Plenty of actors, writers, family, and friends have paid tribute to the late actor and comedian Robin Williams since his death on Monday. But David Simon, in an essay on his website, was able to capture two sides of the man—both hilarious and dark—as he shared an anecdote from Williams’ guest appearance on Homicide: Life on the Streets in 1994.
Williams, who knew producer Barry Levinson from Good Morning, Vietnam, had just come off a string of hits with Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Aladdin. His role in Homicide was much different, as he played Robert Ellison, a man whose wife had been killed in front of him and his children, and who subsequently must deal with sudden loss, heartbreak, and grief.
Simon explains that, while he was discouraged from talking to the actors, the newspaperman in him couldn’t resist speaking with such a talented, cultural icon. So he went and met Williams on set at the Penn Street morgue. What follows in his essay is a glimpse of the full spectrum of Williams—from serious, method actor to frenzied, genius comedian. In Simon’s words:
You had to be there. And, yes, I know that the phrase is used to connote moments that are less humorous in retrospect, but with Mr. Williams the live-wire volatility, the no-net comic gymnastics was part of the allure. If you were there, and I was, then you could scarcely breathe from laughing so hard and so long. The crew stopped working, forming a semicircle around him. Word went down the hallway and out to the trucks. More people rushed in to catch the shooting sparks, so that the entire production came to a halt as Robin Williams, quiet for days in the role of a grieving, wounded man, finally exploded.
What’s interesting to note is that Williams’ role as Robert Ellison on Homicide was a precursor to some of his darker characters, like his work in One-Hour Photo and Insomnia. As Simon explains, his appearance also saved the fate of Homicide, catapulting the NBC drama into five more seasons—just another example, among many, of Robin Williams’ magnanimous spirit.