Robin Williams Heads for the Hills
At home on his California ranch, the star of 'The World According to Garp' gets serious about cleaning up his act
This story originally appeared in the September 16th, 1982 issue of Rolling Stone.
The hills are alive with the sound of hawks and the sound of stranded aliens and the sound of a swayback horse and the sound of a television-network executive and, not surprisingly, all of them are coming from Robin Williams' mouth. "E.T. phone home, E.T. phone home," Robin Williams is hollering to the hills, on a peak atop his 600-acre, top-secret hideaway ranch. Or, spotting a hawk rising and falling: "Sometimes you see them swooping down and grabbing things, a squirrel or a rabbit." As Squirrel, or Rabbit, in tragic voice: "Why me? Why me?" As Hawk, tough and zen: "It was your time."
What is this? Robin Williams, well-known stimulus junkie, at rest in the California hills? Robin Williams, who'll tell you about the pleasures of Hollywood, going off in grubby running shorts to the fishing hole, feeding a stray cat and watering the plants? Robin Williams relaxing? Is that not a contradiction in terms?
A giggle of acknowledgment from Robin, turning lobster red in the sun, content.
Yes, he says, he is here, on the mountain, to relax. He feeesh, he says. He run up the hill. He run down the hill. He play with the computer. He let the clothes fall on the floor. He do nothing.
"What do you call your ranch, Robin?" some kid in Texas yelled out a few months ago, when Robin was on the road.
"Call it the Fuckin' Ranch," Robin hollered back.
"What do you raise there?" the kid asked.
"Raise beef jerky," said Robin. "Cows get so old, they just shrivel up and we sell them as jerky."
Sic Transit Comedian
Have you ever noticed, every time you read a story about Robin Williams, there are millions of voices coming out of Robin Williams' mouth? This is because every time you talk to Robin Williams, millions of voices come out of his mouth. There's ABC-TV president Anthony Thomopoulos, as he might have sounded when he called to cancel Mork & Mindy: [deceptively sweet little voice] "Mr. Williams, you're dead." "What?" "You're dead." Or, the Temptations of Hollywood — and by this we do not mean the soul group — when Robin went through his "massive fuckup stage" [crazy fun-house voices]. Or, friend Eric Idle advising Robin, at his newly acquired ranch, on how to rest: [sotto voce] "Look, that's a flower, asshole. You don't need to talk into a microphone when you can smell a flower."
Makes it damn tricky to find Robin, those voices. Slip him a question, wait for an answer, and it comes back in comic tongues, a smoke screen, a camouflage. "What is he, this Robin Williams," Robin Williams will cackle and say. "Is he an actor? Is he a fish? Is he an ah-ni-mal?"
There are lots of voices about Robin Williams these days, too. The voice of his wife, Valerie Velardi, blunt and straight-forward when she talks about the other women in his life. The voice of his former Mork & Mindy costar, Pam Dawber, when she talks about his anxiety attacks during the early days of the show. The voice of one of his managers (and there are many) calling from the coast the day after the news that the inquiry into John Belushi's death will be reopened, saying that Williams, reportedly with Belushi on the night he died, may be questioned by the police. It's not a social call, this call. He wants the tapes of our interview, the manager says in a decidedly nervous voice; he wants to know what was said.
A tense time, with the Belushi matter, for Robin. And a transitional time in the rest of his life.
Mork & Mindy, which made rainbow suspenders and "Na-noo, na-noo" part of the cultural landscape, folded, leaving Robin in that precarious career slot, Guy Who Used to Have His Own Show. Robin's second film (his first dramatic role, Garp in The World According to Garp) was about to be released, and Robin was waiting nervously for the results; his first film, Popeye, having done only so-so.
