison Steele.  Known as "The Nightbird," Alison was a legendary rock DJ on New York City's WNEW-FM and probably the first really famous female rock radio DJ.  She was also a great personality and a classy "Celebrity" in her own right.

Our show was simple.  In each hour long episode we spent the first half interviewing celebrities who were promoting their latest movie, and in the second half of the show Alison interviewed a CEO or high level exec from companies such as Exxon,  British Airways, etc.  The corporate participant paid for their segment, which essentially bankrolled the show.  We got the real celebrity interviews for free.  This was fairly easy to arrange as back then every new movie had a New York premiere and a press junket around the premiere where the studio made all the stars available for interviews.  We'd show up at the appointed hotel at the appointed hour and get our appointed time with the stars.  Often we'd also get to attend the premiere and capture "b-roll" of the event, and of course the studio supplied ample clips from the film.  To keep things lean and efficient, we always shot our interviews with one camera, over Alison's shoulder, and then, at a later time we'd shoot her doing the "asks" in her posh East Side living room.  When edited together, you'd never know it wasn't a seamless two camera shoot done in one sitting.

As you can imagine, at a young age I had the opportunity to meet many, many very well known Hollywood stars.  As you can also imagine, I learned pretty fast that people are people, and just like the rest of the population, the community of famous people is filled with its fair share of nice folks, obnoxious jerks, and complete and total assholes.  The stories about the jerks and assholes will have to wait for another time.  This story is about one of the good guys.  One of the really wonderful, amazing and very special guys...

On the day we were scheduled to interview Robin Williams, Alison had the flu.  It was the only time in my tenure with the show that she had to call in sick and miss an interview.  But there was no way we were going to pass up the chance to get Robin Williams on our tape (yes, back then we used something called videotape.)  So we came up with a plan.  I would interview Robin.  We'd shoot him cheating to the side of where Alison would normally sit, and then when she was feeling better we would shoot her asks as usual.  When we edited it together it would look like Alison had conducted the interview with Robin herself.  All I had to do was to make sure I didn't talk over Robin and make it difficult to edit my voice out.

Needless to say, I was full of nerves and excitement.  Promoting the release of "The World According To Garp" Robin Williams was already a massive star thanks to Mork and Mindy.  If that weren't enough, I was also a big fan of John Irving and had read and loved Garp.  Having the chance to meet and interview Robin Williams was going to be the highlight of my young career thus far.  But I was gun shy...  Not that long before, another big name celebrity had really treated me badly, and made me feel like a young, inexperienced schmuck.  It was a blow to my ego, my confidence, and to the image I had of that particular star.  So I approached Robin Williams with trepidation... and was greeted with a huge smile, a warm and hearty handshake, and the feeling we might have been friends already for a long time.  It felt... genuine.

I think you'll hear a lot of people using that word when describing Robin.  He was genuine.

I explained to him the situation with Alison.  I had brought her head shot with me and, in my own feeble attempt to make him feel comfortable, I put the picture of Alison on what would have been her chair, opposite Robin, and asked him to look at and talk to "her" even though I would be asking him the questions from off to the side.  I explained how we'd shoot and edit her in later.  He made a few quick jokes about the situation, and happily, professionally, wonderfully played along and gave us a great interview.  Throughout it all, he could not have been nicer or more supportive of this young, inexperienced kid who was doing his best to get the job done.  He made me feel great, and more importantly at the time, he made me feel like a professional.  I was then, and always will be enormously grateful for that.

We have lost a true star, an irreplaceable talent, and a wonderful, genuine man...