A stand-up comedy routine with Robin Williams – but not the kind I wanted28 august 2014, 16:22
June of 1998 was an idyllic time for me.
I had passed all of the hurdles for obtaining a Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina, which meant I was only weeks away from obtaining the diploma itself, in August.
I had just been offered my first job as a full-time professor at Sam Houston State University near Houston, a position I would take in September.
And Robin Williams was on the University of North Carolina campus to shoot a film called “Patch Adams.”
His zany comedy had not only delighted but astonished me, as it had hundreds of millions who had watched him on stage, television and movies.
From the moment I’d begun soaking up his comedy routines, I was in awe of his ability to generate punch lines and skits off the top of his head and to shift abruptly from larger-than-life characters to even more outrageous characters. I had never seen an entertainer so talented.
So I decided to try to meet him.
I was thinking about how I could do that when Universal Studios, the company producing “Patch Adams,” gave me an unexpected assist: It put out a call for extras for the film about an off-the-wall medical student.
I’d done modeling and acting while working as a journalist in Tokyo, so I knew the routine. I strutted my stuff in front of a casting team that had set up a temporary office in a campus building, and landed two parts.
One part was a doctor at a gynecologists’ seminar at Virginia Medical College, the fictional school that Robin was attending in his role as Patch Adams.
The other role was a member of a graduation-ceremony crowd. I was one of several hundred family members and friends watching Patch and other Virginia Med students getting their degrees.
These two scenes would give me the access I needed to Robin, I thought, smacking my lips. All I needed was to get close enough to chat with him, get his autograph, even get my picture taken with him.
Years later I could pull out the photo to prove to my grandchildren that I’d met one of the greatest entertainers America had produced.
My hopes for meeting Robin rose when I heard other extras laughing at his antics while the film crew was setting up their scenes for shooting.
There’s a lot of “down time” on a movie set. Stars, bit players and extras often wait for hours to shoot a scene that takes just seconds to record.
Most stars wait in their trailers, away from the peons, then rush to the set to shoot a scene and just as quickly rush back to their trailers.
Robin had a reputation for not being aloof. He would mingle with the “little guys” he shot scenes with, telling jokes, pulling stunts, doing impersonations. Putting on a free show just to make those around him laugh.
You could tell when he was doing this during the Carolina filming because you’d hear his voice boom -- he would get loud when he’d entertain a crowd -- and you’d hear squeaks and other funny sounds as he did impersonations.
I would have given anything to get close enough to watch his hijinks, and maybe meet him, but production-crew handlers allowed only those extras who were in the current scene to gather around him. It was probably good that they did because Robin was so funny he would attract a big crowd, which could have meant pandemonium.
Both scenes I was in were delightful, but neither helped me get close to Robin.
The gynecologists’ scene showed the baby deliverers stepping off a bus to enter the building where the seminar was.
They stop, stunned and gaping, when they see that the entryway has been transformed into a giant papier-mache mock-up of a woman about to give birth.
Not all her body parts are there – just her legs, with her feet in the stir-ups she will use to help push her baby out – and the area where the baby will come from. It is that cavity the gynecologists must pass through to get to their meeting.
(By the way, this scene was long ago dubbed the “At Your Cervix” scene in honor of that particular part of a woman’s reproductive system.)
In the scene, Robin, playing the medical-student Patch, stands between the woman’s legs to welcome the gynecologists.
Unfortunately, after he gives his welcome, he whisks through the entryway ahead of the doctors – and the scene ends.
The entire time the scene was unfolding, the other “doctors” and I got no closer than 15 meters to Robin.
One chance to meet him down, one to go. Now it all hinged on the graduation scene.
When I saw the set-up for the scene, my hopes plunged, however.
I would be one of 800 graduation-ceremony attendees sitting in neat rows of chairs in front of the outdoor stage where Robin and the other “medical-school graduates” would get their diplomas.
There was little chance I’d be able to meet Robin in a scene with so many players, I decided.
“I guess I’ll have to entertain my grandchildren with other stories,” I sighed.
If you’ve watched “Patch Adams,” you’ll recall that the graduation-ceremony scene is the most madcap in the film. As a parting shot to the tight-coloned medical-school brass, Patch hitches up the back of his graduation gown and moons both the diploma-givers and the crowd.
The production team shot the scene several times, so the other extras and I had one of the most up-close-and-personal encounters with Robin that any of us could have imagined.
Suddenly the shooting was over. I lingered for a while, laughing with some of the other extras about what we’d just experienced.
Then I got a tingling sensation in my bowels, and headed to a nearby academic building to find a restroom.
I was standing tall in front of a porcelain fixture when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a smallish man easing up to the urinal next to mine.
I looked over and – my God! -- it was Robin.
“Damn – here’s my chance!” I thought.
But a split second later I realized: “What the hell am I talking about?”
I was in no position to ask him for an autograph or have my picture taken with him, even if a third person had been in the restroom to snap the shot.
I wasn’t even in position to shake his hand. My hands were . . . well, occupied at the moment . . . as were his.
And this certainly wasn’t the place to say something witty – something that in another circumstance he could have latched on to as a conversation starter.
As a journalist, I’ve met a lot of stars over the years, and I was never intimidated by them: I’d always found something to say.
But the day I met Robin on the Carolina campus, all I could come up with was: “Uh, hi.”
And all he could say back was: “Hi.”
I finished before he did, and decided that, given the location we were in, it would not be appropriate to linger and try to chat him up.
So I said “take care,” and walked out.
“You, too,” he replied.
Out in the bright Carolina sunshine, I rued the chance I’d blown to meet my idol.
I had met him, yes – but it was certainly not the kind of encounter I could mesmerize my grandchildren with.
“I wonder if they’ll want to hear about the time I met Robert Redford in Tokyo,” I mused, then sighed.
For a long time I felt bad I hadn’t had a chance to chat with Robin in a proper way, to enjoy his wit firsthand, to laugh at his antics in person – if only for a few seconds.
I learned by watching “Patch Adams” that nobody could see me in the movie, but that didn’t bother me. I was too far back in the crowd of gynecologists to show up on screen, and in the final cut of the graduation-ceremony scene, Robin never got to the area where I was sitting.
The reason I wasn’t disappointed about being washed out of the film was that, as an experienced actor, I knew bit players and extras often failed to survive a movie’s final edit.
Nope, the only thing that bothered me about my “Patch Adams” experience was that I couldn’t figure out a way to ask Robin -- like John Wayne would have done in a bar scene -- to step outside to talk things over.
After Robin died, I thought about the restroom scene again, this real-life – as opposed to film – scene that ended up so farcical.
Then it dawned on me that, with his mischievous wit, Robin would have loved learning about my story.
In fact, it was the kind of ridiculous scene he could have built an entire comedy sketch around.
And now I don’t feel so bad.
God bless you, Robin. We miss you more than you know.