A conversation with the planet’s funniest man about comic relief on the front lines of war began with a reference to the Bible. Not something you would think would be in character for Robin Williams, but I couldn’t blame him.
“Hi Robin, I’m Kane.”
“Hello Kane! How are you? How’s Abel?”
It was a softball and all he could do was hit the home run.
While I had endured this tease since first grade, this was Robin Williams making fun of my name. All I could do was laugh. Heartily.
For the next 45 minutes or so, that’s mostly what I did. I was supposed to ask questions for a program to be aired on the American Forces Network Europe, but I had no control over what in retrospect could only loosely be described as an “interview”:
KANE: “Thanks for joining us, we’re here with Robin Williams who’s just coming off the final leg of a tour…”
ROBIN: “The final leg of a tour… yes the Afghan Open as we say. 18th hole will be open soon once the mines are cleared. But it’s very nice. The Bagram Open. Khandahar. It’s feels like Bob Hope - it’s one big sand trap I tell you it’s wild!”
And so began the “interview” - the only one Robin Williams participated in after his first USO tour in 2002. Following in the footsteps of Bob Hope’s famous USO tours that started during World War II, Williams spent a week visiting with troops in Afghanistan in what was the beginning of what has become the United State’s longest war.
“Before I went to Afghanistan, I watched those Defense Department briefings, and Rumsfeld [secretary of defense] kept saying… “We don’t know when… We don’t know how… but sometime, somewhere, something bad is going to happen” Williams interjected in his best impersonation of the much maligned Secretary of Defense.
Williams was not looking for attention during this tour. No press and commercial camera crews were invited to follow him, he traveled with a very light entourage and didn’t want anything in the way of him expressing his profound respect and admiration for the men and women serving in uniform, in harm’s way.
“I think most people got a shock, like why are you here man?”
The usually animated and energetic comedian then turned serious, for a moment, and explained why he was there.
“You get this incredible energy back. People just glad you came. For me it was a joy. It was like you see people, and they say 'Thanks!' and that’s why I wanted to do it. That’s the purpose was showing up and saying I haven’t forgotten and people back home haven’t forgotten.”
Actor-comedian Robin Williams visits U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2002 (VOA/K. Farabaugh)
Robin Williams loved and respected those who wore the uniform. He participated in several more USO tours in the following years and despite keeping a busy work schedule, always seemed to be able to spend some time with those so far away from their friends and family.
Robin Williams flew into my life on a military airplane almost 12 years ago. I spent less than an hour with him, and he flew away. I never saw him in person again, and our fleeting encounter at Rhein Main Air Base in Germany was probably more memorable for me than it was for him.
So that makes it confusing that when I read about his passing late Monday afternoon, it felt like a family member died. There was a sinking and empty feeling that hasn’t subsided several days later.
I guess that’s because it feels like I’ve known him all my life, before and after the “interview.”
It’s as we all know him.
As Mork. As an Air Force Disc Jockey. As Peter Pan. As Mrs. Doubtfire. As a Genie. As the President. As a robot. As a teacher. As a professor. As a Dad. As much more.
And that’s hopefully the way we will always remember him, now that we write about him in the past tense.
I’m sure by now you’ve all had friends or family post a quote from one of his movies on Facebook or Twitter or some version of social media. There is a lot of material to choose from that fits this moment to honor his memory and describe his legacy.
I searched back and forth in our “interview” now 12 years in the past to find something similarly poignant and meaningful that would help sum up both my feelings about him.
But I didn’t find that in the interview. I found it in the outtakes from the interview, in the bloopers.
As my AFN Europe colleague Russ Zill prepared Williams for the cameras by setting him up with a wireless microphone, he needed to place this device under his camouflaged shirt.
Russ apologized in advance before reaching in to place the microphone between his shirt and his hairy chest. Williams didn’t seem to mind all the probing.
“Thank you sir, it was a nice moment. Thank you.”
No, Mr. Williams, thank you sir, for the “interview” and for all the nice moments.