Working with Robin Williams in person is a real trip. He is just like his character in his TV show, THE CRAZY ONES, unpretentious, and very unpredictable. He was an easy person for me to like; even if his inactivity caused a lot of problems for a friend of mine, Dennis Babcock, and could have caused Dennis to be fired. But thanks to an action by Leonard Nimoy, the problem was solved.
Dennis Babcock was the wunderkind of the Guthrie. He left a good day job to pursue a career in theater. Starting out in a menial position, he jumped to manager of the Dram Shop, the Guthrie’s private bar and reversed its downward trend. Then he took over selling ads for the Guthrie show programs and made the programs an excellent source of revenue for the theater. He became the Special Events Producer, overseeing the Guthrie rentals, booking outside acts, and in some cases, conceiving shows produced under the sponsorship of the Guthrie. He took a hiatus to be Managing Director of the Pittsburgh Public Playhouse, came back as Assistant Managing Director of the Guthrie. Ventured out on his own and became a successful independent theatrical producer.
The problem with Robin Williams concerned his upcoming appearance at the Guthrie.
Dennis and I were on tour with Leonard Nimoy’s one-man show, VINCENT. Dennis had been responsible for the Guthrie sponsoring VINCENT and for fine tuning the production.
Nimoy had completed a long and arduous filming of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, and he wanted to get back to his basics, live theater; but not necessarily in a long, eight shows a week, commitment. His good friend, Vincent Price, suggested that Leonard come up with a one-man show. Price had several for himself, and he just unwrapped one whenever he wanted to felt the need to get back to live theater. These type of shows offered great flexibility and satisfied the need for appearing before a live audience.
Leonard found one based on the letters between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo. He collaborated with the original playwright and came up with VINCENT.
He booked it for one day in three cities. The first theater had a problem getting all the technical requirements together and Leonard went on stage with what they could piece together. At the next theater, the Guthrie, we had all the tech work done in about four hours, time enough for Leonard to do a tech rehearsal and work on his blocking on a thrust stage. He had come to the Guthrie a few weeks before and told us what he wanted to achieve. He also had worries about achieving those results on a thrust stage. The main problem was solved easily. Instead of one picture sheet to show slides of Van Gogh’s work, we used two sheets in a modified vee so the entire audience could see the paintings. Things worked out fine for the two shows we did the day. At the third theater, the technical progress was worse then the first.
Babcock purposed the Guthrie sponsor the show. Both Nimoy and the Guthrie agreed. Dennis hired a set designer and had the set built in the Guthrie shop. He hired me as the lighting designer and persuaded me to take the show out as carpenter/electrician and lighting board operator. Dennis booked us in cities in the Midwest and West Coast. After the Guthrie season we rehearsed at the theater, did a week of shows and went on the road, setting out during one of the biggest snow storms in several years.
Dennis had more hats than a haberdasher. Before we left, he filled the Guthrie offseason with a variety of shows and supervised them via phone. On the road, he was the tour manager, in charge of hotels, flights, dealing with local bookers, finances, problems that came up, etc.. In addition he supervised the setting up of the sound and slide projectors while I was working on the lighting. He also served as a backup to run the sound and slides in places where we didn’t have time for a local stagehand to rehearse. Actually, since we never had time during the first lap of the tour, Dennis ran the sound and slides with the local stagehand sitting beside him, watching.
One of the first events he had booked at the Guthrie, while we were on tour, was Cheech and Chong, hot off the release of their movie, UP IN SMOKE. From Dennis’ point of view it was successful, two sold out shows without a hitch. But not from the point of view of the Guthrie’s Board and the Managing Director of the theater, Don Schoenbaum. Don S. called Dennis and he was livid. Under no circumstances should the Guthrie be involved in promoting the pot culture. There hadn’t been that many villagers with pitch forks and torches circling the theater since the WalkerArtCenter had presented Frank Zappa at the Guthrie, and Zappa presented every audience member with a condom. Don S. said that he managed to stem the bleeding by promising such a thing would never happen again. ‘And it just better not! Or???’
[I guess the Walker Art Center presentation of the Alan Ginsberg at the Guthrie, a year or two before, must have passed under the Board’s radar. After Ginsberg read HOWL, he invited the small audience to come on the stage so they could discuss the poem and pass joints around, with nary a complaint from the more than willing audience.]
For several weeks, it was nothing but good news on the home front for Dennis. But when things broke, it broke big time, thanks to Robin Williams. A Board member had called Schoenbaum and read him the review of Williams comedy tour which had opened in Chicago, and reminded Don S. that Williams was booked to do his show at the Guthrie. Don S. phoned Dennis and read, no, shouted the review to him.
It seems Robin Williams opened the show by walking downstage and proclaiming that he wanted to show the audience something he took great pride in, Mr. Happy! He then unzipped his fly and exposed Mr. Happy to the shocked audience, asking if anyone wanted to come and shake hands with Mr. Happy.
