'The Best Man Ever'
Ice House owner Bob Fisher and others recall the caring and generous side of Robin Williams
By Carl Kozlowski 08/14/2014
Bursting with manic energy before crowds of strangers, but reserved and soft-spoken in his private life, Robin Williams won Emmys for his comedy and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in “Good Will Hunting.”
Adored worldwide for his gifts as an entertainer, the predictably unpredictable Williams stunned the world one last time Monday morning by committing suicide in his Marin County home.
Although the many remembrances of the 63-year-old star focus on his theatrical talents, another image of the man emerged Tuesday, that of a quietly caring person who helped at least one desperate refugee’s family adjust to life in America.
Bob Fisher, owner of Pasadena’s Ice House Comedy Club, reminisced about his 35-year acquaintance with Williams and the time they assisted members of that family soon after their arrival in the United States.
“In 1979, I was affected by a documentary on ’60 Minutes’ in which Ed Bradley showed the plight of the Boat People escaping from Vietnam,” recalled Fisher, who met Williams when the two worked at a club in Orange County in 1976, two years before Fisher bought the Ice House.
“I went to the International Rescue Committee (a nongovernmental organization, or NGO) and sponsored a family and then had the Ice House stage three fundraising shows, with Robin, David Letterman and Gallagher each headlining one apiece,” Fisher remembered.
The shows were successful enough to not only transport the family of Phong Thai, a refugee who was nearly killed in his attempt to reach Malaysia en route to his eventual rescue in the US, but also find them a home in Santa Ana. Williams supplied furniture for the family, an act of kindness that Thai, who never met Williams, still remembers with deep appreciation.
“I’ve always wanted to see Robin Williams, to say thanks to him for what he did for us,” Thai said in a phone interview from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“Our schedules didn’t work for us to see him, and now he’s not with us anymore and I can’t ever thank him. I feel bad about that,” said Thai, who is now retired but started out as a clerk and came to own convenience stores in Texas and Arizona.
Thai said he and his family are thankful to be in the United States. Williams, he said, helped make that sometimes difficult transition more tolerable.
“If you had a hard day with something wrong with your life you could laugh at his shows,” he said of Williams. “He was the best man ever.”
Maria Sahakian, director of marketing and events for Glendale Arts, also encountered Williams’ generous side when he made a surprise appearance in 2007 to give his mentor Jonathan Winters an award from the weSPARK Cancer Support Centers during a fundraiser at the Alex Theatre.
“We were honored to have him on the Alex stage and, of course, he had the audience in stitches,” said Sahakian. “We echo the rest of the world in saying what a sad loss it is.”
As a comedy club owner, Fisher had many memories of Williams performing. In fact, he recalled chastising Williams in their days at the now-closed Laff Stop comedy club in Newport Beach. Had Williams, listened to Fisher’s advice, the comedian’s career might have never taken off.
“I was the emcee and would introduce him as a Russian,” said Fisher. “He’d come onstage in a brown suit and Russian hat and pretend to hump you and would hug you and would talk in gibberish for a minute. People would wonder what was going on.
“I’d only been in the industry six to seven months and he would wander through the club doing fake Shakespeare and people would complain they couldn’t hear him,” Fisher continued. “It sounds ridiculous, and I said ‘You have to stay onstage and behind the microphone, which shows how new and naïve I was. To his credit, he ignored me and that was part of his genius: having no boundaries.”
Despite that initial awkward exchange, Fisher and Williams became friends. Fisher recalled playing basketball with the comic and attending his first wedding, but noted that he was a far different person offstage.
“He was very quiet, humble and spoke in such a low voice that you could hardly hear what he said,” Fisher said.
Williams’ quiet nature was also noticed by Jimmy Dore, a nationally known Pasadena-based comedian who encountered the late star several times while waiting to perform.
“Robin was certainly friendlier than any other real-deal celebrity I’ve ever met, and I was alone with him a few times briefly,” Dore said. “I noticed he didn’t have much to say until there was more than two people in the room — if there were three people there, it was like someone put a quarter in him and he woke up.”
Veteran comic and KLOS-FM deejay Frazer Smith, who emcees most Thursday night shows at the Ice House, best assessed the late legend’s power.
“We all saw the same thing in him, that he was like Michael Jordan in basketball or Wayne Gretzky in hockey,” said Smith. “He was clearly the most talented of all comics. I don't think anyone could debate that.”
Fisher said one of the stages of grieving is anger.
“I think subconsciously people are thinking: How could he do this to us? We were counting on 20 more years of laughter,” he said.
“That song, ‘American Pie,’ about the day the music died … yesterday was a day that comedy died in a way,” said Fisher. “A key person in comedy died who affected us all.”