WINNIPEG – Robin Williams was with his local handler in the elevator of Winnipeg’s historic Fort Garry hotel when the doors opened and a mom popped in.
It was 2004 and Williams was in the city filming “The Big White,” a dark comedy about an Alaskan travel agent who tries to solve his money problems by passing off a dead body as his missing brother to collect a million-dollar insurance policy. Producers were drawn to Winnipeg for its big skies and, of course, the snow.
The mom had kids at a Junior Achievement event in the hotel and, recognizing Williams right away, she wondered if the Hollywood superstar would come up and meet the youngsters.
Williams looked at his handler and his handler looked back, but it was as if the star was asking permission rather than looking for a way out.
“I’m like, well, we are going to a film set shortly, but sure,” Kenny Boyce, Winnipeg’s manager of film and special events, recalled Wednesday about that day. “Forty minutes later, he had met everybody. He signed people’s T-shirts and casts and he spoke about the film he was doing.”
“The Big White,” which was also shot in the Yukon and Alaska, was largely a flop with critics — “didn’t win an Academy Award,” as Boyce puts it — but Williams’s time shooting in Winnipeg left a huge footprint on the film community there.
“Everyone on the crew got to know him. He wasn’t the type of actor who would just leave the set and go to the trailer. He ate with the crew on set,” said Boyce, who has been in the film industry for 15 years.
“At the end of the day, I would be hard pressed to find a nicer actor.”
Boyce’s recollections of Williams are especially striking when set next to what the actor himself admitted was going on behind the laughter at that time in his life.
It was during the filming of “The Big White” that Williams, a cocaine and alcohol addict in the past, ended 20 years of sobriety.
He recalled taking that first drink in a 2010 interview with the Guardian. It was while filming on location in Alaska, he said.
“I was in a small town where it’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking. I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid,” he was quoted as saying. “You feel warm and kind of wonderful. And then the next thing you know, it’s a problem, and you’re isolated.”
Williams went further in a 2013 interview with Parade magazine.
“The movie was interesting, but I was worried. My film career was not going too well. One day I walked into a store and saw a little bottle of Jack Daniel’s. And then that voice — I call it the lower power — goes: ‘Hey. Just a taste. Just one.’ I drank it, and there was that brief moment of ‘Oh, I’m OK!’ But it escalated so quickly,” he was quoted telling the magazine.
“Within a week, I was buying so many bottles I sounded like a wind chime walking down the street. I knew it was really bad one Thanksgiving when I was so drunk they had to take me upstairs.”
Williams went into rehab in 2006 after what he called “an ultimatum” from family and friends, but his struggles continued.
Boyce said there wasn’t the slightest hint of those demons during his time with the star.
Williams insisted on driving himself around the city as much as he could. He wouldn’t hesitate to pop into a pharmacy to buy his own bottle of shampoo.
“My memory of him is being a great guy and being kind. We’d say in the business: ‘He’s a real mensch.’”
Boyce recalled how the media kept finding filming locations in the city and showing up unannounced. Rather than run from he cameras, Williams emptied a box of Christmas decorations, cut out two eye holes and put it on his head. He then proceeded to do a bit for the reporters about being an anonymous comic.
“He could just flick that switch and he was on.”
Williams’s suicide has left a hole in Hollywood that won’t easily be filled, Boyce said.
He’s happy the star managed to spend some time plying his craft in the Manitoba capital.
“I consider myself lucky to have met him and have worked with him and spent time with him,” Boyce said.
“We were lucky.”
— By Tim Cook in Edmonton