Robin Williams, down to earth and ‘highly intelligent’

Rita Galea, who worked as a publicity assistant on Popeye back in 1980, has fond memories of the then 29-year-old Robin Williams, who passed away on 11 August 2014

As a cross-dressing father hoping to keep in touch with his kids (Mrs Doubtfire) or a radio host beloved by troops (Good Morning Vietnam), Williams gave movies his own particular brand of humour and depth.
As a cross-dressing father hoping to keep in touch with his kids (Mrs Doubtfire) or a radio host beloved by troops (Good Morning Vietnam), Williams gave movies his own particular brand of humour and depth.

The Oscar-winning actor and stand-up comedian Robin Williams was found dead on Monday at his home in California, with the local sheriff’s office confirming that it was treating the death of the 63-year-old star as a suspected suicide.

The statement said the coroner suspected the death to be a “suicide due to asphyxia” and that a comprehensive investigation would be completed before the case is closed.

Following Williams’ death, tributes began to pour in from friends, colleagues and persons who were touched by the actor’s contagious personality.

MaltaToday spoke to two persons who worked closely with Williams while the actor was filming Popeye in Malta in 1980.

Williams begun his career in 1974 when he played Mork from Ork on the ABC’s legendary sitcom “Happy Days” and four years later his character was spun off into its own show “Mork and Mindy.”

His break in Hollywood came in 1980 when he made his starring debut in Robert Altman’s notorious critical failure, Popeye.

The movie was shot in Malta and Rita Galea, who worked as a publicity assistant on the film, has fond memories of the then 29-year-old Williams.

“I remember that he used to visit our offices on the set, where he used to spend hours rehearsing his lines in his Popeye accent.”

Describing Williams as “a caring person”, Galea remembers sitting for hours next to the actor listening to recordings of his lines.

“For some reason I was entrusted with transcribing his lines, and he would sit next to me and explain what he was saying in his Popeye accent when I couldn’t understand.”

When the filming was over, most of Williams’s muttered Popeye voice was discovered to be inaudible and he had to re-dub much of the dialogue.

In a 2013 interview, Williams had said “going back they wanted me to re-loop it, but it wasn’t meant to be understood, it was meant to be, like, ‘Oh, I seen better looks in oatmeal,’ you know, this kind of wild stuff. But it was, you know -- it’s a great character. He’s tough.”

Galea added that Williams, who stayed at the Danish Village in Mellieha Bay for around five months, was “down to earth” and recalled that he would sit down with the rest of the cast and crew members during lunch breaks on set.

One of the crew members who has vivid memories of the American actor is Studio Seven owner and sound expert Joe Debono. 

“He was a very nice person to work with, and above all he was highly intelligent,” Debono says, adding that the talented actor put in brilliant performances on set.

Debono, who worked as a sound engineer on the set, told MaltaToday that on one particular night Williams and some crew members visited the Dragonara Hotel in St Julian’s to attend a cabaret show.

“At one point during the show, Williams walked up on stage and gave an impromptu stand up show and he had everyone in stiches.”

However beyond his boisterousness, Williams was very professional in his job, Debono said.

“He would completely morph into his character and I remember him walking the Popeye walk even when the cameras weren’t rolling,” he says.

Debono pointed out that Williams’ drug and alcohol addictions were visible during his stay in Malta, adding “there was all kind of stuff going around during the filming.”

Before filming began, the director Robert Altman was dissuaded from working with Harry Nilsson, who composed and wrote the movie’s soundtrack because of the latter’s drinking problems. 

However, Williams supported Altman’s decision to pick Nilsson and as it turned out the director found Nilsson to be delightful to work with.

Hours after his death, Williams’ third wife Susan Schneider released a statement in which she said: “This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.

The actor’s publicist Mara Buxbaum said the actor had recently been suffering from severe depression.

Williams had openly talked about his battles with alcohol and drug addiction in the early 1980s, his years of sobriety, and relapse in 2006.

In recent months Williams appeared to have recovered but in July he returned to rehab and although his representative played down the news at the time, it was clear that the actor was still battling his demons.

However, Williams will be remembered for his unforgettable performances on the silver screen.

“On behalf of Robin’s family, we are asking for privacy during our time of profound grief. As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions,” his wife said on Monday.

The versatile actor began his career on television in the seventies, but it was in the movies where Williams flourished. In his career spanning four decades, Williams scored four Oscar nominations, including three Best Actor nods. He won Best Supporting Actor for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.”

He began his career in stand-up comedy before first achieving widespread fame in the TV sitcom Mork and Mindy. During the late Seventies and early Eighties, Williams developed an addiction to cocaine.

Williams was a close friend of the comedian John Belushi who died of a drug overdose in 1982.  Williams had enjoyed wild parties with Belushi and subsequently admitted that the death of his friend and the birth of his son prompted him to quit drugs.

However in 2006, after 20 years of sobriety, Williams checked himself into a rehab centre, later admitting he was an alcoholic. 

Williams, though, appeared to have recovered well enough to joke, on a recent tour: “I went to rehab in wine country.  To keep my options open.”

In March 2009 Williams was also hospitalised by heart problems, and had to undergo surgery to surgery to replace his aortic valve.