It was the quality of his friendship.
I met him, briefly, in New York some years ago. I was there to attend a fundraiser for the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
Reeve and his wife, Dana, shared birthdays with the actors Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as well as newswoman Barbara Walters. They all decided to have a high-ticket birthday party together – and donate the proceeds to spinal cord injury research.
I rode the escalator up with movie actor Aidan Quinn, a moment that doubtless imprinted itself more deeply in my memory than it did his. It was truly a star-studded event.
None shown more brightly than Williams, who provided the evening’s entertainment.
He and Reeve met in college, roomed together for a while and had remained close friends ever since. When Reeve suffered an injury while horseback riding that left him a quadriplegic, Williams was one of the first people to visit him in the hospital. He came in demanding, humorously, to be part of the medical team. Reeve wrote later that was the moment he knew he would be able to go on.
That night, Williams dazzled.
He did a routine that was partially scripted and partially improvised, one filled with lightning shifts from one deftly crafted character bit to another and quicksilver observational pieces. As I watched him, I was stunned that anyone could have a mind that agile and insights that penetrating.
After the show was over, I wandered up to the front of the big room. People crowded around Williams. All of us wanted to do the same thing: Tell him how much we enjoyed his performance. He moved around from person to person, accepting the compliments graciously. He thanked each of us supporting spinal cord injury research.
And his friend Chris.
All the while he was talking with others, he kept glancing over in Reeve’s direction solicitously, trying to make sure his friend was all right.
At one point in the evening, Williams huddled with both Reeves. Williams and Dana leaned over Reeve’s wheelchair, talking and laughing, the intimacy of their body language that of people who love each other.
Reeve died in 2004. His wife, Dana, passed away a little more than a year and a half later.
And now Williams is gone, likely by his own hand.
He apparently had battled depression for the past year and had fought with addiction and other demons for many years. In that way, he was like so many other people.
The tributes that flowed following news of Williams’ death focused on the wizardry of his stand-up routines and the energetic versatility of his acting. They listed one great performance after another, a series of moments in which he touched audiences.
All of those are memorable, but, in the days following his death, I find myself thinking of that moment at the Reeve dinner, when Williams leaned close in with his good friend and his good friend’s wife, his every movement and gesture demonstrating love, support and concern.
And I hope that someone somewhere somehow now is trying to show Robin Williams the same kind of friendship.
The one time I met actor and comedian Robin Williams, it wasn’t the brilliance of his performance that impressed me.