What Robin Williams Taught Me About Being a Manager.
By: Don Bastida
August 12, 2014
This could also be titled “What Don Johnson or Eddie Murphy taught me about being a manager.”
For four or five months, back in 1995, I worked alongside Robin Williams during the filming of Jack. This was a film about a boy with a disease that caused him to age quickly, four years for every one actual year. Robin played Jack, a 10-year-old boy in a 40-year-old body.
Francis Ford Coppola directed this film under his American Zoetrope Production Company, and the movie co-starred actors such as the great Diane Lane, the car-alarm sounding Fran Drescher, the not-yet breakout hot Jennifer Lopez, and the very, very angry Bill Cosby, plus, some very talented child actors like Adam Zolotin, Mario Yedida, Todd Bosley, and Seth Smith. There were also some great cameos from Michael (Lenny) McKean, Don (Father Guido Sarducci) Novello and Dwight (#22) Hicks!
This was the first major movie set I had worked on and I spent that time eyes and ears wide open, seeing, listening, and learning. This set was like magic. Great people, top to bottom, all having fun, all in a good mood. And on a Francis Coppola set, the food is always going to be outstanding.
I made some great “movie set friends” like Adam Bryant, a man that looked so much like Robin that he made a career out of being Robin’s stand-in. There was Dee Dee Ashby and Virginia Travers two lighting stand-ins who I hung out with daily. Academy Award winner John Toll was the cinematographer, David Kelley lead the B team as the second assistant director, and Don Henderson was my favorite Grip.
But, the highlight of this set was the top of the food chain: Robin Williams. And, this is the management lesson I learned from Robin: if the person at the top is having fun, then the people they lead are also having fun.
In between shots, he wouldn’t hide in his trailer, or surround himself with bodyguards like the aforementioned J-Lo. No, Robin would hang out with the Grips, with the camera crew, with the B team, with everyone.
This concept became even more apparent to me when I worked on the Don Johnson television show: Nash Bridges, and the Eddie Murphy movie: Metro.
I think I would describe those sets as what it must have been like to live in a Communist country. On the set of Nash Bridges I saw Don Johnson yell at one of his handlers and tell them to go across the street at Fisherman’s Wharf and tell the tourists to stop taking pictures! On the set of Eddie Murphy’s Metro we were told, “Do not talk to Mr. Murphy, do not approach Mr. Murphy, do not look at Mr. Murphy. If you do you will be removed from the set and you will not work in this industry again!” Seriously, that is what we were told!
Needless to say, both of those sets were tense. The crew’s primary function was to not mess up and get fired. They were all on edge.
Robin’s set was relaxed, peaceful, fun. And it demonstrated exactly how to manage a large group of people, a team.
I had several great memories from that set. One was a sleepover scene in the tree house, a scene that was cut from the film. It was a close-up of Robin having a quiet conversation with Louie. They couldn’t pull Adam (Louie) from school so I got to run the lines with Robin during the filming. Robin and I sharing a pillow running lines! Priceless! I still remember hearing my heart pound in my ears while reading the lines. I was certain that Robin, and the boom mic, could hear it too.
There was the day that Robin had a doll that made fart sounds. He would squeeze the doll and make the requisite facial expression corresponding to the sound. Then he passed the doll around to all of us and made everyone make the sound and the face. This was huge with the kids on the set, not so much with their mothers.
Finally, there was the day when we were just sitting around while the crew was setting up one of the schoolroom scenes, at St. Vincent’s. I was standing there with my longish black hair, waiting for the assistant director to call for the B team. Again, I was the lighting stand-in for the 10-year-old Louie Durante. Robin walked in behind me talking with Winnie the costume supervisor. He looked at me, pointed and said, “Louie grew up to be Elvis.”
I was the punch line of a Robin Williams joke!
I can’t tell you how funny that was to me, or how good it felt, but I can tell you that I felt honored. Here was a guy who is one of the most brilliant comedy minds of our time and, even for just a millisecond, I was part of his comedy routine.