I am beyond shocked and saddened to hear of Robin Williams’s recent passing. Like many of you, I looked up to him greatly from the time I was a child. “Jumanji” captured my imagination. “Mrs. Doubtfire” made me want him as a nanny. And of course, “Good Will Hunting” broke my heart. His performance in “The Birdcage” as one half of a loving monogamous gay couple contributed to the emotional foundation I relied on in later years when I was coming to terms with my own orientation.
When I started to do stand-up as a teenager, club owners told me my manic energy and impersonations reminded them of a cross between Robin Williams and Margaret Cho. So I channeled their tour de force personas whenever I got nervous - which was often. I finally got a chance to meet Robin when his comedy show passed through DC on it’s way to Broadway. $54 for a ticket, $20 for a poster, and $5 for a key chain was a lot of money for a kid in high school. But it was worth it to me. I waited behind Constitution Hall hoping to meet Robin after his earth-shattering performance that left my sides hurting and taught me more about sex than any health class I had ever taken. He graciously signed my poster and thanked me as I rambled about looking forward to seeing his upcoming film “One Hour Photo.” And just as he turned to leave and security was ready to whisk him away, I impulsively got the nerve to meekly ask, “can I take a quick picture with you?” He immediately doubled back, “yes” he said, put his arm around me and posed for a photo. To him, he probably saw a kid he wanted to be nice to. For me, his gesture in that brief moment gave me the validation I needed to get through the horror of high school that week. That photo meant everything. And that signed poster of him simulating cunnilingus with his elbow became framed and decorated various living spaces from my childhood home to dorm rooms at my Christian college, and beyond. I never forgot his kindness that night, and it fueled me for the next 10 years when I met him again.
Exactly two years ago in August 2012, I got cast in Robin Williams’s film, “The Angriest Man In Brooklyn.” Casting directors Jamie Schulman and Margery Simkin introduced me to Phil Alden “If you build it they will come” Robinson. Robin would be playing a man who believes he has 90 minutes to live and runs around Brooklyn attempting to make amends. I read the script and it was beautiful. After two auditions, Phil thought I was funny enough to be in a few scenes opposite Robin and booked me. My experience on that film could not have been more of a dream. A dream in which I biked to work from my Brooklyn apartment and locked my bike on the light post right next to my trailer under the Manhattan Bridge in time to watch the sun rise every day. All this before heading into the make-up trailer to sit alongside my comedy icon and other incredible performers of our generation. The amazing ensemble included Mila Kunis, Peter Dinklage, Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, and Sutton Foster. All of us believing in this independent passion project about family and redemption. No one more so than Robin, who’s wife, Susan stood by his side at all times. The two of them were constantly attached and giddy in love like teenagers.
Here’s a secret: although I was on location at the same time as Robin and we got powdered next to each other, I didn’t expect to actually get to act with him. Our only scenes together in the film are of us talking on the phone. In the spirit of Hollywood magic, that usually means the person reading with you during filming is not actually the person you see talking to on screen. But as they set up my shot, Robin showed up, shook my hand, and stood right next to me off-camera to read our scene. Robin was going the extra mile with me - just like he did a decade earlier outside of Constitution Hall.
When we wrapped our scenes, I told him about our meeting from my childhood and the impact it had on me. “You’re great,” he told me. “And you’re going to go far.” His wife, Susan and I chatted briefly as Robin went to set up another shot. She told me about their chance encounter at an Apple Store that led to marriage. “There was just an energy about him. He looked at me and I just had to say hello.” “No, I totally get it,” I told her.
"The Angriest Man In Brooklyn" opened this year on Memorial Day weekend, May 23rd. It did not get the reception many of us had hoped for. Just two weeks prior, "The Crazy Ones" was cancelled by CBS, prematurely ending Robin Williams’s television comeback. In early June, I heard he checked into rehab, and although I no longer consider myself to be religious, I said a little prayer knowing in my heart he would get better.
Hence, today’s news is a shock to my system. As someone who has struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide from an early age, the speculation that Robin ended his own life is an especially painful one. We all have our demons, and Robin is only human.
They say you should never meet your idols. I’m so honored I met and got to work with mine. The spirit of Robin Williams has lived within me for the majority of my life and the entire duration of my acting career- always there as a guidepost and a beacon of inspiration. Whether through his performances on screen or telling me in person, he gave me the courage to be myself.
My heart is so sad for the incredible loss of this gentle man. My deepest condolences goes out to his family, loved ones, and generations of audiences he affected over nearly four decades. Let’s keep the laughter alive for Robin.
I know! From the #GLAAD Awards. Exciting! bit.ly/SPMFuw
This is me, invading Neil McNeil’s privacy. Enjoy!