Today [July 21st] is Robin Williams’ birthday. Or it would have been. None of us knew a year ago that it would be his last. But perhaps he did. Because tragically, a few weeks later, he took his own life.
Like everyone my age, I remember the Robin Williams explosion. From his first appearance on Happy Days as Mork from Ork leading quickly to the launch of the spinoff Mork and Mindy to everything that followed, his energy came bursting through my television unleashing a kind of manic, stream-of-consciousness comic virtuosity the likes of which I had never seen… outside of Daffy Duck. He was, in fact, like a real-life Looney Tunes character. Chaotic. Anarchistic. A little naughty. Everything I loved. I bought his first comedy LP, Reality… What a Concept with my allowance the day it came out in 1979 and I pretty much consumed everything Robin did from that point on. Until the mid-1980s.
When I was 16, I began running around to the comedy clubs in LA, doing stand-up and writing jokes for comedians. It was “the boom.” Americans’ appetite for stand-up was at an all time high. Comedians themselves also appeared to be at an all time “high.” It was the 80s, after all; drugs were everywhere jokes were told in front of audiences, big and small. Even after the untimely death of John Belushi and the terrifying literal self-immolation of Richard Pryor, the drug party raged on. So there I was, in the eye of it all. Me, comedy and lots of drugs. And believe me, I wanted it all. Until they found out that I was still a teenager, I roamed freely and deliberately through all three showrooms at Hollywood’s legendary Comedy Store. I also spent many hours in the dark corners, hallways and outside nooks around that big black monolithic building on the Sunset Strip.
One night, I was onstage in the Original Room doing a routine about things you’ll never see Jews do, when I heard this howitzer of laughter explode from the back of the room. It threw me. Especially after I realized that it was Robin Williams! Afterwards, he approached me. I had never met him before and when he was lavish and generous with his praise of my material, a light breeze could have knocked me over. Although to be fair that may also be because I was high as fuck. Still, winning the regard of one of my childhood heroes felt like I had just earned my first comedy merit badge. However, the afterglow was fleeting. Shortly thereafter, I saw Robin do one of my jokes on late night TV. I couldn’t believe it. I mentioned it to a few of my more veteran comedian friends and they all laughed and shook their heads knowingly. Yup, that’s Robin. Apparently this was something for which Robin had developed a bit of a reputation. There were even some comedians who wouldn’t go on if they knew he was in the room. As a newcomer onto the scene, I had no idea. It would be my first loss of innocence in the comedy world.
Months later, I was playing basketball at Fairfax High with a fellow comedian. After the game, we walked down to the track and there was Robin, sweaty from running. My friend said, “You know Dan Pasternack?” to Robin and something registered in his face. He volunteered, “I heard you’re pissed at me.” I told him that I was. And why. Robin quickly processed the charges and apologetically acknowledged what had happened, offering to have his managers cut me a check. And then, full of the bluster and righteous indignation of youth, I told him I didn’t want a check. I just wanted for him to not have done my joke. Not knowing what to do with my open hostility, he attempted a gracious exit and ran back onto the track. We wouldn’t speak again for 20 years and, I’m ashamed to admit, I never forgave him that entire time. What more did I want from him? He was contrite and offered whatever reparations he could. After getting clean and sober from drugs and alcohol at age 20, it would still take me many years of sobriety and introspection to better understand the need to hold onto resentments.
As I have shared here, comedy icon Jonathan Winters came into my life in the early 2000s and became a close friend and confidante. As Jonathan had been Robin’s greatest hero and eventual co-star on Mork and Mindy, I knew theirs was a deep connection. So when the topic of Robin came up, I petulantly told Jon my tale of woe. He shook his head mournfully and confided that he was all too aware of Robin’s tendencies, lamenting, “Yeah, he’s taken stuff from me too.” But then he offered his perspective on Robin as an artist and as a man. Jon loved him. Deeply. He expressed an appreciation and a respect for Robin that transcended the triviality of the occasional pilferage. Jon thought Robin was the greatest. An acrobatic trick pilot of a performer whose skills were unmatched. I thought… who am I to argue with Jonathan Winters?
