In the course of a couple of decades covering the movie beat, I've seen Robin Williams multiple times. Or rather, I bore witness to Robin Williams.
The first time was at a junket for the Disney animated movie Aladdin in 1992. The thing one had to keep in mind about Williams throughout his career was a press conference was just another audience for him. The room might have been much smaller than the auditoriums he usually filled. But he took the duties of the round-table interview as an opportunity to perform.
I learned immediately doing a press conference with Williams was hysterically funny. Writing a story about that press conference was next to impossible.
Think about the way Williams delivered a monologue. You could transcribe a single sentence easily enough. But it would be much more difficult to describe his trademark embellishments.
One second, he's imitating the vocal swoops of a southern evangelist, the next, John Wayne, and next, Arnold Schwarzenegger. And that was in a single minute. How do you transcribe creative lightning to paper?
I'm glad Aladdin was my first face-to-face with him. That and all subsequent interview experiences never failed to suggest the handy image of a genie being released from a bottle and exploding with energy pent up over millennia.
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When Williams came to Winnipeg in 2004 to make a dark comedy called The Big White (penned by former local boy Collin Friesen), I missed the chance to talk to him. My closest exposure was catching a glimpse of him between takes in a house on Burrows Avenue. He was restlessly poking around the garage, peeking into stored boxes of Christmas ornaments. I could only assume he was looking for either a prop or inspiration.
He proved to be more readily available later on. A Winnipeg couple spied Williams in the bar of the Fort Garry Hotel and invited him to say hello to the graduating class of a Junior Achievement program at a banquet they had organized on the seventh floor. Williams did more than say hello, he stayed for more than half an hour, signing autographs and posing for photographs among the estimated 165 guests.
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The last time I saw Williams was back on the junket circuit in Los Angeles, where he was promoting a movie called License to Wed, in 2007. He played a demanding minister intent on preparing a young couple (John Krasinski and Mandy Moore) for matrimony.
Typical Williams press conference: He was funnier than the movie, at one point breaking into the Krasinski-Moore portion of the show to warn the wholesome Moore not to take the career paths of Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears. Williams described Moore's chaste but sexy appeal as: "It's like the Amish girl who KNOWS."
"Pam Dawber had it," he said, referring to his Mork & Mindy star of decades earlier. "This kind of wholesome sensuality where a lot of guys will come up and say, 'You ever do Mindy?' "
In that last line, um, Williams put on the voice of a blue-collar doofus.
Ah, Robin Williams, even now, you challenge me still.