Robin Williams in First Class

My experience interviewing the star of 'Mrs. Doubtfire' matched the report of the flight attendant who served him between New York and L.A.

He treated people with utmost respect while also treating them to surreal glimpses of his genius.

About 20 years ago, around the time I interviewed Robin Williams for an article about "Mrs. Doubtfire," there was a hot photocopied document — today it would be a blog — circulating among entertainment journalists. Written by a stewardess (sorry, flight attendant) who'd worked for years in first class on the NY-LA-NY route, it was basically an annotated list of celebrities she'd served as part of her job. She divided them into two categories, thumbs up and thumbs down, and related anecdotes to buttress her opinions.

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As entertainment journalists, we never got to see a "bad side" of the actors and directors who were promoting their films; they were always (or almost always) on their best behavior in front of the press. But a flight attendant had a candid, close-up view of how certain celebs — entitled, rude, obnoxious, lewd — acted when they stepped out of the media spotlight.

At the top of the flight attendant's "good" list, with no one else even close, was Robin Williams. She wrote that he seemed genuinely embarrassed to ask for the smallest thing during a flight — he kept offering to do it himself. At the same time, he riffed on her job (never condescendingly; in fact, it was the passengers who came off as buffoons in his impromptu routines) and added dollops of trenchant comedic analysis of the whole first class versus coach thing. Whenever she came around, he did a mini-show for her benefit, not in an egotistical "look what I can do" manner, but in a way that made her feel special as he cracked her up.

I think I asked all of two questions during the entire 45 minutes I had with him. After that, I gave up, edging my tape recorder toward him on the table and sitting back to take it all in. (Wish I could find that microcassette now.) I asked other writers afterward, and they said they'd experienced the same thing. Yet a good part of his "performance" was personalized, based on what you were wearing, things you said and the way you said them, or whatever. It was like the guy couldn't help himself. Or at least he couldn't help himself when he thought he should be — or had to be — "on."

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After what I heard from that flight attendant, none of this should have come as a surprise: Whether he was dealing with the press or anyone else, Robin Williams treated people with the utmost respect while also treating them to surreal glimpses of his genius via his manic riffs on everyone and everything.

Just thought you should know, and remember him that way.