Seriously Funny

Originally published in the Winter 2009-2010 issue | Livestrong magazine | written by Gerri Hirshey

AT HOME BETWEEN TOUR stops, overlooking the chop of the San Francisco Bay, Robin Williams has been slowly, joyfully plotting a return to his laugh-track life. His latest script is, in a few ways, open-ended. It calls for low-gear physical recovery from open-heart surgery this past March to replace a failing aorta; attitude adjustments regarding his Second Act (now that a cow heart valve is in charge of churning his life's blood); and new forays into the refueling of a frenetic Hollywood icon.

In recent months, this took the form of several stand-up comedy gigs at local venues such as Bimbo's in North Beach, the 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, and the Napa Valley Opera House. He says it felt good to limber up in front of a home crowd before setting out on his fall "Weapons of Self Destruction" national tour, which had to be postponed because of the surgery. "It's been very sweet," he says of the local lovefest. "They're very kind. Once I get back out on the road we'll see what it's like in the middle of the country versus California." Given the promotional requisites of a recent film release (Old Dogs, with John Travolta) and an HBO tour special to be aired on December 6, Williams has also been popping up on the small screen. You may have caught him with Kimmel or Leno or Letterman, cracking wise about the wisdom upgrade of a man returned from the brink. "After the surgery you feel like Me 2.0," he says. "It is a second chance. You've been opened physically but also emotionally. I think a lot of guys kind of armor up in that area, you toughen up. With open-heart surgery, where they've gone into the box--you do come out the other side more emotional."

HE IS SPEAKING by phone on the subjects of recovery, survivorship, and mighty roads traveled with his longtime friend Lance Armstrong. For a short time at least, his stand-up side has taken a seat. Yet Williams' narrative has the elements of a multistage bike race: long, punishing climbs, hairpin turns, diabolical switchbacks, and some blissful, life-affirming straightaways. The voice, which can famously lurch from Disney-Aladdin psycho-genie to Pakistani proctologist in a nanosecond, is almost unrecognizable from its public iterations--soft, low, and reflective as a Sausalito tide pool. One might even call it serene. But he admits that after nine months' recovery, he still is easily rocked by small and sudden geysers of sentiment.

"You know, like 'Ohhhhh, a kitty!'" he simpers. "That's why I made the joke [on the new Leno show] that instead of a valve they gave me a tiny vagina." He's got company: He says he, along with the rest of late-night America, noticed changes in that sultan of snark, David Letterman, after his quintuple heart bypass in 2000. When Williams appeared on The Late Show after his own surgery, they compared effects off-camera during a commercial break. "Dave leaned over and said, 'Do you find yourself being very emotional?' And I almost started crying." Williams laughs. "The cliché is that you become the weepy bastard. But it's also that thing of greater or renewed joy. You experience things much deeper, I think." Tenderized as he might be--and he hopes that condition is permanent--he has also been working to toughen his 58-yearold body and its newer working parts. Recently he says he began dusting off his deep collection of racing bikes--he owns lots. Post-op, he was limited to gazing at them wistfully. "I was on a drug, warfarin, a blood thinner, and they are worried that if you're riding a bike and you fall you could bleed out. So I started on the stationary bike, just going for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, then slowly, slowly, but surely, increasing. I'm off the warfarin now and I have [cardiac] sinus rhythm again, which is great." Of course, it's not easy for the famously manic Williams to play anything "stationary."

With doctors' approval, he has hit the road--cautiously. "Initially, hills were not my friends. Now I'm starting to get back. Not hard-core climbs like Lance does, but I'm doing smaller climbs, and hopefully in another couple of months the bigger climbs again. That will be great." Stubbornly, he shoves off without a trainer or biking buddy. "I ride alone, basically. But I carry a phone in case. I like riding alone the most. For me that's the solitude I need. When you have a life doing what I do--where most of the time is spent performing in front of people, around people--that type of solitude is pretty wonderful. Meditative." He has relied on such on-the-go cogitation since he was a teenager. "I got the joy of cross-country running when I was in high school in Marin County, because the runs were so beautiful. You'd come over the ridge and there'd be the Pacific Ocean. It really kind of gives you a Buddhist moment. Cycling transitioned me back into that." Youthful adventures on mountain bikes were often breathtaking, but not without some sobering moments. "I kept having some pretty wicked crashes. And if you ever crash and you're out in the middle of nowhere it's like Oh. Good. This is great. Even the vultures were like, 'Good luck.' I crashed a couple of times. I didn't knock myself out or anything but I got scraped up. Mountain biking, especially when you're riding single-track, can be much more of a harrowing experience. And if you ride alone..." Percussive sounds of a crash followed by a screeching cougar crackle through the phone.

