November 30, 2020


One of my heros…Robin Williams.

From all accounts – he was one that tried to make those around him smile, even though the darkness followed him internally.

In 1990, Robin starred in a film called Awakenings alongside Robert DeNiro. The movie was based on the book (and life experiences of) Dr. Oliver Sacks – a resident of my small home town of City Island, New York. My grandparents lived on Horton Street on the island, in a little one bedroom apartment that was across the street from the Doc. I remember Dr. Sacks as being a quiet, reserved man with a bushy dark beard, who preferred the pleasant sound of silence over the droning of detailed conversation. His house had a front porch that was in need of some TLC…and a coat or two of paint. As a Clamdigger (that’s a person that was born on the island), I didn’t know the Doc was one of our resident celebrities (the other one being my primary care physician at the time – and the man that told me “marathon running can be fun – as long as you enjoy being sore for about a week” – Dr. Norbert Sander…..to this day the only native New Yorker to ever win the New York City Marathon). I had the pleasure of “chatting” with Dr. Sacks on a number of occasions when I was young and visiting my grandparents, and a typical back & forth would mostly sound like:

“Hey Doc.”

“Hello, Joseph.”

“How’s it goin’?”

“Quite well, all things considered. And your schooling?”

“I’m not failing anything.”

“Be not a champion of mediocrity, good sir.”

I thought of the Doc as just another dude with an out-of-control beard and an affinity for ties that didn’t quite make it to his beltline. But then 1989-1990 came around, and his book was being turned into a movie with Robert DeNiro….and my idol, Robin Williams.

As part of the deal to film the movie, the movie company agreed to shoot some of the scenes at the end of City Island, only 2-3 blocks away from Dr. Sacks’ house…and my grandparents’ apartment. Each night, during filming, a bunch of Clamdiggers and Musselsuckers (those are people that live on the island…but suffered from the grand misfortune of not being born there) would watch them film scenes from behind the wooden police barricades…and every single night, without fail, Robin would walk up to those barricades and say hello to each and every resident, focusing primarily on the little kids. God he would make those kids laugh. He’d make the adults crack up so hard they’d return home with tears in their eyes. The following night, they’d all return once more to watch…and Robin would once again put on a show. He was warm, absolutely hysterical, and when he spoke to the kids…you could tell that it brought him joy to spread happiness among them.

Instead of staying in some fancy hotel in Manhattan, Robin elected to stay at the only real B&B we had on the island, and would swing by the City Island Diner for a meal or two. He never came across as spoiled or elitist. He seemed to carry his fame lightly. He was my favorite comedian before they filmed that movie – but by the time they finished it, he was my idol.

Oh Captain, my Captain.

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