I found myself spending a week in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, not an uncommon occurrence for me at the time, and as a chronicler of all things rock ‘n’ roll I usually spent my evenings there on or close to Sunset Blvd., where I would invariably run into this guy known as the mayor of that boulevard. He would take me to some club and introduce me to a band no one had ever heard of, but, always, within a few months, would have a record at the top of the charts.
On one particular evening, however, I didn’t want rock ‘n’ roll, so I ventured into the Improv on Sunset. Not that I expected to see anything special – it was open mike night for amateurs – but it was a place where I knew I could relax, have a drink or two, and be friendly to my expense account (there was no cover charge on open mike night for amateurs).
None of the amateurs I saw that night struck me as overwhelmingly special in any way, but, suddenly, during one of the many breaks between comics, a man burst through the front door, walked directly up to the stage, grabbed the microphone and took over. It was Robin Williams. He was opening the following week in Las Vegas and he decided to test his act for the first time on a live audience that night at the Improv.
I never watched Happy Days, so I never saw Williams’ introduction to the American public. And, for some reason, I could never become a fan of Mork & Mindy. It seemed "too cute" for my tastes. But I don’t know if I had ever laughed as hard as I did watching that maniac do his stuff that night at the Improv, especially when he went into his Elmer Fudd sings Bruce Springsteen bit. Absolutely inspired lunacy. I love comedy that crosses the line into anarchy and I had not seen comedic anarchy like that since the Marx Brothers.
I must also admit that I wasn’t as enthused with many of William’s early motion picture performances as a lot of others. When he went into his John Wayne shtick in Dead Poets Society I thought to myself "I saw him do that exact same bit that night at the Improv." Same thing with Good Morning, Vietnam. I was in Vietnam when Adrian Cronauer was broadcasting to the troops there and, trust me, Adrian was nothing like the way Williams portrayed him in the film. Williams the actor was doing Williams the comic, not Cronauer, in that film. But Williams did grow on me as an actor, especially in some of the thrillers in which he appeared during the early years of this century – films like Insomnia and, in what I regard as his best performance, One Hour Photo.
But, to me, the brilliance of Robin Williams came across live on stage, from those magical nights like that memorable one at the Improv, to his appearances on Johnny Carson’s show and, most of all, in the performance he gave at a now defunct concert hall in far East Dallas, a joint whose name escapes me at the moment. Many great comics are often imitated by those that follow in their wake. But Williams, who died yesterday, apparently a victim of suicide, was one of a kind. He defined "unique." He patterned himself after no one else, and no one since has come close to duplicating his style – I don’t think any aspiring comic has even had the nerve to try.
And I guess that’s as good a definition of "greatness" as you can find.