Robin Williams endeared himself during Port Alberni shoot

Long before “selfie” became part of the modern lexicon, Robin Williams proved ahead of his time when he snapped a photo of himself with fans on Vancouver Island.

It was in the spring of 2001, when the Oscar-winning actor and comedian, who died on Monday at age 63, was acting in director Christopher Nolan’s gritty crime thriller Insomnia in Port Alberni.

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The mid-Island milltown was masquerading as Umkumuit, Alaska, during an intense three-day shoot at locations on Argyle Street, including the Somass Hotel and former Arrowview Hotel. Williams frequently turned heads while portraying an elusive murder suspect, as did Al Pacino as a sleep-deprived Los Angeles homicide detective whom he was blackmailing.

“It was a dangerous sequence to shoot, even for the stunt guys,” Williams said, recalling a climactic action scene shot in the log booming grounds of the former Pacifica Papers mill, where Pacino chases Williams across slippery logs.


READ MORE — Sheriff official: Robin Williams committed suicide by hanging himself with belt at home


While Pacino was affable but often deep in concentration, Williams was restless and kept security personnel on their toes by wandering off, high-fiving autograph seekers and cracking jokes.

He was hard to miss as he moved through town wearing a royal-blue rain jacket.

“Ah, the last of the Cabbage Patch Kids!” the funnyman quipped, holding up an infant’s favourite doll at the Bread of Life soup kitchen.

Later, Williams cracked up cast and crew by saying “come to me, my little Dim Sim” while motioning to a pot-bellied pig behind a fence.

“I was speaking the secret language,” Williams joked. “The language that says, ‘Please, don’t eat me!’ ”

Williams also surprised locals one evening by showing up at Steamers Coffee and Tea, hammed it up on a rooftop for local shutterbugs and drew cheers and whistles from onlookers.

"Robin loves people,” producer Paul Junger Witt said. “He’s genuinely comfortable and gets wonderful energy from them, and he also loves to watch people.”

Nolan, flitting about the set in a long, black trenchcoat that day, said it didn’t surprise him that Williams endeared himself to locals.

“I always found Robin to be pretty relaxed,” Nolan said. “I think in a smaller town he has a little more freedom to go and meet with people. It’s a more friendly and controllable environment.”

While there can be pressure to be “on” all the time for someone with his reputation, Williams said he learned to take it in stride. “Guys on the street will come up and say, ‘Hey, you’re not funny! Do five minutes for me, Bob.’ ”

When he was clowning around in public, he was doing what comes naturally, he said.

“I find it’s funny [being labelled funniest man in the world], but it’s also like wearing fibreglass underwear,” Williams once told me. “It’s a strange sensation, you know?”

mreid@timescolonist.com

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