Also, a time of change in his personal life, Robin insists. The heavy-partying days — the days when he felt he had to go to "every party, every disco, every club" and his weight ballooned up from drink–are now over, he says. The times when he used to stay out a couple of days in a row, treating himself to anything he damn well pleased, are over as well, his wife adds. Oh, they both say, they still go to parties, but now they understand the need for balance, the "nurturing" benefits of country life. It is quieter now.
Things are different, he has been changing, they have been changing. He says. She says. Their voice.
Breakfast time at the Fuckin' Ranch. It don't come at sunrise, either. It comes at about two p.m., that being wake-up time for Robin and Valerie. And if you drop by early, say one or 1:30 p.m., they are still sacked out. Gives you time to wander around. It's pretty here, but not showy: a two-bed-room ranch house on top of a mountain, with picture windows on either side of the room, front and back, so that the country shines through; roses in front, small pool in back.
The living room is average in size, perhaps even small by California standards; there's an L-shaped modular sofa, squat and beige; a softly patterned rug in pastel pink and green; a comforter on the floor. There are family snapshots, which are very much snapshots, all around: Robin and Valerie laughing; Valerie, in parachute gear, jumping out of a plane. The star here is the country — parts of two counties of northern California and a peak, from which on a clear day you can see fifty miles to the Pacific. Expensive country, too. The back roads that lead to Robin's place are dotted with Mercedes convertibles; and when you finally reach Robin's mailbox, there's a gate with a gatekeeper. Once cleared, it's a good two miles to the ranch house. The view is remarkable, the air like champagne. Only one thing confounds.
"You have any cows on this ranch?" the reporter asks Valerie, a tall woman with a dancer's body and brown hair pulled into a pony tail, when she comes out to breakfast.
A grin from Valerie. "The other day, we had a calf born without three vertebrae and missing a tail," she says. She goes to the refrigerator and throws open the freezer with a dramatic flourish. "And here it is," she says.
Robin, naked under a quilt, comfortable as an old shirt, wanders out shortly. After breakfast (cottage cheese and chives, clearly post-fuckup) and a change of clothes (running shorts and rock & roll army camouflage T-shirt), he gives a short tour of the house and grounds.
"Bugs," he says dramatically in Wild Kingdom voice. "Bugs that bite for no reason."
Then, moving a lawn chair into the sun, he settles back into his career. Some comedians are never serious, but you cannot really say that of Robin. He just isn't serious for long. On the subject of his television career, he is serious for about five seconds at a stretch. It's the last year of his five-year contract with Mork & Mindy, the reporter offers as an opener, not aware that the show's finally been canceled.
"No," he says in a voice of theatrical pain. "It's over. Finished. Don't talk to me about that now. I'm gonna miss that $40,000 a week. [Switch voice, snide] So, whadaya gonna do now, asshole? [Switch, serious] It was canceled May 3rd. I read about it in the papers. I think they tried to call me the day before; I just didn't return the call, because I kind of knew what it was about. I knew it was coming. The ratings started off incredible, with Pam and me going through the courting period. I guess the biggest was the honeymoon period — Mork is gonna get laid! — and then they stopped promoting it, and it went down the ratings list: the twenties, the thirties, the forties. It finally sort of bounced off the bottom. In the end, it was like the last days of Berlin. We shot one episode in 3-D. [Switch, whining Nazi-underling voice] But mein Thomopoulos, ve can't shoot it in 3-D. How vill ve get de glasses to da people? [Switch, serious] They make you wait till the last minute, too. Hold out and then.... [Switch, master-sergeant voice] This is for all the shit you gave us! [Switch, hideous strangling noise] This is for all the times you said, 'ABC this' and 'ABC that.' [Switch, Robin, thoughtful] It was sort of like the old Lloyd Bridges movies where they cut the air hose and the guy goes, 'Aaarrrghhh!'"
He considers some more. "Forty thousand a week. Ain't life a bitch? Where am I gonna get that kind of dough?"
