I guess a million people are sitting down right now and thinking and/or writing something about how uniquely and specially Robin Williams touched them…this is my tiny slice of time with him.
It was the late eighties. I guess he had decided to do a tour of the country but, because he hadn’t done live comedy in a while, he decided to do eleven nights in a club in Southern California to hone his act (as if his brilliance needed it.)
He chose to do the shows at the fabled Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. Rick Babaracki was running the place then, and might have been one of the original founders of the club. I don’t know.
What I do know is that he was a big supporter of me and always hired me to play for packed houses for him. They don’t make them like Rick anymore.
In any event, I have no idea whether he suggested that I be the opening act to Robin, but of all the acts they presented to him, Robin chose me. I have no idea why or how, but I was extremely grateful for the work and the opportunity.
All of you have seen Robin work in one situation or another. His originality and brilliance was unparalleled and consequently his audiences are always expecting a stellar show.
And I was the opening act. They guy between their favorite person on earth and them.
I showed up at the Golden Bear at 4:45 for the 8:30 show, went into my dressing room, turned off the lights and began playing and singing.
My plan was to be so warmed up that I could access any musical gift I might have. My comedy has always depended upon the situation, venue, audience and whatever happened to me and the world that day, so I wasn’t worried about that.
Anyway, I figured I should do much more music than comedy, as Robin did have the comedy part covered.
After about an hour or two playing in the dark, the door to my dressing room opened and Robin popped his head in and immediately went into some Robin Williams persona.
As I had been playing music in the dark for almost two hours, I was not prepared to be an audient and Robin, with his impeccable sense of an audience, immediately stopped his whole Robin Williams routine.
“Are you warming up?” he said.
“Robin, I have seen you work and I know what an audience expects from one of your shows and I just want to be absolutely certain that I can warm them up for you and not just turn them into a non responsive mob.”
He smiled and said, “James, I personally picked you to open these shows. I know what you can do and you’re going to be great.”
He then sat down and we just talked for ten or fifteen minutes. Then he left and I went back to warming up for the show.
Over the next eleven days, Robin came into my dressing room, every single night. Talked to me, relaxed and made me feel like a peer and not some wannabe who was so lucky to be opening for him.
Years later, I was running around Lake Hollywood and who should be running towards me but Robin himself. We passed each other before it registered and I called out, “Robin!”
Perhaps it was the familiar way I used his name, I don’t know, but he stopped and trotted back and we talked for a few minutes. As gracious and kind as ever, we smiled and parted. I never saw him in person again, but I loved that guy.
His talent was only exceeded by his grace and sensitivity. I am so very sorry that he left the planet this way instead of to a standing ovation.
We will not see his like again in our lifetimes.