Screen Time: Robin Williams’ comeback, courtesy of celebrity impersonator Roger Kabler
Craig S. Semon Worcester Magazine
“Keep the spirit of madness in you. Just a little touch of it. Just enough so you don’t become stupid” – Robin Williams
Now seems to be the perfect time to appreciate Robin Williams all over again. Not only that, it’s the perfect time for Williams to stage his comeback, despite being dead for eight years this August.
Williams’ comeback is courtesy of Roger Kabler, a veteran comedian-celebrity impressionist who has miraculously joined together the two halves of Robin Williams’ conflicting psyches and even rewrote his tragic end to some degree with his indie-film project, “Becoming Robin,” which is available for a $15 donation.
“The movie is really a biography of what happened to me and with me as result of Robin’s death,” Kabler said. “I had a huge connection with Robin and a great understanding of him. He’s bipolar and a drug addict too. And I’ve been through recovery and I’ve been through treatment and I know what it’s like to be Robin. I’ve been (through) three rehabs and a couple of psych wards and I got through. I’ve been sober for 19 years. But, I’m not a genius like Robin.”
So who is Robert Kabler?
When CBS brought back “The Carol Burnett Show” for its last time in the fall of 1991, Kabler landed a role as one of the show’s repertory company players. Unfortunately, the revival never found a TV audience and was canceled after six episodes.
In the fall of 1992, Kabler scored the lead role of “Bobby Soul,” a white man hired on a Black radio station after being initially mistaken as a Black man, on NBC’s short-lived sitcom “Rhythm & Blues.”
Despite being listed among NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday night lineup sandwiched between “A Different World” and “Cheers,” viewers didn’t warm up to this Venus Fly-Trap role-reversal either, and “Rhythm & Blues” was canceled after only five weeks.
A veteran of two failed network series, Kabler was also the fedora-wearing “Zima guy” is a series of Zima commercials in the early ‘90s and appeared doing standup on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Arsenio.”
Then his career came to a crashing halt, which included a nervous breakdown on stage, which is depicted in the film.
“All of that happened in a two-to-three-year period and then it all went away. I ended up on drugs and rehab and got sober and I decided that I never, ever should be in showbusiness ever again because it’s very toxic for me,” Kabler said. “And then Robin Williams died and it all changed. I felt Robin encouraging me to mount a tribute. (In Williams’ voice) ‘Come on, I want to go back to work.’ He said this. ‘No, I’m not going back into that. It will kill me.’ And I thought it would but it hasn’t yet.”
In 2007, Kabler impersonated Robin Williams on two episodes of “The Next Best Thing: Who Is the Greatest Celebrity Impersonator” on ABC. He made it to the Top 10 but didn’t make it to the final five, which included two Elvis impersonators (one of whom won), as well as a Sinatra, George W. Bush and Lucille Ball impersonator.
“Robin saw me do him on TV and he really liked the impression, I heard from a mutual friend.” Kabler said. “I never met him but he saw me before he died. He saw me do the impression.”
Kabler, who totally transforms into Williams onstage, insists that he’s more than just a fan of Robin Williams. He feels that the two are kindred spirits who, at times, are sharing the same body.
“When Robin passed, I had an incredible, spiritual experience with him where I felt inhabited by him. And it was true. It was absolutely a feeling that he was with me. He was running my life in some ways. He could experience things through me and I didn’t know what was going on. I was quite afraid and I kicked him out,” Kabler said. “And then I started to think, you know, who am I to say that this isn’t really happening? Why do I just think that I am crazy? Maybe, this is an instruction to help him, to help him come back. And, I know because he was saying (shifting back to Robin Williams’ voice) ‘I just want to get back to work now. Come on.’ And I said, ‘OK.’”
The movie is also based on Kabler’s popular one-man stage show “Robin: The Ultimate Robin Williams Tribute Experience,” which he started doing shortly after Williams died and has performed all across the country, including Ralph’s Diner in Worcester and A & D Pizzeria and Pub in Millbury, as well as several performances at the NorthEast Comic Con and Collectibles Extravaganza in Boxborough.
Kabler, who today lives in Hopkinton, gathered footage from his live show, as well as TV interviews he had done, for the movie.