Team player time
Over the last decade, Williams has thrilled to extreme cycling from a more secure vantage point--in the team car following Lance and his fellow iron men through the thin air of the French Alps. Having attended five of the seven Tours de France that Lance has won, Williams says that the audacity of the undertaking is a shock at first. Even to those familiar with the workings of a peloton.
"When you see the race up close, you realize it's basically NASCAR without flames. In order to take the whole race you have to have everything. To be able to do all the different things, have different types of conditioning, anaerobic, aerobic, and endurance. And mental endurance to be able to put up with riding 120 miles, climbing 20, 30 of those miles, with descents that if you miss, you could die. There are crashes where a lot of guys go down and some guys get really injured. It combines downhill ski racing, ultramarathoning, all the different aspects of sports in one long, long event."
Thus cycling alongside Lance when he's not competing is a thrill, if humbling, even for an Oscar-winning actor who can role-play in his sleep. "You're riding with him," Williams explains, "and you're thinking 'Whoa, I'm riding with Lance Armstrong!' And you look over at him and you see he's riding without hands and on the phone. You realize, oh, he's not really pushing very hard.
"One time I got to ride with Lance and the team in France. And they start off and they all take it easy, just like in the race, kind of conversational. And at a certain point he just goes kkkkkkt. And he's gone. The afterburners kick in and you realize: I'm... in... his... dust. The rest of the team was going, 'Dude! Dude! ... Dude!' and he would just take off. Because his whole thing is: You ride hard, you ride long, and you put yourself through any situation, you stress it to the limits. So when you do get to those situations like in Alpe d'Huez [a 14-kilometer climb to 10,000 feet on the Tour with 21 marked hairpins] you have more than anybody else."
Traveling with Lance and the U.S. Postal Service team during those competitions, Williams became known for doing a little prerace stand-up for the riders. Was it to loosen everyone up?
"No," he says soberly. "It was to make fun of him." On the team bus, Williams would adopt the creepy mien and Transylvania-tinged accent of another team's nasty, draconian coach, a recurring character he calls Doctor Sinistro. He offers a booming sample of the evil doc's prerace rant: "Laaaance Armstrong, yoo know vat you must do today!" He likes to think it helped. Over years of hard living, he has found that humor can be a boost in life's clinch moments. And he has also learned that challenges such as cancer, heart disease, and impending loss are likewise best approached as team events. And Williams has had more experience than one would like, at the bedsides of dear friends such as the late actor Christopher Reeve and Reeve's late wife Dana, and on the "Survivor" bus, during Lance's return post-treatment. As one of the first donors, he now finds himself in the LIVESTRONG Founder's Circle. And even solid fans may forget the $50 million he's raised (with pals Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg) for homeless families via their iconic cable TV fundraising gigs for Comic Relief, founded in 1986 by Bob Zmuda.

Crossing the line
HE BELIEVES IT has all given him a tough but redemptive education in the power of "Yes, we can." And by now, he knows his survivorship etiquette. Rule #1: The clown within knows not to grandstand, but to take his cues from the patient. "'How are you feeling?' is a tough question when you're on chemo," he says. "The people who are going through it have a certain darker sense of humor about it than people who are not. Lance [who survived testicular cancer that metastasized in his brain and lungs] can make a uni-baller joke whereas other people would be like, 'Wooooo... I used to joke with him the French were upset that he had one testicle, which makes him more aerodynamic. That's a joke you can do with him." He figures that his friend's comfort level with the gritty realities of his own cancer lends credibility--and accessibility--to his foundation's work.
Humor and emotional support are key. But so is good, solid, often elusive medical information. After his own cardio odyssey, Williams understands that for anyone facing down a life-threatening condition, there is a terse common prayer: Options, please. As a suddenly critical patient, he wasn't sure he had any choices. "Initially when I was diagnosed with this valve, there was a doctor that day who said 'We'll operate tomorrow.' I was kind of half out of it because I had just done an angiogram--the thing where they go in through the groin. Then this other doctor said, 'Maybe you want to wait and find a doctor who's not going on vacation.' I went, 'Ohhhhhhh.'"
He decided to talk to some more doctors and learned he had a banquet of choices for a new valve--mechanical, pig, or cow. "The porcine was the main solution initially, the pig valves. That's wonderful--so you can find truffles. They say the mechanical valve clicks."
Some doctors told him that with animal tissue he would always have arrhythmia (irregular muscle contractions) and also need to take blood thinners permanently. "Then the doctor who did my surgery said that's not true. 'If we do certain things you can get off the drugs and not have a mechanical valve. The bovine valve could last 20 or 30 years. And by that time, if you do have to replace it--the surgery will be so much less invasive.' So then I made a choice for the bovine valve, based upon [the extra] information." As an actor, so it happens, Williams has played doctors open to experimental and alternative therapies, both based on real people. His title character in Patch Adams achieved startling results with megadoses of compassion. And Dr. Malcolm Sayer in Awakenings used experimental L-dopa to prove that seemingly catatonic patients really had brain function. Both faced tremendous resistance from the medical establishment. "It's the idea of the fight," he says. "You just can't take the pat diagnosis, or basically going, 'Well, that's it, I die.' You don't accept that. But that's literally a fight. That's going, 'I don't surrender, I don't give in to that.'" He sees a forum like LIVESTRONG as a team approach for what can be a very lonely fight. "It's hooking people up," he says, "and saying you don't need to take one opinion, you can find the therapies. It helps to go out and make it available to everybody. When Lance did the platinum therapy [during chemo], it was totally experimental--and it worked."

Amid all the noisy and politically tinged health care debates, Williams thinks we would be wise to look to the children he has met--mainly through the Make-A-Wish Foundation--who seem to have an instinctive ability to cut to the chase and support one another.
"The first kid I ever worked with was amazing. He met me and he took me around the hospital to meet all of his friends. He was going, 'Yeah, it's great you're here for me, but I want to introduce you to all my pals.'It's weird when you see a kid on a trike hooked up to a standard IV and he's dragging that behind him. But he's still a kid.They're closer to it in a weird way. It's not an innocence,it's kind of a wisdom. They know a lot, they'll ask things directly. That's the gift of it, is to be around that type of energy. It's pretty powerful; it's pure on that level." We have hit one of those rare meditative straightaways, and Williams signs off with a too-true Rx. "May we all stay in good shape. As they say, 'One day at a time.'" He pauses. "That's the saying for another group I work with [Alcoholics Anonymous]. But it's kind of wonderful, you know?"

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