Sam Neill reflects on Robin Williams' genius

DEBBIE JAMIESON
Last updated 05:00 13/08/2014

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Robin Williams was a genius who could fire up a room like no other, New Zealand actor Sam Neill said yesterday.

The Queenstown resident worked with Williams in the late 1990s on the film Bicentennial Man and when the comedian visited New Zealand in 1999 to promote the movie, he spent time with Neill at his Dalefield home.

Yesterday, Neill said he was stricken by Williams' death.

"He was one of the very few people you get to work with and know who had, without question, genius. Comedy, schtick simply poured out of him, unstoppable. But for all his ebullience - the man could fire up a room or a set like no other - you always felt there was something very tender and vulnerable about Robin. He was perhaps really only entirely happy with an audience.

"I am terribly sad to hear this. He was a lovable kind man, and completely unique," he said.

Former limousine driver Lyall McGregor drove Williams and his entourage to the exclusive Blanket Bay Lodge, near Glenorchy, from Queenstown Airport during the visit.

Williams arrived on a private jet with his wife, manager, two children, their nanny and a minder, he said.

"They were the first guests to go [to Blanket Bay] after the big floods in 1999 - the road had just opened," he said.

"The others didn't say much but he [Williams] sat up the front with me and looked out the window and talked and made funny faces - just like Mork from Ork and in Peter Pan.

"He mainly talked about the scenery . . . and said ‘wow' just like a Yank."

He found Williams to be really down to earth and later heard stories about him out cycling with his family and turning up at the Glenorchy Hotel for a beer.

Meaghan Miller, a former The Southland Times reporter, managed to get an interview with Williams during his 1999 visit. He agreed to talk briefly on the tarmac at the airport after she faxed him to ask if he could spare a few minutes.

Williams and his family drove past to a private jet and then the comedian headed back to talk to Miller through a fence.

"He struck me as a perfectly humble normal dad who just wanted to get away from it all in Queenstown. He was witty and he was cracking jokes, he was quite hilarious. He spoke at a million miles an hour and must have cracked five or six jokes in the short interview we had. He loved being here and he enjoyed the privacy."

The Southland Times' cartoonist and former Invercargill-based cinema manager Mark Winter briefly met Williams in 1998 when the actor won a statuette for Good Will Hunting.

A few years later, Winter was behind a fundraising book for children's charity Koru Care and sent celebrities blank circles, asking them to contribute a drawing. Williams riffed on Einstein to pen a "theory of relatives": when they visit, time stands still.

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