“The movie is a combination of archival footage and this story that I could tell of how it (Williams’ death) affected me as a bipolar person,” Kabler said. “The doctor said that I need to go back on medication and I did and I am because they said, ‘You’re delusional.’ And, I said, ‘OK, I’m delusional but it’s happening anyways. Whether I’m crazy or whether Robin is actually present, it’s happening’… It feels very real to me and the people can decide for themselves whether it’s real or am I crazy.”
At one part in the movie, Kabler addresses Williams’ suicide death.
“Robin had a horrific brain disease called Lewy Body Dementia. He couldn’t be funny anymore. He couldn’t think clearly. He couldn’t move. He had terrifying hallucinations. He couldn’t express himself,” Kabler says in the film. “He lost Robin Williams before we did.”
When talking about Williams’ death in person, Kabler started crying.
This coming Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the release of “The World According to Garp,” Robin Williams’ first dramatic role on the big screen.
A breakthrough performance for the Juilliard-trained actor, “Garp” was released the same year as his ABC sitcom “Mork & Mindy” was canceled. And the Williams that the public saw in “Garp” was not the same Williams they were accustomed to on television.
Also, this year is the 35th anniversary of “Moscow on the Hudson,” the 25th anniversary of his Academy Award-winning performance in “Good Will Hunting,” and the 20th anniversary of what I consider to be Williams’ last, great role, playing a cold, calculating psychotic killer opposite Al Pacino in “Insomnia.”
Williams was a brilliant comedic mind but he was also an incredible dramatic actor, so much so that his dramas are arguably better and more memorable than his comedies. In fact, I would go as far to say that his comedies never captured his genius.
“Good Morning, Vietnam,” which is also celebrating its 35th anniversary, captures some of his comedic brilliance but I consider the film a drama, not unlike 1970’s anti-war war movie classics “M*A*S*H*” and “Catch 22” and even “Full Metal Jacket,” also released the same year as “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
As comedies go, 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire” was a big hit for Williams. Personally, I’ve never seen it because it looks too schmaltzy and sentimental for my low saccharine-intake taste. Plus, I didn’t buy Williams as an elderly British nanny for a second. I totally bought Dustin Hoffman’s transformation in 1982’s “Tootsie” (a brilliant performance) but not Williams. Heck, I even bought Marlon and Shawn Wayans more as “white chicks” in 2004’s “White Chicks” than Williams, even though the Wayans looked like badly burned fire victims.
And, in his funniest movie, “The Bird Cage,” Williams played the straight (gay) man. Even Gene Hackman, one of the greatest dramatic actors of his generation, got bigger laughs than Williams.
Robin was funniest when he was just Robin, a loose cannon and an unbridled force of nature with a brain always racing like a souped-up sportscar doing donuts in a vacant parking lot after-hours. We saw this Robin every time he sat down on the couch next to Johnny Carson and unleashed an incredible, multi-layered stream-of-consciousness rant that shifted gears so much that the listener was in danger of experiencing whiplash.
In his one-man show and the film, Kabler reprises and updates Williams’ “Reality. What a Concept” character “Grandpa Funk,” a horny but toothless, post-apocalyptical cave-dwelling survivor/mad prophet of the 45-second-long World War III and subsequent extraterrestrial invasion, lamenting the demise of humanity and pop culture.
Putting a new spin on Grandpa Funk, Kabler takes him from the darkest days of the Carter Administration (Yes, Williams’ comedic brilliance goes that far back) to modern-day post-COVID.
“Instead of just (slipping in Williams’ voice again) ‘wacky stuff. You got to be crazy,’ I decided to talk about love and the need for us to pull together a little bit for these crazy times,” Kabler said. “Whether or not it’s actually Robin or me just having wishful thinking, the humanitarian message is love conquering hate, which we need so much right now. People feel really good when they see this film and I want to share it.”
The movie starts with a voiceover question from “Inside The Actors Studio” with James Lipton asking Williams “What is your greatest accomplishment?” And Williams replies, “I don’t know. Maybe, I haven’t done it yet.”
“The movie kicks off like that, as if we’re, kind of, hinting that, maybe, Robin’s greatest accomplishment is coming back, somehow forcing his will into the human existence again so he can finish the work he started,” Kabler said. “If you believe that this is a spiritual manifestation, you can believe that Robin pushed his way back into my life so he could get out some sort of a better ending than he had.”