But Seriously, Robin
To deal with the "depression" of the series ending, Robin, a self-proclaimed performance junkie, went on the road. ("Das Bus," he calls it.) But the work that will most probably decide where his career goes from here will not be the comedy act but The World According to Garp. "The most human being you'll ever meet," the ads proclaim, showing Robin, hands in pockets, looking up optimistically and grinning, rather inanely, at what one presumes is Life. Closely following the book, the two-and-a-quarter-hour film sees Robin through infancy (played by a younger actor), through teenage years (should have been played by a younger actor), up to, though not including, the Mortal Void.
Robin wanted to do Garp. He was paid $300,000 for, he says, the opportunity to play "a man's whole life; the script calls it the arc of life. Also, the humanity of it. He's a very human character at the core, very open." He catches himself being serious and–perhaps afraid of it, or afraid of seeming pompous — makes a joke. "Who is this man Garp? Eees Moby Dick a feeesh?"
Even though he had studied drama long ago at Juilliard, he found some of the work difficult. For instance — and not surprisingly–the nude scenes. ("Seventeen lights and fifteen guys and a big boom mike going almost up your ass and a little camera about this far from Mr. Happy," says Robin.) But just as difficult, for a comedian who's famous for improvisation, was the obligation to follow the script, and also to not run away when scenes turned serious.
"I wasn't allowed to improvise," says Robin. "The first day I improvised, George Roy Hill [the director] said, 'That's a wrap.' He made his point right away. Also, he kind of forced me to stop. He'd say, 'Okay, that's a joke. Let's go back to the next level and find out what's behind it. With comedy you can duck and dive out if it gets too serious. There, you couldn't."
How much is riding on his success here, then, particularly since, for Popeye, his reviews ("wonderful" at mimicry, but "never gets beyond the cartoon, never gives it anything of himself") were not great?
"I don't know," he says, fairly sober. "I don't think a lot. Maybe there will be some people out there who might say, 'He can act.'" He pauses. "Maybe there will be some people who will go away and say, 'He can't act.'"
Darkly, "Then, back on Das Bus."
So how important, again?
"I'd like to have that road open, but not to make it a sudden switch," he says. [Switch, John Houseman voice] "I now am a serious person. We've earned it. The object is to have many different routes open. [Switch, German intellectual voice] The Kurt Weill School. I haff many passports. In case one road closes, I'll be in another country; ve don't stay in von place too long. [Switch, advertising voice] 'Mork. He's an actor. He's a comedian. He's a breath mint.' [Switch] 'And I am not an animal.' [Switch] 'Yes. This Mork can be yours. He has many doors open. Don't be afraid to tell him yesssss. He can go on the road. He can do a film. He can do a play. Yesssssss. Robin Helper.'"
But Sewiously, Wobin
Two can play at this. "I'm speaking one to one to ooooohh," says the reporter, in the voice of a well-known TV star. "And if oooh wuh uh twee, what sawt of twee would ooh be?"
"A tumbleweed, Babwa," says Robin.
"And oooooh are under pwessure," the reporter says.
"That's true," says Robin, solemnly. "Especially in Mondo Hollywood. Because sometimes, if the second film doesn't do well, they start wondering, 'Maybe he's not bankable. Maybe he can't work again. You've seen that syndrome. That's why there wasn't a Heaven's Gate II."
"Wait. Oooh wost money?"
"The first film did all right, but they didn't make back their money. It got some good reviews, it got good feedback in the end, it gave me a chance to do another one. Don't hide behind Barbara, she's a nice woman."
"If she's a nice woman, how come you canceled her show six times?"
"Six times? Wait — look at the roses; there's a bug over there — canceled Rona Barrett, I mean Barbara...."
The reporter is laughing. "Uh, oh, caught between a Wona and a Babwa."
Robin [frantically]: "If you were a twee, if you were a flower, if you were a bird flying south, where would you land?"
Reporter [screaming]: "If oooh were a success?"
