Tributes to Robin Williams keep coming fast and furious in the wake of the comic’s death earlier this week. Everyone from Norm MacDonald to Jimmy Fallon to fans around the world has made some sort of gesture to try and pass along how important Williams was to them. To this list, we can now add David Simon, creator of The Wire and Treme, who penned a heartfelt farewell yesterday that explained why Robin Williams is the reason he still has a career in television today.
The entire post is worth a read, but the gist is as follows: Back when Simon was working on Homicide: Life on the Street, the NBC show that was based on his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, he co-wrote an episode that was sort of in limbo as the show faced an uncertain future. What saved it was Robin Williams agreeing to take a guest role that Simon describes as “a dry, humorless tour through post-traumatic stress, guilt and unbridled grief.” Williams showed up on set and stayed in the mindset of this reserved, troubled character for much of the filming, until executive producer Barry Levinson (with whom Williams had worked on Good Morning, Vietnam) dropped by, at which point all hell broke loose.
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. He was soaring for at least another five minutes before Mr. Levinson gave the slightest nods to his watch: We were losing the day.
Which brings us to the thing about saving Simon’s television career.
His performance in that Homicide episode was brilliant and thorough, and when broadcast, the ratings assured that the NBC drama would run another five years. Yesterday, after the news broke, Jim Yoshimura wrote to me his sadness and reflected on the fact that he would be a starving playwright now or worse if not for Robin Williams. Me, I’d be on a newspaper copy desk somewhere. David Mills, too, would have departed this vale as something other than a dramatist. All of our lives turned because a very rare and talented man came to Baltimore for a week and a half to film a television episode.
So, to recap: If Robin Williams doesn’t agree to take a guest spot on a low-rated network cop show, in an era when film stars didn’t just pop up on television all the time (and especially not in roles so far outside their perceived wheelhouse), there’s a decent chance The Wire never comes to be. That’s far from the most important takeaway from his passing, but it does go to show how many lives one person can affect.