In 2007, I attended the Mark Twain Prize ceremony in Washington DC honoring Billy Crystal. Robin was on hand to pay tribute to Billy but also gave a generous shout out to Jonathan, calling him “the Buddha of Santa Barbara.” At the after party, I called Jon to let him know. Jon asked to speak with Robin and, trepidatiously, I approached him, offering my cell phone saying simply “Jonathan Winters wants to say ‘hi.’” Gleefully and without hesitation, Robin grabbed my phone and ran off to a quiet corner to talk to Jon. He didn’t seem to remember or recognize me when he handed back the phone, thanking me profusely. When I got back on the line, the first thing Jon said was “So, did you say anything to him?” I told him that of course I hadn’t. “But wait. Did you?” Jon assured me he hadn’t. About a year later, Jon’s wife Eileen passed away. I flew to California to attend her memorial at their house in Santa Barbara. Robin was there. As I stood off to the side watching how Robin tenderly doted on Jon, lovingly calling him “Pop” as though Jon were his real father, I was struck by how much affection there was between these two men. I also saw how Robin intuitively knew how to reach Jon through silliness, improvising little hilarious scenes throughout the otherwise somber affair. Jon pulled me into some of their play and I tried my best to keep up. At some point Jon again asked if I said anything to Robin. As it was hardly the time or place to revisit something so insignificant, I assured him I had not and I told Jon to just let it go. And in retrospect I think I had finally let it go too. But Jon hadn’t.
Later that year, I was back in California and, as always, had set aside a day of my trip to go up to Santa Barbara to spend time with Jon. He called to make sure I would be coming up and I promised him that nothing would keep me away, as I was keeping a closer eye on him since Eileen’s passing. When I got to the house, Jon’s nurse let me in and I walked into his study as I had so many times before. But this time, Jon wasn’t alone. There he sat, smoking a cigar, engaged in animated conversation with Robin. After a bit of play, I drove the three of us to lunch. It was lovely and light and easy. Again, I found myself deeply touched by the dynamic between Jon and Robin. There was no talk of show business or comedy. It alternated between little improvised scenes wherein we adopted the personalities of various characters and deeper, more significant talk of our respective childhoods and parenting. We were three men, unguarded and at ease. That is until, out of the blue, Jon turned to me and said, “So are you going to tell him or am I?” Robin cocked his head like the RCA Victor dog and I froze. Jon smirked impishly. That old son of a bitch knew exactly what he was doing. He sandbagged me. With nowhere to run, I told Robin the story from so many years before. His eyes got wide. His hand covered his mouth. And finally, when I was finished, he leaned in close and spoke in a voice so low and soft, I had to lean towards him to hear. He knew that he had developed a reputation back in the day as a joke thief. It clearly embarrassed him and he spoke about the maelstrom of his success during that time, and the role that drugs had played. He also explained his process as an artist. How he went through the world with his brain as a kind of recording device, filing everything away and then when he got onto the stage, he would just hit “play”. Robin also said that he often found himself paying comedians who just had similar jokes, because he knew he’d be crucified in the community for every perceived act of thievery. I felt stupid. It was one dumb joke. And here was this brilliant, sensitive man, pouring out his heart to me because of it. By the time the check came, Robin leapt up and grabbed it, insisting on paying. And by the time the day was over, he became a little boy, offering me a hug and asking if we were okay. With tears in my eyes, I embraced him and assured him that we were. I hugged Jon too, knowing that my friend just wanted to finally put an old burden to rest. And sure enough, as I drove away, I felt lighter.
A few weeks later, Robin was on his “Weapons of Self Destruction” stand-up tour. As I saw he was coming to Atlanta where I was living at the time, I made a point to go and see him. But from my seat in the audience, something seemed off in his voice. It was as if he had a sweat sock jammed in his throat. We visited a bit after the show and he said he wasn’t feeling great. A few days after that, he canceled the rest of his dates and went into the hospital for open-heart surgery. I wouldn’t see Robin again until 2013. That was the year we lost Jonathan. Robin was unable to attend the memorial as he was away shooting a movie. But later that year, I went to see him on the set of his CBS series The Crazy Ones. I wanted to bring him a DVD of the tribute video I had produced for Jon’s service. Robin was clearly moved and grateful and we spoke lovingly if somberly about the loss of our pal. But there was something else. That day, there just seemed like there was something off. Like a light had been turned off behind his eyes. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The next year, Robin was gone.
Today, my copy of Reality… What a Concept is one of my most cherished autographed LPs. When Robin signed it, he wrote, “Remember me.” At the time, I thought the intention of the sentiment was a kind of whimsical joke about who he had been back in those Mork days. Kind of like, “Hey, remember this guy?” But looking at it hanging on my wall now, the inscription without any question mark reads so differently. Yes, Robin. I will always remember you.