Robin Williams made impression during Berkshire visits in early '90s


WILLIAMSTOWN -- Linda Nichols remembers the first time she saw Robin Williams.

It was back in the early '90s -- she couldn't say exactly when -- and Nichols was a server at the former Captain's Table on Route 7, a favorite haunt for actors at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

One particular summer night, she said, she noticed something unusual over by the lobster tank.

''Boy, we have a really strange guy in the dining room," she recalled telling a co-worker. "You should see him talking to the lobsters."

"I'm not a 'movie person,' " she said on Tuesday. "I never knew who people were."

Nichols was among countless masses in the Berkshires and beyond who were saddened by the news of Williams' death. The actor was found dead on Monday of an apparent suicide in his California home. He was 63.

Williams, whose career spanned stand-up comedy, television and film, spent time in the Berkshires through his friendship with actor Christopher Reeve. The two first met in 1973 as roommates at the Julliard School in New York City, and they rose to fame together in the late 1970s.

Reeve was a Williamstown Theatre Festival regular, starting as an apprentice at 15, according to the festival's archives, and starring in 15 productions between 1980 and 1994. Reeve, who died in 2004, purchased a Williamstown home with 35 acres on a remote dirt road in 1986.

Nichols said the actors were frequent guests at the restaurant.

She was struck by Williams' warmth one night when a young boy asked him for an autograph, she said. Williams told the boy that he'd gladly give an autograph once he finished his hot meal.

A short time later, Williams approached the boy and offered his autograph -- but only if the boy agreed to provide an autograph of his own.

"I just thought that was so heartwarming," Nichols said. n

For Lee native and stand-up comedian Kevin Bartini, now of New York City, Tuesday was a day of heartbreak.

"It's like a punch in the gut," Bartini said of hearing the news. "There was something about him when he was on stage that was so life affirming."

Bartini praised Williams for his bottomless well of energy, rapid-fire, hysterically funny exclamations, and stream of consciousness delivery. While other comedians spent hours practicing, polishing and perfecting their routines, he said, Williams seemed to be able to make audiences laugh endlessly on the fly.

"He was an innovator, a force of nature," said Thomas Attila Lewis, a stand-up comedian from Pittsfield. "He didn't just disappear into Hollywood-land. He was somebody that still wanted to engage in the community."

Lewis recalled growing up in the San Francisco Bay area and seeing Williams perform many times in small comedy clubs -- though he had already risen to fame on TV's "Mork and Mindy."

"He could fill an arena, but that's not a real comedy experience," Lewis said. But a comedy club for 50 people, where "he could go out and connect with everyone in the audience in a 10 minute set -- that's a real comedy experience."


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