Robin [shrieking]: "If you weren't on the way down, Mr. Williams, you wouldn't have to be on the road. Oh, stop it, Barbara, stop it."
Reporter: "If ooohh wuh weally smug about this movie, oooh would have said, 'Scwew ooo, Wowing Stone.' But oooh ah in no position to say, 'Scwew ooo' to anyone, ah ooo, Mr. Wiwiams?"
Robin [switch, irate bitch voice]: "Come off it, honey. Even Spielberg does interviews. Steven, he's not too smug. Don't hide behind humor."
Reporter: "Okay. Let's face the brutal facts that your show was canceled and that Popeye for all practical purposes was bleghhh."
Robin [mildly hurt]: "No, it wasn't that bad. There were some wonderful moments in Popeye."
Reporter [hiding behind Babwa again]: "Wonderful moments do not a box-office smash make."
Robin: "Moments do not money make, but it did make some money 'cause I got some checks. And if I got money, they must have made something. They must have made a lot of money, because before actors see money, producers make a lot more."
Life at the Speed of Light
"The social ramble ain't restful," Robin Williams has been saying to reporters for years – some years, it would now appear, when he was doing a great deal of rambling. Also, this afternoon, as the sun beats down on the Fuckin' Ranch: "What's fame like? It's like jerking off with sandpaper."
Which is, one might understate, another way of saying that fame, which seems to feel so good at the time, can hurt. It hurt Robin, anyway. The newspapers, at the time, charted his smoke. In 1979, a New York Post columnist – granted, not the best source — "Reported Imminent Divorce: Mork's Wife Ready to Call Lawyer Over an Earthling." The National Enquirer claimed he and his wife and a New York actress went out on triple dates. The New York Daily News quoted Pam Dawber as saying that while Robin was upset with his press, he had brought it upon himself. He was, she said, "not very secretive."
This spring and summer there were more rumblings. Robin Williams and Robert De Niro were said to be partying with John Belushi the night he died. A paid interview with Cathy Smith in the Enquirer was even more explicit. Williams and De Niro, Smith claimed, arrived in Belushi's hotel room in the early morning hours. "Hi, guys — where's the blow?" one reportedly said, after which, according to Smith, the two sucked up cocaine.
Williams, addressing himself to these allegations, with the exception of the Belushi incident, is at turns wary and open; sometimes joking, sometimes reflective, sometimes sounding genuinely sad. The partying, he says, has diminished now. He doesn't think his wife ever told a gossip columnist she wanted a divorce, but "there was a point where she got fed up with Hollywood." He does not believe he was indiscreet. But oh yes, he says, there was a period after he got famous when he had troubles, when Mondo Hollywood took a toll.
"Hollywood is so full of horseshit temptations. During the second year of the series, I kind of lost track of all sorts of stuff," he says. "I stopped performing. I mean, I did an album, but when that was over, it was kind of blahhh for a while. I lost track of everything, kind of. It was just like a little kid going, 'Whoooaaaaaa!'" He laughs. "When things started really peaking, you had friends you didn't know you had before. You'd be spending time at clubs all night long and then going to work the next day expecting people wouldn't notice and they did." He laughs again, not a happy laugh. "You'd come in the next day and people would say, 'Oh, pardon me. Refried shit?' Looking like, you know, a big human tostada walking around."
He reminisces awhile about success. "There was always someone somewhere to keep partying with. Hollywood is designed that way. And the temptations are so many and so varied. There is everything. Eeeeeverything."
Uh, he wants to run through the Temptations by name?
He laughs. "No. You know the Temptations," he says. "The deadly sins of Hollywood. They wait for everyone."
There was never, he continues, one awful moment on the barroom floor or in the Jacuzzi that made him reevaluate the life he was living. It was, rather, lots of people, good friends, speaking to him as people who cared.
"They'd come up to me and say, 'Hey, you look like a little bloated sausage,'" he says of that period. "They'd say, 'I don't mean to bum you out, man, but you look like somebody stuck an air hose up your ass.'"
