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Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Hank Azaria, Bonnie Hunt and Barry Levinson helped open the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s new Robin Williams Center for Entertainment and Media in New York by sharing untold stories about Williams’ generosity and ability to quickly improvise funny riffs.
On Wednesday night, Williams’ friends and collaborators participated in a panel discussion at the new venue at 247 West 54th St. in Manhattan, following a screening of an edited version of a 2003 conversation Williams had at the Foundation’s Los Angeles facility — an example of the kinds of events with actors that the SAG-AFTRA Foundation plans to host in its new New York space.
During the discussion, moderated by author Lisa Birnbach, Crystal talked about the joy of playing around with his close friend, saying at one point, “I can’t even explain how amazing a feeling it was to riff with him.”
Said Crystal: “It was a look he would get in his eyes. He was in a place that I didn’t know. It was just like, ‘I’ve got something, get out of my way.’ … [It] used to make me laugh because I knew he was gone. He had just taken the bus to someplace else. That used to just crack me up, and I would call him on it. I’d say, ‘You’re there, aren’t you?’ He’d say, ‘Yeah.’ And we’d just laugh about it. He just couldn’t help himself. But if there was a little morsel of something, he would just eat it up until he was exhausted.”
Crystal in particular told several memorable anecdotes of his time with Williams. One was a story about Williams inventing a character who “was scared about going into the vortex” during a conversation they had at a glassed-in dining area in a tropical resort when it was storming outside. At one point, Steve Martin, who also was with them, got up and went outside and wrote “Help me!” on the window. He came back and Crystal said, “Cut! Steve, can you come back in?” as if the whole thing was a big movie. “We could do that kind of stuff all of the time,” Crystal said.
During another vacation, in Hawaii, Crystal recalled that the Super Bowl was on and Williams — whom Crystal insisted was “not a sports guy,” claiming he rooted for “the San Franciscos” — started riffing off of seeing one of the coaches screaming at his team. In Williams’ version of the rant, the coach went on and on about differences between players and the guys in the front office.
Crystal also retold the story he shared on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show about Williams upsetting then presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, which led into Goldberg sharing what she called her “favorite story ever” about Ted Kennedy’s accidental gaffe when she, Williams and Crystal went to meet with him in Washington to talk about homelessness.
“We’re on the plane and they say to us, ‘Look, no jokes, you three. No jokes about cars. No jokes about driving off — nothing.’ We all go, ‘OK.’ We’re not going to mention anything,” Goldberg recalled. “And we got off the plane, and we weren’t going to mention anything. And then we got to his office and he says, ‘OK, I’m going to drive you to the next building.’ And the three of us go like this (gasps, shakes head).”
Crystal introduced his Dukakis anecdote by saying, “This is a perfect story because of the political time that we’re in. If you want to call it political.”
And he later shared more of his thoughts about the current presidential election.
“It’s almost hard to be funny about it because it’s so terrifying. And then how much funnier can you get than what this maniac’s doing,” Crystal said, apparently referring to Donald Trump. “He’s probably tweeting about this and he’s not even here or knows about it.”
While Crystal didn’t reveal what Williams would have said about Trump the presidential candidate, he did share that his late friend also was fond of late-night communications, but Williams’ took the form of phone calls as different characters.
“If I have any regret about anything, it’s that we had planned to do an album,” Crystal said. “We just said, “Let’s record these phone calls because they’re so crazy funny and very dirty in the best way.’ I remember them and I’ll have them.”
During the Oscars, Williams would also call Crystal frequently, either to leave messages for the frequent Oscar host while he was emceeing the ceremony or to share his thoughts on the show with Crystal, if he was at home watching the Oscars wondering, as he said, “Why is this so long?”
Hunt, Azaria and Crystal all remembered Williams’ ability to remember and express genuine interest in people he interacted with, whether they were other actors on a project or crewmembers or fans.
“He would keep a roll of $20 bills in his pocket,” Crystal said. “When we would go out on the street, whoever needed — ‘Hey, Robin, how’re you doing? I’m a little down on my luck —’ $20. It was part of his day, was to help somebody out.”
Goldberg added that while she didn’t see Williams as often as Crystal did, he would seek her out and let her know he was there for her.
“If he wanted to get you to let you know he had your back, he’d find you,” she said.
SAG-AFTRA Foundation executive director Cyd Wilson said that the idea to show part of Williams’ 2003 conversation and follow that with a panel featuring his colleagues talking about working with him came out of the Foundation wanting to have an opening event that was “true to what’s going to be happening inside that building on a regular basis.”
“In this facility, actors will be coming in and listening to actors talk about their craft and talk about their careers,” she said. “It seemed fitting that we show some of Robin’s legacy. Normally an actor would be coming in and talking about their particular project. So we thought it would be important to have some colleagues who worked with Robin … come in and talk about working with him.”
Hunt said she was happy to be there to support Williams and the idea of the building being named after him.
“Robin was a dear and wonderful friend for many, many years,” she said. “On top of that, the effect he had on the world. That’s what’s so great about this building being named in his honor. It’s going to be artists supporting artists.”
Hunt, who worked with Williams on Jumanji, also shared her thoughts on the upcoming “continuation of the Jumanji story” being made, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kevin Hart and Jack Black.
“Nothing will change the special memories of Jumanji for me and my time with Robin, but certainly there’s so many talented people involved with the new one. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with it,” said the actress. “I’m always up for a good story.”
Goldberg, however, had a more sobering reflection on the building being named in Williams’ honor.
“It means my friend is gone,” she said. “It’s a great thing, but it means my friend is gone. They only put your name on a building if you’re gone.”
Watch Williams’ full 2003 conversation below.
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