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Guest column / My encounters with the electric Robin Williams

Published 3:50 pm, Thursday, August 14, 2014
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Westport resident Robin Batteau is a Grammy-winning musician, singer-songwriter and music producer. The actor-comedian Robin Williams was found dead Monday, a suicide victim.

I did a charity concert with Robin Williams in 1980 in San Francisco, a fundraiser for Mimi Farina's Bread and Roses project that brought free music and merriment to the local institutionalized -- from hospitals to prisons to nursing homes to kindergartens.

I was accompanying folksinger Tom Rush on violin, and Robin was improvising between musical acts while roadies slung amps and drums across the stage, breaking down for the previous act and setting up for the next in a merry racket that was always unaccompanied, as it's so hard to talk, let alone perform, over the noise.

I've done a ton of shows, and no one ever says a thing during setups. Except Robin Williams.

The first time we'd met was at a Juilliard actors' party that Harrigan Logan hosted at her parents' (Josh and Nedda) Sutton Place apartment in Manhattan in 1976, with Christopher Reeve and the gang. They were shy. I was louder than both of them put together. I'm not loud.

This time, braver than Braveheart, leaping onstage like a mad leprechaun, Williams played with the noise and the roadies and the crowd -- 100 percent off the top of his electric head. When the next act was ready, Robin would say something generous and true about them as an intro, and bound back off the stage into the wings. The singers then would shine like never before in the frame Williams had created for them.

The singers were all great. -- Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Etta James, Mimi, Tom, Huey Lewis and more -- and the show was, as you might imagine, a smashing success. But the surprise star of it all was this TV actor we music snobs thought little of -- until he showed us who he really was and what he was made of. Bill Gates likes to say that America's greatest traits are generosity and innovation. That was Robin Williams in a 10,000-volt nutshell.

The last time I saw him was in the eastern Connecticut town of Ashford in 2000, during an end-of-summer fundraiser at Paul Newmans's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. I was writing supplementary songs and jokes for A.E. Hotchner's wonderful theater pieces, and Robin was actually delivering my jokes word for word and building on them, making them funnier than they had any right to be.

And that's what he did for the world. Looking like a marionette who'd blurt something fresh each time you pulled his string, he was actually pulling us all in, stringing us all together in a comic tapestry of the world, where everything and everyone was funny when looked at in the right way, and we were all part of the big picture. We were all co-stars in his movie, all the time.

For all of us, let me say, great working with you, Robin. You were awesome. Now go make fun of God. He could use a laugh.