He recalls one Temptation: Oral.
"I was drinking kamikazes — vodka and lime juice," he says. "How fattening are they? Like a cup and a half of sugar, okay? Like, hey, who needs a cake? Like a chocolate cake as suppository, right up there we go. Why don't we just go [more fun-house voices] Halopop! Smerrrpp! Oooohhh!"
What did he weigh at that point?
He laughs. "Who knows? I remember seeing a picture of me from that time and going, 'Who was that?' They said, 'You.''I said, 'Me? How did the plane take off?'"
The sun beats down. The interview moves over the hills to a small fishing hole. The only noise for a while is his fishing line, swinging out, drawn back in again, and the country sounds of birds and crickets. The reporter asks a question: If Robin had gone through a period in which he was doing a lot of drugs and screwing around, would he admit it?
"Probably would," says Robin, somewhat distracted with his rod. "Just now, I plead nolo contendere 'cause it doesn't make any difference now that I've gone through it. I was being an asshole; I wasn't being considerate. I leave it at that and let people make their own conclusions."
One assumes yes, if only because there is so much ink about it, he is told.
"Yes, there is, and obviously there has to be some truth to it and there probably is," says Robin. "And me, I've been saying maybe yes and maybe no because I just don't want to talk about it. I was just being an all-around fuckup, which may include other things. I admit it myself. To the charge of Asshole, I plead guilty. To the charge of intent to snort and fuck and cheat–no. I plead Asshole, and cheat — no. Asshole, and leave it at that, my lords."
The reporter is laughing. Were they, she presses, sins of the nose or sins of the penis?
Robin is joking now, too.
"C'mon, Mr. Williams," he says [cyncial reporter voice]. "You weren't snorting Maalox?" [Switch, exhausted defendant voice] "I plead no more, your honor, I rest my case. Just the general category of Asshole and Dumbfuck. The Temptations, yes. I fullfell many temptations, but I will not plead which ones. I will let the court decide this."
But oh, dear, the reporter will feel so smarmy running around, speaking to this old costar and that old friend about this temptation and that.
"You'll earn your money that way," Robin says. "I've spent mine already. It feels so good to have that period over with. It was too expensive."
The Live Wife Speaks
But who needs to schlep this way and that when there is, back at the ranch, an excellent source on Robin Williams — Valerie Velardi Williams.
"A good, tough lady" is how Robin describes his wife. And the description seems accurate. Meeting her in the evening, after a long interview alone with her husband, there's the hardness in her face of a woman whose spouse flirts too much at parties but is determined to hang in there: eye contact that fixes you and holds you. A slightly cool expression. Tough.
Her directness makes Robin nervous. He interrupts the conversation, bringing in roses. "Remember my advice," he warns. "Anything you say will appear in print." He is the flashy dancer, able to sidestep a question with a gag or a gesture. She is forthright, not jokey; the one who makes the wheels turn smoothly in this household. Robin interrupts her interview to ask, can she see about the pool? Can she see about the satellite dish? What is she doing today? She, when he is interviewed, interrupts rarely.
Valerie met Robin in San Francisco when she was waitressing and going to college and he was scuffling. There was a pragmatic edge to her even then. She, the oldest child in a home where her parents had divorced when she was twelve, was studying to be a dance teacher, having started too late in life, she says matter-of-factly, to perform. Robin was working at clubs like the Holy City Zoo. On first meeting, he pretended to be a Frenchman and she pretended to buy it. She was twenty-six when she met him (now she's thirty-two), he was twenty-five.
Their backgrounds, on the surface, are very different. Valerie is the daughter of a building contractor, the oldest in a family of four children; she was the surrogate mother, after the divorce, when her mother went away. Robin is the son of a wealthy Ford Motor Company executive, and spent a solitary childhood in a house on a forty-acre estate where he had the entire third floor to himself. Later, the family moved to Lake Forest, Illinois, and then Tiburon, California, which figured prominently in his early routines. ("Tough growing up in Tiburon. Some kids didn't get their own Porsches till they were sixteen.") And there were two older brothers, from his parents' previous marriages.
