It was a graduation to remember. About 80 high school students celebrating the end of their Junior Achievement program at the Fort Garry Hotel Thursday night got a surprise visit from Robin Williams.
The Oscar-winning actor, now in Winnipeg for the filming of The Big White--co-starring Oscar winner Holly Hunter, Woody Harrelson and Giovanni Ribisi--was spotted alone in the hotel lounge by the program's event planner about 9:30 p.m.
Valerie Betker said she approached Williams and asked if he'd go upstairs and say a quick hello to the kids. He ended up spending half an hour signing autographs and even broke into an impression of Mrs. Doubtfire.
"They just couldn't believe it. They just went wild when they saw him," Betker said. "He was so gracious. He was so real."
Betker and her husband were marking their 37th wedding anniversary that night so the couple figured they would stop by the hotel lounge for a celebratory drink.
But Betker's celebrity encounter quickly sent her back up to the ballroom, a Hollywood star at her side.
Williams' extensive movie resume includes Good Will Hunting, Awakenings, Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society.
"I told him it would be a grad to remember, even if he just stuck his head in and said hello. He said he could do that and chatted all the way," Betker said.
Williams, who appeared shy at first, told Betker he hadn't slept for hours, yet he managed to transform himself into the off-the-wall personality his fans recognize the moment he stepped off the elevator.
"He was so very tired but he was willing to give his time to the kids. They were just thrilled," she said. "He's a real performer. He turned on the charm."
Clamoring for their cameras, the students were quick to steal a pose with Williams, who is expected to be filming in the city until May 18.
Student Kyle Gray, 17, said he was floored when a staff member cleared a path through the crowd, announcing Williams was there.
"He got swarmed by everyone," Gray said.
"Everybody started shrieking," Patrick Smith, 18, added.
When a student asked Williams to sign his program, the actor initially declined, saying he would have to sign everyone's copy, Gray said.
"Then he said, 'Oh, what the hell,' took 20 or 30 other programs and started to sign them," Gray recalled. "He's a really nice guy. He's cool, really energetic."
Ken Zorniak, vice-president of Frantic Films and a Junior Achievement alumnus, was the keynote speaker but had already left before Williams arrived, along with most of the other adults who earlier presented awards.
Through the program, students create their own businesses and learn skills in marketing, human resources, budgeting and inventory.
Williams thanked the group for the invitation, said good night and hopped back into the elevator.
"It was a really neat experience, almost surreal," Betker said.