Two days ago I heard the report on the radio as I was driving a car from Chicago to Reno. Actor-comedian Robin Williams, dead at 63, from what appeared to be a suicide. My heart sunk like never before. I felt like a thousand bricks had fallen on my head all at one time. Celebrities die all the time, and I may feel a passing sadness. But this felt like a close friend or family member dying. Not just that, but a brilliant comic genius, an energetic force of nature, one that had never come before or would ever come after.
The fact that it was a suicide made it that much more difficult for me. One of my closest friends ever went out like that, and thus I have a big problem with suicide. For my friend, I felt deep sadness, then anger, then regret, then betrayl, then denial, then profound grief. In this case, how could this man who could make millions laugh take his own life?
I felt myself tearing up. And so I thought back to happier times, when I very first met this amazing man. When I watched Robin on MORK & MINDY, I felt I was discovering something completely new and wonderful in the comedy world. This guy was incredible, and the way his quicksilver mind worked boggled my imagination. It was Robin Williams that made me want to move to L.A. in the 80's. And once there, it was him performing weekly at The Comedy Store in Hollywood that made me want to do the same. And so I did.
I was with a group called the Pot Luck Players, and we opened the show in the Improv room every Monday night. Robin was in the final group of the evening, The Comedy Store players. I would watch him with undying admiration, wanting to meet him but not wanting to be like every fan that pesters a star. I had a part time job working as head usher at a movie theater, and one night I did a favor for one of Robin's cohorts. Jim Stahl, who performed with him at "The Store" and on MORK & MINDY came in with two girls on his arm to see a movie that was already sold out. I found a way to find him 3 seats together, and he told me he owed me one.
"And here's what I want," I told him. "I perform on Monday nights, and would really appreciate it if you could introduce me to Robin."
He smiled and told me I didn't need his help. "Robin is totally approachable, you can just go back stage and introduce yourself."
"Then I'd be like everyone else. Can you help me out?"
He patted me on the back and smiled. "You helped me out tonight. If that's what you want, you got it."
That Monday night I got there early and sat myself at the table right next to the curtained entry way to back stage. Around 10pm, Jim leaned out and wiggled his finger for me to follow him. I walked behind the stage and saw Robin bouncing nervously from foot to foot, rubbing his hands in eager anticipation. He looked like he was about to explode.
Jim said, "Robin Williams, I have the great pleasure of introducing you to the one, the only Bill Thomas."
Robin leaped over to me and grabbed my hand, pumping my arm for all it was worth. "Oh my God, this the most wonderful moment of my life! I can't believe this is happening to me. I mean Bill Thomas! One dreams of moments like this, but never thinks they will happen. What a pleasure to meet you, what an honor, what a challenge. I'm such a big fan, such a big fan!" He went on like that, and then started bouncing off the walls doing comedy just for me. Improving and riffing about anything and everything. It climaxed with him opening the Emergency exit doors onto Sunset Blvd., where he started a conversation with 3 hookers as if he were their black pimp.
After that, I saw him many times performing, both at The Comedy Store and The Improv. I have a distinctive laugh, and he recognized it several times while performing and would point to me, always sitting right down front.
He was absolutely amazing, and I am just so darned depressed and frustrated that he is gone. It leaves a big hole that can never be filled. He had such an influence on so many people, and now he is gone. He left behind wonderful films, from THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP to GOOD MORNING VIETNAM to MRS. DOUBTFIRE. He will be missed very much. I have a huge lump in my throat that won't go away.
But my own personal thank you to the man who is now finally at peace. Robin Williams, you made a 20 year old kid feel very special and important one memorable night at The Comedy Store. My comic hero, gone but never forgotten.