Robin Williams: 'a serene and gentle man'

If there has been one unifying theme in the encomia to the late Robin Williams, apart from his comic genius and his dramatic, it is that he was slightly unknowable.

Always the performer, his juggernaut riffs were unstoppable; Alexei Sayle told the Today programme on Radio 4 that once, when Wiliams wanted to perform an impromptu set at The Comedy Store and was only allotted 15 minutes, he first manically offered to buy the club, and when told this wouldn’t be possible, insisted on finishing the remainder 45 minutes of his set in the corridor to an audience of one (Sayle).

Yet the Robin Williams I met was three years ago was, if anything, the calm in the eye of the storm, as a Hollywood circus of skinny women carrying clipboards and cameramen with head mics, swirled about him, the like of which I’d never seen before or since.

It didn’t help matters that I was late, which was deemed such an instance of lese majeste by His People scurrying around the ante-chamber of the hotel suite that I’m ashamed to admit I lost my equanimity.

After I was scolded once too often, I drew the officious PR girl aside and whispered (smiling passive aggressively) in her ear.

“Is this an Intensive Care Ward? Is somebody performing microsurgery? Is an organ being transplanted against the clock?” I hissed.

“Um, no?” she replied wrinkling her retroussé nose in bafflement.

“Well let’s retain a sense of proportion then,” I snapped. “I am late. I have apologised. My interview will be shorter than planned. End of.”

With that I was ushered in to meet Williams, who was perched, neat, compact and Mork-like on a sofa. Seated on chairs around the walls of the room must have been 20 or so unidentified onlookers. It was weird and unsettling and reminded me of the 18th vogue for watching Absolute Monarchs perform their morning toilette.

But Williams, then a dapper, twinkly 60-year-old, dressed as though for yoga, in soft shoes, was as far a cry from an A List despot as it’s possible to imagine.

When I apologised for being late, he literally waved my contrition away with his hand, then sat, alert and engaged, listening (with flattering intensity) to every question.

He had just returned from honeymoon (his third) in Paris or as he diffidently told it: “I just got married last month, which, given my track record, is a bit like bringing a burns victim to a fireworks display.”

His humour was deceptively downbeat but on-point and he came across as serene and gentle, speaking warmly about his children and how he looked forward to being a grandfather.

"I plan on being an 'Oh God, where’s the baby? What have I done with the baby?’ sort of grandfather,” he chuckles. “I love kids, but they are a tough audience. When I used to read to my daughter, Zelda, in thrilling accents and act out the stories, she would sigh and tell me to give it a rest and read in a normal voice.”

He appeared bien dans sa peau, but it’s a truism that only another former addict can properly appreciate that the equilibrium the world sees is hard-fought, hard-won and even harder to maintain.

Williams’ addictions were well-documented: booze, drugs, women. His stints in rehab were in the public domain.

But his demons were the flipside of his fizzing, electrifying Catherine wheel imagination as attested by work such as Mork & Mindy, Good Morning, Vietnam, The Dead Poets’ Society and Good Will Hunting, for which he bagged an Oscar.

In recent years a fresh generation fell in love with him all over again; who could fail to be charmed by the hysterical enjoyment of Mrs Doubtfire? Or Williams as the crazy genie in Aladdin? His was initially a bit-part but expanded to hold his irrepressible talent..

“The genie was only supposed to be a few lines,” he told me. “But I asked 'Do you mind if I try something?’ and went off to the recording studio. I emerged, 22 hours later, with a stream-of-consciousness improvisation in 41 characters.”

Since then there was Happy Feet and the Night At the Museum series, but, as it now transpires, in spite of a career spanning four decades, Williams could not escape the black dog of depression that beset him.

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” He said. Sadly it was his own unique spark of madness – creative, quick-fire, unquenchable – that finally consumed him.

Judith Woods writes features for The Daily Telegraph.

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