Don S. reminded Dennis that Dennis had Williams booked at the Guthrie shortly after our tour ended, and reminded Dennis what had transpired after the Cheech and Chong shows, and reminded Dennis what would happen if another fiasco took place on the Guthrie Stage. In short, if something like that happened, the only way Dennis could get back in the theater was with a paid ticket. The ultimatum: straighten this guy out or cancel the show, even at the risk of a lawsuit, which would also result in bad news for Dennis.
As soon as Schoenbaum hung up, Dennis put in calls to Robin, to Robin’s agent, to the theater where Robin was performing, asking to have Robin call back ASAP. But Robin never called back. Day after day, call after call, no response from Robin.
We had brought the show to Scottsdale to open their new CivicCenter. Like all new theaters there was technical glitches, not helped by the young, unprofessional house crew. Still no call back from Williams. I often wondered how Dennis managed to keep his cool during this period.
It was at the breakfast buffet at the Radisson Scottsdale in midweek when Nimoy asked Dennis what was bothering him. He said that Dennis had looked troubled for several days and wondered if there was something ahead in the tour that Leonard should know about. ‘No’, Dennis assured him, and then told Leonard about the problem with the Robin Williams booking.
The name, Robin Williams, meant nothing at first to Nimoy until his wife, Sandy, mentioned that Williams was a young comedian who was a big hit in a TV show, MORT & MINDY, playing Mort, an alien. Then Leonard remembered him. Robin was a big STAR TREK fan and liked to visit the set where they were filming the movie. His sitcom was filmed just down the street at Paramount. ‘Let me see what I can do’, he told Dennis, and signaled the waiter to bring a phone to the table. He called someone at Paramount and said he wanted Robin Williams to call him at once.
We hadn’t even finished breakfast when the call came. Leonard skipped the small talk and told Robin that Robin was causing Leonard’s friend, Dennis Babcock, a lot of problems, the least being, Robin’s failure to return Dennis’s phone calls. He told Williams to straighten out the problem, now! And handed the phone to Dennis.
Dennis told Robin about the ultimatum. Robin assured Dennis he would do anything, within reason, to remedy the situation. With his background in the Arts, Robin said that the appearing at the Guthrie was the highlight of his current tour. He promised that Mr. Happy would not make an appearance or would not even be mentioned at the Guthrie. However, he reminded Dennis that his current routine was adult orientated, and should not be sold as a reflection of his role as Mort. Dennis agree that all future ads would state the performance would be for adults, not children. And placards would be placed in the Guthrie lobby before the show proclaiming the show for adults only.
Dennis took a deep breath after the phone call, thanked Leonard, and called Don Schoenbaum to tell him the compromise reached. Schoenbaum agreed to the settlement; but his last words where, ‘We’ll have to see. Won’t we?’
Robin was one of the first acts presented after we came back from tour. The first show sold out and a second show was booked for that day. The setup was a snap and Robin came to the theater early enough to be given a tour. We took him down to the prop room so he could select props to use in his show. What a hoot! He had us in stitches picking up props and adlibbing a routine about the prop. Both shows went off without a hitch and were well received. What was amazing was, while both shows had a similar routine, both were totally different. Robin worked off the response of the audience and tailored the show for that audience as he went along. I worked him live several time over the years, each time a real treat, both onstage and offstage, and each show was different from the previous one .
Since MORT & MINDY aired during my Guthrie days, and nights, I never saw as much as one episode; although I heard Robin earned all the praise given him. I saw his first movie, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, as soon as it came out. I had read the book and found it slow and plodding. I found the movie to be the same. Robin was okay, but John Lithgow stole the show. I saw most of Robin’s movies but never really got excited over many of them. In short, for the most part, they were too confining for Robin’s talent. The one exception was him as the voice and inspiration as Genie in ALADDIN. My favorite of Robin’s roles was in THE BIRDCAGE, where he played a loving partner and loving father all the while being the straight man, no pun intended, to Nathan Lane, Hank Azaria, and even Gene Hackman.
I was pleased when came back to TV. THE CRAZY ONES affords him the freedom his talent requires. From what I understand, it also gives him a chance to come face to face with the mistakes he made in his life, a sort of therapy. I watched the pilot episode and really liked it. The second show, I found a little too gross for my taste. I have watched other episodes, but the show has never materialized into a must-watch for me. I guess it is better than the majority of the sitcoms on TV, but that is faint praise. Like I said, I have fond memories working Robin Williams live, and I wish him the best of luck in his return to TV. He is a unique talent that should not be wasted on rigid, uninteresting movies.
This was written in January of 2014. Eight months later, Robin Williams died. Thirteen months later, Leonard Nimoy died.
And that’s a wrap, old friends.