"Robin is the youngest, but since he didn't grow up with other children, he was an only child, as far as I'm concerned," Valerie says. "The result is that he has a very rich private life, and it's hard to filter in. It's hard to get in deep with someone who's used to taking care of himself only. It's such a cliché, but they make their own worlds."
Whatever their differences, something worked. One month after meeting each other, Valerie and Robin moved in together. They moved to Los Angeles, for his career. Three months after they married, Mork & Mindy became a hit. The result, says Valerie now, was like having to do a crash course in everything from finances to "making sure you don't make inappropriate responses to new situations.
"You'd go to Hollywood parties where, in the past, I wouldn't have stood for the kind of disrespect they have for one another, and I'd realize, given the new circumstances, you take it with a smile," says Valerie, for whom the word respect carries as much import as the Godfather. "Robin and I would go to a party and separate, wander around, looking for a good time, and I would take up with somebody, maybe a woman or maybe with a group who wouldn't be giving me the time of day. And all of a sudden they'd see a photographer taking a picture of Robin and me and it was, 'What a wonderful dress,' or, 'What you said before was absolutely fascinating.'"
She drops her voice, reminding the reporter of what Robin has said about her: that when she is mad, she gets very Brooklyn, very Italian.
"Now in the past," she says, "the way I would deal with it would be to say, 'I wasn't good enough for you then; why am I good enough for you now? Just because I'm screwing Robin Williams I'm hot to you now? I don't need this shit' But instead, instead of reacting like, "she pauses, seeming to consider,"...like a shit, or someone who is hurt or rejected, I'd say, 'Okay, this is the life we're living, enjoy it, have a ball, don't take it all so seriously.'"
Robin interrupts, for the third time, with roses.
"You can derive nourishment from parking lots," he says [talk-show voice]. "It's a combination of the two lifestyles that makes life so interesting. I've made a good living hanging out in parking lots. "He exits. His wife regards him with amusement and affection.
The social life, particularly Robin's social life, has made what sound like uneasy adjustments in Valerie's life. No, she says, they never considered divorce. When there have been separations, they were necessary "for my growth and his growth." Nor has she ever, she explains in what seems to be her philosophy of marriage, made certain requirements that others might have made. "Because if I had said. 'Don't cross this line,' he would have been long gone," she says.
"Look," she continues, "I'm a product of Goddard College. Are you familiar with it? And one thing it's taught me is that you can guide people; you can make yourself interesting enough and important enough in your lover's life so that he'll always come back to you if you just keep growing along with it. If you just be part of their rhythm and give them a lot of freedom and be part of their growth instead of pulling them back from what is titillating and exciting. Let's face it," she says, "Robin is a stimulus junkie."
Stop. A clarification is necessary. Is she saying that if Robin were going with another woman she wouldn't, say, cut his heart out with a knife?
She considers. "That means, no, in a situation like that–it's a rough one, because I could be misquoted horribly. See, the thing is, it was never any one woman."She laughs. "It was lots of women, and I'm not sure he had something intimately to do with them all. Most of it was just hanging out. He loves women and he likes hanging out with women. I have this letter from a woman who Robin was seen around town with. They were supposed to be having a hot, uh, affair, and I got to know her and she was lovely. They just wanted to hang out.
"I can't stop him from having dinner with a woman he likes," she says. "That's none of my business, just like I wouldn't like him to stop me from hanging out with anyone I wanted to go out with. If he can't have women friends and I can't have men friends, if you have to keep assuming the worst every time someone finds someone else to enrich their lives in some way, what kind of a world is this?"
That is to say, she does not get jealous?
