ROBIN WILLIAMS: The Movie Star and The Video Clerk

December 10, 2009

* Johnny’s Note: Below is an article written by my great friend Brian Jay Cline.   I share his compelling story

Robin N’ Me

by Brian Jay Cline;  Songwriter and Video Clerk

So there I was, in the spring of 1991, painfully clawing my way through a fifth year of college, and still working at the video store on the ritzy, glitzy Upper East Side of Manhattan. Robin Williams, who’d been in town filming The Fisher King, was making regular evening trips to our fine rental establishment.

Not having any knowledge about this project, I initially found it rather peculiar when he’d show up looking as if he’d spent a week living on the D train, surviving on nothing but puddle water and scraps. In the dark comedy The Fisher King, Williams portrays a psychologically traumatized character named Parry, who slides into mental illness and homelessness after witnessing his wife’s brutal murder.

During the production, Williams had taken up temporary residence across the street in a super plush, newly constructed, high rise with his former babysitter and now expectant wife Marsha, who looked as if she was about to pop any minute. They’d regularly come in together, rent a couple of flicks, and disappear into the night, arm and arm: The pregnant lady, and the only New York City bum with a Hollywood publicist.

During my tenure at Third Avenue Video, I had become all but immune, and even indifferent to my daily interactions with the vast array of entertainment heavyweights that walked through our door, gracing us with their presence. I distinctly remember that Mary Tyler Moore once yelled at me for accidentally giving away her copy of Out of Africa. Maury Povich rented adult films from us back when he was just a lowly Fox network infotainment fixture, and poor old Howard Cosell made the occasional appearance donning his charcoal toupee, and stinking up the joint something fierce, with his old fogey stogey.

Needless to say, when it came to dealing with the “Stars”, I didn’t gush. So Williams had been showing up off and on for about a month, when one afternoon the phone rang. I answered “Video” and a very calm voice on the other end of the phone said “This is Robin Williams…I’ve got a video stuck in my VCR, do you think you could send someone up?” So now I AM gushing, and thinking to myself “Holy Shit!! I’m going to be getting some serious face time with one of the most famous comedic actors on Earth.”

I still remember the day after the television premier of Mork and Mindy. Every kid in my fourth grade catholic grammar school class couldn’t stop saying “Shazzbot” or “Na-Noo-Na-Noo”. It was an extremely significant cultural phenomenon for an 11 year old! I said “that shouldn’t be a problem sir”, grabbed a small screwdriver set, and flew out the door with the same animated determination you’d see in an elderly couple, wearing matching sweat suits, doing a high speed power walk through central park. So I got there in like under a minute, or some record breaking amount of time. The doorman gave me a nod letting me know he’d gotten “the call”, and I’d received the necessary clearance to proceed.

Within seconds I was rocketing towards the heavens in a finely crafted brass and mahogany lift, just minutes away from a private meeting with non other than ROBIN WILLIAMS. The 30+ story ride gave me plenty of time to imagine a host of possible scenarios: “Gee Brian, what’s a funny, good looking young guy like you, doing working at a video rental store?….I think I might have a part for you in my next………, That’s the funniest thing I ever heard Brian, did you ever think about writing comedy?

Brian… you know what a personal assistant does?” Also running simultaneously in my head was a collage of every movie, bit, character, and voice I’d ever heard him do or say. I didn’t want to be caught off guard, if he made a reference to one of his lesser known works during our chat. So, I rang the doorbell with nervous anticipation, and waited for what seemed like an eternity. There were only two doors on the entire 33rd floor. Something told me this was no pied a terre.

And then all of a sudden the door OPENED, and there he stood……. A short, stocky, clean shaven individual vaguely resembling Robin Williams, in a t-shirt and shorts, who said in almost a whisper “thanks for coming up.” And In a split second, it all turned into an extremely unglamorous event. I was led through a series of tastefully furnished rooms to the scene of the crime. The VCR had been carefully extracted from its entertainment center home, and placed on the floor for me “The Expert” to perform the required surgery.

Wow, there I was, expecting a rip roaring, knee slapping verbal roller coaster ride with the genie from Aladdin or even the mad-libbing disc jockey from Good Morning Vietnam, and instead the only sounds in the room were of Mr. Williams doing an academy award winning impersonation of a wall, and of me letting out blasts of nasal exasperation as I tried to extract his very worn video cassette and its tangled viscera from an extremely uncooperative VCR. Upon further examination, and discovering that the cassette didn’t even belong to our rental shop (It was a homemade copy of the sixties TV show “The Avengers”) I very politely conveyed to Mr. Williams, that, regarding the level of technical proficiency needed to remedy this problem, I was simply out of my league.

I then performed the painstaking task of re stuffing the video and it’s tentacle like entrails, back into its rectangular plastic home, and reattaching the black metallic VCR shell without making it look in worse than it did when I’d originally found it. Upon completion, we both proceeded to the exit for my inevitable departure from his private and shockingly subdued world. Now here’s the kicker…In NYC, it was, and still is quite customary for individuals in any service related industry to be given a tip for outstanding or even remotely satisfactory performance. In my book, this definitely qualified as outstanding, even with the unresolved outcome. Mr. Williams, opened the door, gave me the obligatory thaaanks, accompanied by the most painful attempt at a smile I’d ever seen, and sent me on my way. Empty handed.

As I headed for the elevator, I thought to myself “Damn Sam, Did Robin Williams just totally stiff me on the tip?” Yes folks…he did. So, I showed back up at the store, told everyone my tale and the general consensus among me and my coworkers was that Robin Williams was a total wanker. It wasn’t until many years later, I realized that this story was far more valuable than any tip he could’ve given me. After that, it all gets a bit hazy, I can’t even remember if he ever came in again.

Oh well, The Fisher King is still one of my Faves! Looking back on those days, I still chuckle inside, thinking to myself that before the technological revolution ushered in by the Internet, and the concept of being “online”, people would actually rent video tapes. Yes, big, bulky, be kind…rewind video tapes. I even remember when you had to specify if you wanted VHS or Beta!! Ahh… the good old days! Every now and then I catch my old buddy in a rerun of Mrs. Doubtfire, or on a late night talk show, riffing with any one of his dozen or so patented “improvisational” voices.

The poor guy’s even managed to get himself divorced again, and do another stint in rehab. But no matter how many of the ups and down’s I’ll see Mr. Williams go through, I will always take heart knowing two things. The first one is, that no one else on this planet could’ve pulled off a movie version of Popeye, and the second is that my silly little story about The Movie Star and The Video Clerk will forever encapsulate a moment in time for me, when things were a little cheaper, life was a bit simpler, and getting chewed out by Mary Tyler Moore and being pissed off at Robin Williams was all in a day’s work.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Brian Jay Cline is a musician, songwriter, & entertainer. 
For songs, discography, and more, visit the Official Brian Jay Cline web site at

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