A preface: I’m not very good at writing about people. Normally, I prefer to write about my exploits as a runner or purveyor of life’s moments that I think need to be caught and held for posterity. But, every once in awhile, I’ll try to put down some words for those who have had a deep and profound impact in my life. As news of Robin Williams’ death is still being sorted within my brain, my heart just kind of steered me here to a blank screen.
All I keep thinking is, “If there ever was a real-life Timekeeper, we need him now.“
Williams’ presence on screen was dynamic, almost manic. But, the love and attention he gave his characters was abundant. He poured into his roles and invited us a chance to go along with him, sometimes with blind faith, but never trepidation or uncertainty.
I didn’t know him personally, but like many of you, I was touched by his work and found great influence in his delivery and tone. I did have an encounter with him once. It was brief and I’m sure he had forgotten about it immediately after it happened, but it’s still one the best stories I tell to this day.
Back in late 1995, I was working at Epcot in my first attractions job, Journey into Imagination. Most of you probably have experienced Journey into Imagination countless times. But, for those who haven’t seen it, basically it’s the ride with creepy Dreamfinder and his purple monster (sorry, couldn’t resist), Figment. Back then, I was 18 and really didn’t have a care in the world. The job required very little effort, the majority of the day repeating, “How many in your party?” or “Please stand, watch your step.” Some days, I would be in the “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” rotation, which required me to dole out 3D glasses by the gross and sit through numerous screenings of the film. But, the end of the day was just that; the end of the day. No need to take work home or worry about that creative pitch to the client on Monday.
To make the most of the job, I would amuse myself (and my castmember friends), by playing pranks on unsuspecting guests, other attractions and my fellow mates in rotation. Pranks like, wreaking havoc on the front greeter via numerous phony phone calls and voices, posing as an animatronic throughout the ride and other general debauchery in the Imageworks (I could write a whole book on that).
Other than that, the job itself, was pretty autonomous and I yearned for more. I had lobbied countlessly to my management for more responsibility; however, do to my age, experience, etc. I never seemed to get the chance to expand my stature. I guess it may have had to do with that time I sat up on the roof of the ride during Illuminations…
One day, I was feeling extra crabby from being stuck in rotation and finally had a chance to go on break. Being all of 18, I was stupid, of course and smoked cigarettes. So, I headed out the backstage gate between Image and The Land to the picnic table/smoking area. Behind that gate, there isn’t much but a few parking spots and a road that runs the perimeter of the park that allows delivery trucks/parade floats/etc. to reach sections of the park during business hours without interrupting the guest experience. It also allows VIP tour vans filled with famous park guests to navigate the park without being bombarded by your everyday park guest.
Back to the story.
There I was sitting on the picnic table with a buddy of mine who worked in Custodial, enjoying a fifteen-minute escape with my nicotine-filled cowboy killer. In and out of drags and puffs of our cigarettes, we talked as theme-park compatriots do, much about nothing. When all of a sudden; a white van pulls into view and parks near us. Looking into the window and seeing the well-known plaid vest on the driver, I knew immediately it was a VIP tour. Knowing that even backstage is “onstage” to VIP tours, I should have extinguished my cigarette. But, again I was 18 (and stupid) and was entitled to this brief respite from the monotony. The door opened and out popped a bubbly VIP guide, smiles and all. I can’t remember the conversation clearly, but she said something to her passengers along the likes of requesting they stay in the van for a moment while she goes to the nearby attractions to let them know someone important will be gracing their presence. Receiving confirmation from her passengers, she then passed near my buddy and I and gave us stern looks for smoking in the presence of a VIP tour. Surely, she would find our managers and give them a stern talking to, but I never heard anything after this encounter.
After what seemed to be a minute or two, the passenger door opened and out stepped a short, scruffy man. He made his way around the van to our picnic table and stopped a minute. Well, to my surprise it was none other than Robin Williams. I remember immediately thinking, “He’s hairier than I imagined.” The encounter was very brief, but our exchange will never be forgotten. He looked at me, my cigarette and sheepishly said, “You know, those things will kill you.” Without any hesitation, and I mean damn near immediately, I retorted, “So will working here.” (again, I was young and dumb). But, what he said next still rings in my ears like I heard it yesterday. He looked at me and said (with almost a chuckle),
As if almost on cue, the tour guide reappeared from behind the gate, gathered up Mr. Williams and his passengers and off they went into the park never to be seen again.
Robin Williams was an absolutely gifted and wonderful man. He improved the lives of millions of people through his craft, if even just for a few brief minutes on the screen. But, it seems to me the ones with the funniest faces sometimes have the heaviest hearts.
The world lost a wonderful soul yesterday.