"I get jealous. I'd only get jealous if I felt someone were taking my place," she says. "And it's always been very clear that we've got it. It's us. It doesn't sit right, but under extraordinary circumstances, which we are under, if you don't make the necessary adjustments, then you can lose precious things. That's not to say that gives us the license to go off and screw everything that's around. It's just the freedom to at least feel like we're free individuals as opposed to being married and locked in and you can't go out tonight because I know so and so is there and she's hot and pretty and I'm afraid you're gonna get involved with her. He's never gonna get involved with anyone without me knowing about it. And the other way doesn't work. You can't hold somebody in. They resent you, hate you, you become boring and unattractive.
"If I had jumped the gun and divorced him, I would have lost the most precious thing in my life and it would have curtailed our experience together, which is a lot richer than anything he can get off the street."
She does, however, have limitations. The first, she says, is that no one will ever take her place. The second has to do with drawing the line, after all. The particular line she draws has to do with respect. "There is a hold-back, which is, you will not hurt my feelings; you're not gonna not show up for a couple of days and expect me to take that, because if you think this is so priceless and so special, you'd better come home."
The voice drops again. "It doesn't happen anymore, mind you," she says. "But there was a period when if he was being so disrespectful to me and treating himself to anything he damn well pleased, instead of being a nagging, resentful bitch, I'd take a hike, take vacations."
Those separations the press reported?
"I didn't call them separations; the press called them separations," she says. "And when I came back, he would just be so damn pleased to see me. I left three or four times for a period of a month or a month and a half. It worked."
Later on, Pam Dawber confirms the toughness of Valerie, though with a bit of a difference regarding the other women.
"She would march right up to some girl sitting at his table and say, 'Hello, I'm Valerie Williams, Robin's wife,'" says Pam. "Or call up a girl. Or have lunch with a girlfriend. And say, 'You think he's gonna leave me for you? You're crazy.'"
Of Parking Lots and Belushi
But what — the careful reader may be asking — of that "nourishment in parking lots" to which young Robin, now allegedly living the clean life, earlier referred? Of his much publicized, though alleged, meeting with John Belushi in one famous parking lot the night of Belushi's death? Of his evening, if said meeting did take place, with Belushi? Of the pleasures they enjoyed?
A confession, dear reader: the reporter meant, sincerely intended, to bring it up, but with the hot California sun and the wine and the necessity of putting the hard questions to a very decent fellow who stands there and beams when he feeds a goddamn stray cat, she just put it off till later. Then she figured she'd play catch-up. That's what the telephone is for. Alas, it rang shortly after the reporter returned from the coast, and the message was not good. A stranger named David Steinberg on the horn, not the comedian but a manager of Robin Williams. He was calling, David Steinberg said, about the news. The news, he elaborated — for it was news to the reporter — that the inquiry into John Belushi's death was reopened. Shortly after came that request for the tapes of the interview with Robin. Request denied. Anyway, never did get into a specific discussion with Robin about Belushi. "He has no comment," snapped Steinberg. "He's not going to have any comment."
Days passed into weeks of negotiations. The first call to come was Robin's publicist, expressing the hope that the manager, in calling, had done no harm. (Nope, doesn't hurt the reporter at all when a manager calls in a nervous fit.) Later came the discussions with the attorney. Off the record, for the most part, but the reporter feels she is breaking no confidences by allowing that, at her end, she promised not to "beat Robin with a stick" if he refused to answer questions concerning Belushi. The attorney, in turn, allowed that questions regarding Robin's reaction to Belushi's death (like he was shocked because the guy had "the constitution of a bull") would be fair game.
There wasn't much chance of the reporter's sneaking past the defeness of this team, either. Immediately after the news came that the Belushi file had been reopened, phones stopped being answered at the Fuckin' Ranch. A week later, the numbers were changed. At length, the reporter was allowed a phone chat with Williams, the publicist on the line, interrupting often, saying it had to be short. After weeks of negotiation about this talk, the call had been made when Robin had only five minutes – he had to make a plane.
