As we mourn his passing, here’s an excerpt from my book, Hollywoodaholic: Confessions of a Screenwriter about my encounter with Robin Williams. A sweet man, an incredible force-of-nature talent, and completely different persona offstage than on.
April 30, 1984
I haven’t worked since I last wrote you some two months back or so, but that’s not unusual. I’ve been living off my tax returns from last year and going to meetings.
Recess, which I wrote several years ago, has come to the forefront again. I asked my manager to send a copy to director Tony Richardson (The Loved One, an Oscar for Tom Jones). He’s an eccentric British director with a taste for the bizarre. Sure enough, he liked it a great deal and invited me up to his house to meet him. He has this huge, tropical-style plantation in the Hollywood Hills complete with exotic macaws, parrots and free-flying lovebirds in an adjacent outdoor aviary. He wouldn’t let me talk about any of his work, but went on raving about my script, saying it was the funniest thing he’d read in a long time. Now this came as great relief and vindication to me because, for seven years, all I’ve heard about it from the studio people and readers and such is ‘what the hell is this?” or, ‘this is too strange and will never get made.’ (The episodic plot, including adventures in the army and on an anchovy boat, narration by a character with a 10-year-old mentality, and a theme of innocence amid worldly corruption are oddly similar to a picture that would get produced ten years later called Forrest Gump.) Suddenly, here was an Academy Award-winning director erasing layers of abundantly applied doubt. He mentioned that he’d been talking to Robin Williams and would like to give it him. I left floating on air, but keeping an inward and skeptical vigil.
The next week I’m sitting outside an office waiting to go into a meeting with a story person who works for a cream-of-the-crop management firm (Woody Allen, Eddie Murphy, Williams, etc.) about something completely different, and suddenly Robin Williams walks in the back door. My first reaction is surprise, and my second is; ‘What’s that purple-covered script he’s carrying?’ People in the office get up to greet him and I’m standing there with my head twisted around trying to see the script and going, ‘could that be…?’
It was. My body shudders with a start and he’s standing right in front of me and I reach out my hand and introduce myself, ‘Hi, I’m Wayne Carter.’ He shakes my hand, looks at me oddly, looks down at the script, then looks up again and we both freak out. He goes, with revelation, ‘You wrote this script?’. I nod and we both freak out again. Meanwhile, his manager has to come out and is wondering what the hell is going on. Robin explains he was coming by to give him this script to read and consider, and here’s the author right here.
His manager freaks out. He thinks this is some sort of conspiracy. We try to explain that it’s a total coincidence and that Tony Richardson had sent the script to Robin. Robin and the manager excuse themselves and disappear into his office for some low conversation. Robin is backing away from me going, ‘this is very interesting, very interesting.’ He means the script.
I have to go to my regular meeting with one of the manager’s assistants, only now everyone in the office is abuzz with what’s happened and I am getting all sorts of attention and feel like a celebrity. I go into the meeting, explaining the coincidence again. Five minutes later, Robin’s manager joins my meeting, with interest. He’s still trying to figure out what’s going on. He listens closely and thinks aloud that what I’m pitching now (The Man Who Had the Ability to Enjoy Life) might be something for Eddie Murphy or Joe Piscopo.
Now, you might wonder (or not) how I’m handling myself through this whole shebang. Well, the answer is, I couldn’t have been cooler. And the reason is because, truthfully, I was numb with sickness. I had woken up with a sore throat, a cloudy head and the beginnings of the flu, so by the time I hit this meeting, I had backed away from my body as if it were some distant entity, and everything was coming at me through a shrouded, invisible tunnel. Hence, a total lack of nerves.
Anyway, the upshot of the thing is that it’s being talked about now between Tony, Robin, his manager and with feelers to the studio. I’m not holding my breath. My agent and I suspect his manager will try to steer Robin away from doing something this off-center, but you never know. The point is, if Robin wants to do it, and we already got Tony, THAT’S a package, in Hollywood terms. So I’m hoping, with caution. If nothing else, I had those moments; an Academy Award-winning director enthralled with my work; and that heart-stopping coincidence in the tiring life of a screenwriter when Robin Williams walked through that front door carrying nothing but one purple script, and I flinched and thought, ‘Could that be mine?’
(Ultimately the hard-ass manager did steer Williams to another project because he thought Tony Richardson -an Academy Award-Winning director, no less – wasn’t hot enough for Robin. I understand why Williams, who offstage is terribly shy and polite, needed a hard-ass manager, because you get the idea he would say yes to everything just to be a nice guy. But I still have a few sleepless nights thinking about what his appearing in my screenplay would have meant.)
P.S. – Robin Williams used to occasionally come in to the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard and go on after the last comedian of the night and just play for 90 minutes or so. You had to find out about these appearances through some inside intel, and my best friend was a stand-up comic who appeared there. So when my parents were visiting me from Maryland one time and I got the word, I dragged my poor 60 year-old father and mom to the Comedy Store and waited until 12:30 a.m. when Williams made one of his surprise no-time-limit appearances. We didn’t get out of there until after 2 a.m. and my dad was nearly catatonic, but I just had to expose my parents to the most electrifying and funniest man on the planet besides Richard Pryor (who might’ve shocked them a bit too much).