Magazine article The New Yorker

The Old Gang

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Old Gang

Article excerpt

THE OLD GANG

After Robin Williams ended his singularly pyrotechnic life last week, his friend Penny Marshall's phone kept ringing. All the old gang--Carol Kane, Julie Kavner, Robert De Niro--were calling, in shock. Marshall, the director who once played Laverne in "Laverne & Shirley," said, "My brother Garry"--who created "Mork & Mindy" for Williams--"was crying, and that made me fall apart more. I've never seen my brother cry. He could always talk to actors, settle them down. He said he loved Robin but he couldn't get through to him, that some inner layer was out of reach."

She lit a Gambler cigarette, explained her puffy eyes--"I've got this eye thing"--and subsided into an armchair in her Upper West Side apartment. Marshall first worked with Williams when, as Laverne, she made a crossover appearance on "Mork & Mindy" 's pilot: "Fonzie was in it, and he fixed me up with Mork, because I was a fast girl, and Mork came on to me in his Morkish way, and I had to slap him." She rolled her eyes--seventies sitcoms. "All of our scripts seemed to blend into each other--who's got the monkey this week? Who's on roller skates? But we'd all go watch Robin--he was just out there, so many voices, so many connections. No one was that fast. Valerie, his first wife, told me, 'I can't keep up with him.' I said, 'Well, who can?'

"Robin was either on"--her eyes went wide, eyebrows a curtain going up--"or he was off, and the sweetest, gentlest man. Later, we all went on vacation to Mexico, and he'd eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and watch that Civil War documentary with his son Zak. He was very childlike. I remember him asking his second wife, Marsha, for permission--'Can I go swimming now?' He was Peter Pan. He was one of those people who can't be alone, who have to entertain you. And the truth is it's dull, just sitting around--this is why people do drugs!"

When Marshall directed "Awakenings," in 1990, she cast Williams as a doctor who tries dopamine on encephalitis victims who are unable to move. The treatment works for a time, particularly on Leonard, a patient played by De Niro. "Robin had already done a drama, 'Dead Poets Society,' but he told me he was afraid Bobby was going to blow him off the screen. I said, 'I won't let that happen.' So it was my job to keep Robin from being funny. …

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