UPDATE Thursday morning: SAG-AFTRA Fdn. has shortened the name of the new center to the Robin Wiliams Center For Entertainment and Media, as reflected below.
EARLIER: Two surviving members of the trio that helped Comic Relief set a high bar for paying it forward saluted the late Robin Williams in New York Wednesday night, as the SAG-AFTRA Foundation inaugurated the Robin Williams Center For Entertainment And Media. Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg were joined on the stage of the center’s intimate high-tech screening room by three more figures who’d played key roles in the comedian’s life: director Barry Levinson (Good Morning, Vietnam; Toys; Man Of the Year) and actors Hank Azaria (The Birdcage) and Bonnie Hunt (Jumanji), for a panel led by journalist Lisa Birnbach.
First there were speeches for an invited crowd in the 154-seat screening room on West 54th Street that included union executives, officers and supporters, though SAG-AFTRA Foundation president JoBeth Williams was on a film shoot. The opening promoted a $16 million capital campaign that will include $6 million for the center and $10 million for the foundation’s endowment.
Foundation board member Pamela Reed, who worked with Williams on Cadillac Man, recalled the star using every spare moment on the set to entertain the troops behind the cameras and in crafts services. “He made families, and he was really good at it,” Reed said, adding that “Robin was kind, charming, and, God knows, funny — and forever generous.”
That was followed by a 30-minute clip from a “Conversations” segment Williams filmed in 2003 after the release of One Hour Photo. Todd Amorde led the Inside The Actors Studio-style interview, in which Williams reminisced about the training he’d received under John Houseman at The Juilliard School, how life changed for him after the shock success of Mork & Mindy, and what work was like on a film set. He recalled one occasion in which a shrink was on the set of Good Will Hunting (“A psychotherapist teaching an acting class,” he said, “is a little like having a leper give you a facial”). (Watch the entire interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-E0e6tMHME)
Finally it was off to the races, as Crystal led the stories about an actor and friend who was faster, funnier and smarter than everyone else, like a gunslinger everyone needs to challenge. Clearly Crystal, Goldberg and Williams — who, despite their political affinity, couldn’t have been less alike as stand-ups, found common ground, even love in the 10 Comic Relief concerts they performed between 1986 and 2002.
“There was a look he had that used to make me laugh, because I knew he was gone,” Crystal said. Added Goldberg, “He knew what he was doing. He was an artist. But he could exhaust you.” Turning to Crystal, she said, “We would both say ‘Just stop. Oh my God, stop!”
Azaria, who was the new kid on the block during Mike Nichols’ filming of Birdcage, which starred Williams and Nathan Lane, recalled that the director had to manage Williams’ improvisational tendencies (an irony, given Nichols’ own background in improv comedy). During extended rehearsals, Williams could let loose, but once something worked and was set, Nichols wanted to film it and be done.
That, of course, wasn’t always Williams’ style. Levinson had taken the opposite tack during the filming of Good Morning, Vietnam, the director said, encouraging the young actor to go off on his stream-of-consciousness trips to sharpen his material as a radio host, a job that robbed Williams of the precious audience feedback that he thrived on.
Hunt also affirmed Williams’ gift for entertaining, along with his unfailing generosity: A practicing oncology nurse when they worked on Jumanji, she said that Williams quietly offered to call on her patients and when he did, she said, all the pain and stress would disappear in laughter, a recounting that drew applause from the gathering.
For reasons too complicated to go into but which would have made perfect sense to the evening’s honoree, much fun was made throughout the evening at the expense of Las Vegas crooner Wayne Newton, who apparently, Birnbach revealed, wears a zip-up tux, or, as Crystal put it, “a onesie.”
In the coming days, the Foundation will present a Career Retrospective with former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, and will continue to add programming featuring prominent actors, broadcasters and recording artists to the Center’s program calendar. All events will be recorded and posted to the Foundation’s YouTube channel and website.