Reporter: "Were you affected by the death of Belushi?"
Williams: "Very much so. Beyond the sense of loss, I was just getting to know him, so it was even more frustrating. I had met him three years ago, but we'd only started seeing each other in the last three or four months; in the last month, one or two times, maybe three or four times before...He was an acquaintance, but it was starting to become kind of a better thing....We were just more or less seeing each other or hanging out."
Reporter: "How did you find out?"
Williams: "They told me on the set. It was a sheer shock. The man, I thought, had the constitution of a bull. I certainly didn't know he was doing anything that would affect him in any way."
Reporter: "Can you comment on the Enquirer interview?"
Williams: "My feeling about the Enquirer is just so...."
Publicist: "Don't answer that!"
Williams: "I despise the publication... it's just a paint-by-the-numbers magazine, and it was an even lower step since he'd gone. It's just total drool. He wasn't doing anything when I left him; and when I left him, I had seen him for all of fifteen minutes."
Reporter: "It seems to be a contradiction. On the one hand, all this ink about being with Belushi; on the other hand, you're saying that you've cut back on the partying now."
Publicist: "Don't answer that!"
Williams: "No, it's not a contradiction. It's what I told you at the ranch — I'm cleaning up my act. I don't feel it's a contradiction in terms."
Publicist: "He's got to catch a plane."
Pam Dawber's Voice re: Robin and Belushi
"They hung out. Belushi was a guy who was a star and they could relate to each other, but they weren't close. Somebody told me to tell him [about Belushi's death], because they were afraid he would fall apart. You never knew how he was going to take something, 'cause he's so emotional. He was affected in the way, at first, that made it look as though he wasn't affected at all. He said, 'Wow, I was with him last night.'
"Then, as it absorbed, he became more and more devastated by it, because suddenly, I think, he began to see the parallels – just what fast living can do. And also, somebody the same age, somebody you just saw that night, to then suddenly be dead. One day I saw him in the studio, just standing, just thinking, and he said, 'Don't you worry, Dawbs. It'll never happen to me.'"
And so, with the sun fading and a large media blackout descending, we leave Robin Williams at the old fishing pond, somewhere out on the 600 acres of the Fuckin' Ranch.
Many are the questions we would have asked him could we move backward in time, or forward, but we cannot. So we leave them suspended on the page where, perhaps one day, he will hook up with them: Are the hard-partying days truly over? Will Valerie be able to keep him down on the ranch? Will they ever fix the satellite dish? Will he be an actor or a comedian or a fish? Who is he, this Robin Williams?
But the chance to ask those questions is gone, defunct, a dead budgie. If we want to bid farewell to Robin Williams at the fishing hole, we must take him as we left him.
We leave him, pulling in his line, having hooked an old wooden raft. He is talking about mellowing, about madness, about how Tommy Smothers once told him that while this ranch might begin as a place to putter, soon he would find he required it more and more. He talks about how the quietness has begun to pull him to this place. He says that now that the series is over, he and Valerie are trying to have babies. He reflects about the strangeness of fame. He says that it was a "major pressure" — getting famous when you are poor and newly married — and that many people he knows were not able to come through. He says he is grateful they have come through. He says it has been like coming through a war. He has to resort, again, to the voices for that.
"You go through this kind of phase like, Wwwwwwwhhhhooooo!" he says, making sounds of space travel, time-warp speed. "And then you're through it. It's like you go through one of those blizzards and you lose each other's hands for a while, and then you come through on the other side."
He tugs on the raft, pulling it in.
"And you say [tentative little voice,], 'You still here?' [Little voice in reply] 'Yes.' [Slightly more confident little voice] 'I love you.' [Voice in reply] 'Me, too.' [Little Robin voice] 'I loved you all the time.' [Voice back] 'Yeah. We survived.'"
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