A Genius and a Friend

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

On Easter Sunday, 1979, we (meaning my act Rick & Ruby) had just completed a week at Manhattan’s Copacabana opening for Robin Williams, who with one season of “Mork & Mindy” done to great critical acclaim and high ratings, had become comedy’s biggest star of the moment. We were all gathered in a basement of a posh Little Italy restaurant to celebrate the successful week’s run. The show’s promoter, Ron Delsener, got up to deliver a short intro for Robin to then give a testimonial speech. In his intro, Delsener went all out, praising Robin Williams as the “most brilliant comic mind he’d seen since Chaplin,” among a long list of superlatives. When Robin, who was 27 at the time, finally reached the podium, the first words out of his mouth were “Well, Fuckin’ A!” I never knew what that phrase meant, but it was popular at the time, and seemed appropriate coming after such a fawning intro. That was Robin: Modest and self-deprecating amidst the obvious genius.

I first met him in 1977, at a comedy concert promoting NBC’s disastrous attempt (canceled after only about 10 episodes) to revive “Laugh-In,” which had only been off the air about four years. Robin was a cast member, but the amazing performance he gave virtually made the other comics on the bill run for cover. When he showed up at one of our shows a few months later, and started praising us, we were like, “Wow, HE thinks WE’RE funny??” In early 1978, he made his guest appearance on “Happy Days” as Mork, and our manager, sensing imminent superstardom, made sure that we hung out with him as much as possible.

That began with us performing at his wedding in May 1978, to then making sure that whenever we were working in LA, we’d stay at his Malibu apartment. Our manager was clever that way, but it also helped that we just really liked the guy in addition to knowing this was a comic mind that only comes around a couple times per generation. A lovely friendship developed, and in 1979, when he was booked on a national concert tour, he told his agents he wanted Rick & Ruby to be his opening act.

That was insanity, first demonstrated by the week in New York. Tickets for all the shows sold out almost immediately, and I remember one night having some spare tickets for my relatives and waiting outside the Copa before showtime holding them in my hand. Someone offered me $100 apiece for them, (over ten times face value) and though I was tempted, I didn’t think I could explain that one to my family. That whole week involved meeting celebrities every night, VIP passes to Studio 54, limo service everywhere, free passes to Broadway shows, and a plethora of recreational substance. We were just coat-tailing for a week, but for Robin, this would be the norm for the next several years. When you got him away from it, he was the low-key shy guy who preferred small groups, but those small groups became fewer and further between as his star continued in its ascent.

By the time we appeared on “Mork & Mindy” as guest stars on an episode (“Mork & Mindy Meet Rick & Ruby,” and my acting was wooden, to be kind), the excess was already taking its toll. Robin was now making over $50,000 a week, equivalent now to the million or so that each “Big Bang Theory” star gets. He was hating the show, wanting to do different things, and was not helped by his first feature film “Popeye” more or less bombing. (“If you watch it backwards, it has an ending” was his comment on it). What should have made him at ease, i.e. working with his old friends, turned out not to be.

For starters, he was dealing with something that would haunt him many times throughout his career, being accused of comic thievery, with some rival comics attempting to sue him. So when he should have been having lunch with cast and crew, he was in meetings with attorneys. He knew he was often guilty, as sometimes when he was sitting there on Tonight Show just riffing with Johnny, it was easier than one might think to just throw out a line he heard a couple nights before when he was improvising with his friends on stage. Suddenly, the line was credited to him and no one else could claim it. Robin often owned up to it, allowing that he probably did, though unintentionally in most cases, steal the line or bit, and offer money as compensation. I saw a first hand example of that too, when we were on the tour. One day, Ruby told him a funny anecdote that had happened to her when she was younger. The next day, he told the same story to us as though it had happened to HIM!

During that week we did “Mork,” he was also savoring the fruits of his fame, with his nights usually ending around 2 or 3 AM, despite a 7:00 call the next morning on the set. Every night was a blur of performing, drinking, eating, and partying, and on some days, it caught up to him. When the show was finally cancelled in 1982, he left LA, and he and his wife bought a ranch in Napa, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. He and his wife had their first child, which helped him conquer the urge to party heartily, but unfortunately didn’t save the marriage. I remember hanging with him in the early 90’s, talking about those “good old days,” and he mentioned his denial at the time, of saying to his shrink,”I think I got this drug thing under control. I can keep it under two grams a day.”

In spite of a career most of us would dream of, he was rarely happy in it. I’d see him most at ease when he was in one-on-one situations, which unfortunately couldn’t happen often enough. I know it’s hard to believe, but he was really a very shy person who had trouble saying no. When I talked to him in early 2008, it was clear to me that his second marriage was about to end, but I could also see the woman hanging around him was not just some groupie or agent, and she became his third wife three years later. Again, he should have been happy, but apparently wasn’t, and had gone back to booze after a celebrated stint in rehab, as well as a heart attack.

Could anyone have foreseen that he was being so eaten up inside that he decided to end the suffering himself? Certainly no one like myself, who only saw him every 2-3 years at best. I loved the man, not just because he helped elevate our career to a level we might never have seen otherwise, but because in spite of all that was going on, he still found the time to be friendly and caring, even offering on a few occasions to mention me to certain moguls he knew. My heart goes out to his children, to his wives Valerie, Marcia, and Susan, and to his PA Rebecca. They know better than any of us how much this beautiful brilliant man will be missed.

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