Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Good Samaritan

There was a period in the late 1990s when Robin Williams seemed to be making one bad, sappy movie after another. This was between his Oscar-winning turn in 1997's Good Will Hunting and his embrace of darker roles in 2002's Insomnia and One Hour Photo. As a longtime fan I was particularly disappointed to see him in such schmaltz as Patch Adams, Jakob the Liar, and Bicentennial Man. He seemed to be creatively out of gas and working, if not strictly for the paycheck, then from some karmic desire to bring good into the world via syrupy comedy-melodramas. My respect for himas both actor and comedianwas precipitously low. And I know I wasn't alone.

But in early spring of 2000, while living on New York's Upper West Side, something unusual happened. Faced with two winter-deflated tires on my Raleigh M-20, I walked the bicycle to a shop on Columbus and 81st in search of air. But when I arrived, the store was closed, its final customer being escorted to the door. He was a stocky, muscular man with grayish hair, and as he exited I knew almost immediatelyeven under his bike helmet and sunglassesthat it was Robin Williams. And he knew that I knew.

"Hi, how you doing?" he said casually.

"Hi," I said back, just as casually. (As a longtime New Yorker, I was obliged to treat any celebrity encounter like an exchange with the mailman.)

I stepped aside to let him wheel his Very Expensive Bike past me, then moved quickly to address the proprietor locking the door behind him. Through the glass I pleaded my case for five minutes with the shop's air hose, which had already been pulled inside. But the man, a longtime New Yorker himself, was obliged to brusquely tell me to come back tomorrow. Before I could come up with any good curses, I heard a gentle voice behind me.

"I have a pump you can use."

Photo: Bill Reitzel
I turned to face the speaker. It was Robin, poised beside his state-of-the-art racing bike like Parry, from The Fisher King, only in gearhead form.

"Are you sure?" I asked, uncertain how much I was supposed to resist a celebrity's offer of assistance.

But he was already unclipping a small, metallic cylinder from the bike's frame. "I'm not really sure how it works," he said, "but if you can figure it out you're welcome to use it."

"Thanks," I replied. I took the tiny hand pump from him (in my memory, it glinted in the fading sunlight), and was immediately baffled by the strange celebrity technology.

"Why don't I try?" he said.

And then Robin WilliamsOscar winner, star of two of my favorite NYC movies (Moscow on the Hudson and The Fisher King), and one of the sharpest, funniest minds in the businesswas bending over my $225 cruiser, attaching the pump to my front tire, and pumping away.

"This thing works much better on your tires than mine," he said.

I glanced at his own tires, so thin they barely poked into three-dimensional space. Each one probably cost more than my entire bike.

"Is that enough?" he asked, growing winded.

I squeezed the still soft front tire.

"Just a little more," I said. I wondered how little air I could get away with and still ride. Robin continued pumping as pedestrians surged around us. "A little more," I said, feeling guilty but also strangely powerful.

"Okay, that should do it," I said finally. "Great! Now the back one."

The Birdcage
He looked up in mild disbeliefwe couldn't very well stop halfway, could we?and I quickly suggested pumping the second tire myself. With a grateful nod he stood to wipe his sweating brow while I took the pump and tried to make sense of it. But, faced with connecting that miniature space-age device to the nozzle on my bulky rim, I was genuinely stumped. The pressure only increased as I realized that Robin, left to stand idly watching, had become a sitting duck to the various passersby.

"I love your work," said one.

"Thank you," the actor replied, smiling graciously.

"Nanu-nanu," said another.

Mork and Mindy
"Wow," said Robin, raising an eyebrow, a long way from Mork. He glanced down at me sweating and fussing with the pump, and, weighing the pros and cons, decided he'd be less conspicuous pumping the second tire after all. I mumbled my apologies as he bent down to relieve me, feeling equal parts incompetent and grateful as I resumed checking the tire's progress.

"More," I said timidly. "A little more..."

Finally, we were done. The tires weren't at full pressure, but they were full enough for me to ride around until tomorrow. Robin looked like he could use some air himself. I thanked him profusely, we shook hands, and I said I wished there was something I could do in return. He said not to worry about it, wished me a great day, then got on his Tron-like cycle and we pedaled off in opposite directions.

I wobbled past a parking sign, scraping the curb, as I tried to process everything that had just happened. Robin Williams had pumped my tires. Both of them. On the street. In front of everyone. Patch Adams or no, he had definitely regained my respect. No matter how schmaltzy his recent movies, I now realized they came from a real place: the man truly was a mensch, a genuinely good human being. And no doubt there would be plenty of good films to come.

Fortunately for us, most of his best work remains available to remember him by, including a welcome handful on Netflix streaming. You may have to look elsewhere for Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, and Dead Poets Society, but you can check out his first big-screen appearance in Robert Altman's entertaining, truly oddball, Popeye (1980), in which he mutters his way through feats of derring-do (and Harry Nilsson songs!) while sporting freakishly large forearms. Or see how the post-Dead Poets Society mastery of his craft allowed Williams to dig up the innocence cowering inside a middle-aged Peter Pan, in Steven Spielberg's underrated Hook (1991) or, that same year, the tragic sense of loss buried deep within his damaged fool, Parry, in Terry Gilliam's transcendent The Fisher King.

For an appreciation of the subtlety he could bring to comedy, see his hilariously contained work with Nathan Lane in Mike Nichol's The Birdcage (1996), where in addition to playing a convincing gay man he holds his own asof all thingsthe movie's straight man. Along with family comedies Popeye and Hook is the enjoyable Jumanji (1995), while World's Greatest Dad (2009), despite its comforting-sounding title, is as unsuitable for family viewing as you can get. A low-key, late-career acting triumph, this comedy of discomfort was written and directed by none other than Bobcat Goldthwaite, and touches unnervingly close to Williams' own situation at the time of his death.

One final streaming recommendation is less obvious but perhaps most fitting: the first half of "Barney/Never," a third-season episode of Louis C.K.'s peerless FX series, Louie. "Barney" is a short, slow-burn tale of two despairing and lonely men sharing laughs and quiet company in the contemplation of another's death. It makes for a funny, odd and poignant send-off for a man who brought such a variety of pleasures to the world.

Rest in peace, Robin. Thanks for your brilliance, your humor, and your generosity. And thanks for the air when a fellow New Yorker needed it.


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