My brief encounters with Robin Williams


My living room was once filled with framed photos of me with famous people. There were no pictures of family or friends – just me with famous people. My self esteem was low enough that I wanted to remind myself – on a daily basis – of moments when others who had achieved more with their lives than I, had crossed my path. I may not have attained Greatness myself but, by God, I’d certainly been in the company of it.

The more famous they were, the bigger the print.

Robin Williams was a full 8 X 10.

Initially, I met him in San Francisco. I think it was in 1998.

I was at the annual Golden Gate Park Comedy Day. Robin Williams was performing and, after the show, I managed to get a photo with him.

Back in England, I gave the negative to ‘Boots the Chemists’ to have it enlarged for my wall and Boots lost the negative. They offered me £75 in compensation. I refused to accept it. I wanted Boots to fly me back to San Francisco and arrange for me to meet Robin Williams again for a new photograph. I was incensed but the solicitor I spoke to persuaded me that my demands would probably not be deemed reasonable by a Court. Boots upped their offer to £250 and, begrudgingly, I accepted. I wanted my photo though and I have detested Boots ever since.

Two years later, however, again in San Francisco, I met him again.

When the news of his suicide broke, a friend called and said, “You worked with him, didn’t you?”

Thinking about it, I didn’t really. No one ever employed me to work with Robin Williams. However, I was booked as the MC at Cobbs Comedy Club on Fisherman’s Wharf during a Patton Oswalt week when, unscheduled, unexpectedly & unhappily for Patton, Robin showed up. As the MC, I got to introduce him. I have the footage of it somewhere, on VHS, and I’ve overcome the urge to get it digitized in order to post it here.

Picture me excited and gushy – my usual uncool self – as Robin Williams arrives onstage. The image should be one of me pumping his hand too enthusiastically and for far too long, whilst gazing at him adoringly from the foot of the pedestal I had placed him on. And I was fat then too! Picture me fat, please.

This footage remains in analogue. The photo above was taken then though. Perhaps you’ll get a sense of the fatness from my face. Either way, getting that photo was VERY IMPORTANT to me and allowed me to downsize my hatred of Boots to a Category 3 storm.

But I didn’t really WORK with him, as such. I just said his name into the microphone and then, in a moment of surreal magic, he appeared in front of the stunned audience who – as one – exploded to their feet and lost their minds for about 3 minutes. Once they had returned to their seats, Robin Williams spoke into the microphone for an hour. And then I spoke into the same microphone again. On that night, both of our voices became embedded into the history of the same SM58.

But did I WORK with him? Did I KNOW him? Not really. I had short term access. It was a backstage pass.

During his set, someone shouted, “You gave my friend 100 bucks at McDonalds yesterday.”

“That’s so he’d stop hassling my ass, “ Robin Williams replied.

That moment stuck with me. It meant something. Here was a man whose ass was hassled wherever he went. Here was a man who gave out 100 dollar bills in order to stop his ass from being hassled.

What kind of a life was that?

40 minutes earlier, when the club owner told me that Robin Williams had shown up, I found him outside the showroom (ever since being accused of joke thievery in the 1980’s, he’d established – and was here illustrating – a reputation for never entering the showroom whilst other comedians were onstage). He was sitting alone in a corner booth, faced inwards, so that his face could not be seen by anyone who passed.

What kind of a life was that?

Here was a man who consciously had to think – everywhere he went – about how to position himself so that his face was as concealed as possible. Another strategy to avoid having his ass hassled.

Once I had found him, I asked if he wanted me to say anything in particular when I introduced him. That is what MC”s – especially in America – are supposed to do. He said he didn’t mind what I said.

Of course, from my point of view, I didn’t particularly mind what he wanted me to say about him either. I just wanted an excuse to say hello and my role for the evening gave me a legitimate excuse to do so. I had a reason to hassle his ass.

After his set, for about 30 minutes, I did have the privilege of talking to him, properly. He mentioned that he’d not been onstage for ages and had a one off private event coming up the following week (in London actually). He had shown up in order to shake off the ring rust.

In my head, I was very conscious that my anonymous nobody face was interacting with one of the most recognisable and adored faces in the world. I wanted to be present though – grounded and real – and not have that useless celebrity infatuation stuff spoil the encounter and, for the most part, I managed a rare triumph of common sense over emotion. I asked about his onstage reference to being hassled in McDonalds and probed him on the nature of his “ridiculous level of fame.”

“But you’re Robin Williams, for Christ’s sake,” I remember blurting out at one point.

“I know, I know, “ he said.

There was a deep humility there though. Those intense eyes of his looked into mine and I saw something. I felt something. My eyes welled up a bit. I wanted to hold him. I felt a love for him – not for the guy from the films but for this beautiful human person whose vulnerability and pain had somehow just reached into my soul.

This is a man who opened hearts.

When I watch his films, I FEEL.

Whilst many of us try our hardest to hide our vulnerabilities, here was someone who made a career, a life, out of showing his. As with his celebrated public characters, I was now experiencing a depth of emotion in his presence too.

I don’t remember what else we talked about, apart from his son. He was having some problems with him. Again, it was in reference to something he’d done onstage.

That was the time our lives crossed. It’s what happened and it’s how I have processed it. I felt that, for me, something special had happened. Once he had gone, I wanted to see him again.

And I did.

It was just 3 days later, in fact.

On the final night of my week at Cobbs, he came back… and I had the buzz of introducing him again. As with before, the audience went nuts, Patton Oswalt took 2nd place and Robin Williams performed for an hour. Afterwards though, he got swarmed. His ass was being hassled and I saw the panic in his eyes. And then he was gone.

Perhaps one of Robin Williams’ motives for becoming a performer was to enjoy the upsides of fame. Perhaps he ended up with too much of what he once wished for.

What must it be like to experience the infatuation and neediness of others everywhere you go? For decades! If we can never relate to others as our equals, then surely we lose our connection with humanity and, ultimately, with ourselves too.

Love is what connects us and brings us closer; infatuation is what causes disconnection and drives us apart. Celebrities or not, we all want to get away fast when others creep us out. No one likes clingy. Robin Williams was a man who endlessly looked to be loved and instead became endlessly idolised.

He was a special person with the rare gift of opening others’ hearts yet he chose to shut his own heart down.

I met him, yes, but I didn’t know him. In the words of Debbie Harry, I was touched by his presence. I am grateful for what it was and I am truly sad for what it is.

Joel Sanders
August 12th, 2014

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