Filmaker's Outrageous Joke Jump-Starts His Next Film Epic
Filmmaker's Outrageous Joke
Jump-Starts His Next Film Epic
By Robin D. Williams
Robin T. Williams
I asked myself how much I knew about Christopher Columbus. I knew five things. I knew he was born in Genoa. I knew the names of the three ships. I knew the date—1492. I knew the name of the island where he made his first landfall. I knew the names of the Catholic sovereigns who helped him—Ferdinand and Isabella. I knew nothing else. After reading all the existing books on Columbus for the next five years, I went into New York and tried to talk to the tourism director for Spanish Tourism. He was a young fellow who was only talking to female photographers or journalists. Would not give a second of his time to me and my film project.
A few days later I was at the National Geographic Society's venue in Washington, D.C. to present my film on Florence and Italy's Hill Towns to their audience of members and guests.They had already hosted me with a gorgeous dinner at a fine restaurant, and deposited me in the Governor General's room at Constitution Hall—The D.A. R. building—to relax and organize my mind in privacy for about three hours. People were trickling into the building all evening until the audience totaled 3,000. I was sound asleep in one of the high-backed chairs when the doors suddenly and briskly opened and in walked a group of quite elegantly dressed people— three couples and two of the ladies looked identical. They were sisters and could easily have been twins but apparently they were not.
I leaped out of the chair and approached them before they noticed me in the room. I took the stance of a typical humble butler, folded my hands in front of me and said, “Welcome to the National Geographic Society's evening presentation on Florence and Italy’s Hill Towns.”
I offered to take their coats and hang them on hangars. After I had secured their coats in the closet, they looked at me curiously in my formal tuxedo and I immediately spoke up and in my best butlerese asked, “Would you like a cocktail or perhaps a cold white wine? We have a French Batard Montrachet from Burgundy and also a fine Corton Charlemagne from the same region.”
Now they were studying me in disbelief. The ladies were beautiful and dressed in colorful spring dresses and the men were tall and handsome. The tallest gentleman said, “Do you have any red wines?” Little did I know that he was also one of the board of directors for the National Geographic Society.
“Certainly,” I answered. “We have a marvelous Antinori, Santa Cristina Sangiovese from Tuscany.” His wife stopped him in his tracks and said, “No, no, no, darling.”
All of the women came forward and shook my hand, followed by each of the men. “No thank you,” said the first woman to step up to me. She was one of the two who looked like sisters. “We have just had our quota at dinner tonight.”
Then they all turned and exited the room while I stood there for a full two minutes playing the whole scene backward and forward in my mind.
I was trying to determine if they bought it. Did they really think I was a butler? Finally I collapsed back into the high backed chair.
I hadn't lost my mind. I was just entertaining myself as usual. I have had such bizarre and zany episodes since birth. Even though I didn't have so much as bottled water in that room, it didn't faze me that I had offered drinks and wines to these elegant couples. I also had no idea what I would have said if they had accepted the drinks. I probably would have simply walked out the back door as if to go get the drinks and then never return to that room. Yes, that is exactly what I would have done. I would have just hid out in the men's room backstage. The show was about to start anyway.
The show began and this group must have been placing their hands over their mouths as the butler walked out on the stage to deliver the best show possible. Afterward, I was escorted by staff back to the Governor General's room to stand at the head of the receiving line for the audience to visit with the speaker.
I looked up and saw the elegant group standing patiently in the line waiting their turn. “Oh no,” I thought. They are either going to kill me or they have unbridled scope and will see the humor in my caper at the beginning of the evening. I could hardly wait to see which it was.
Finally the first woman to speak to me was the same one who thanked me earlier. She just said, “Youuuuuuuuu!”
I laughed out loud and we all began laughing together. When things calmed down, and we had finished sharing our thoughts over my caper, she asked, “What is your next film?”
“Well, I have been trying to get help from Spanish Tourism because my next film is the Voyage of Columbus and I will need a lot of cooperation from Spanish authorities.”
“Have you had any success?” she asked.
“No. Just the contrary. No help at all and the director in New York won't even talk to me.”
“My husband is the general in charge of all the American bases in Spain and I just happen to know all the officials from the King on down. Give me 24 hours. Can you come to our home for dinner tomorrow night?”
“I would be charmed to come to your home for dinner tomorrow night,” I answered with a song in my heart.
Later, I learned that her name was Peggy Donovan and she was also an expert on Florence, Rome and all of Italy. She has written guide books on both Italy and Spain. Her husband had also been the General in charge of the American bases in Italy.
Throughout the evening she had followed my narrative for Florence and Italy's Hill Towns and in her mind she was going to help me do anything I wanted. Then I learned that the other couples were her sister and her husband and the taller gentleman was the American ambassador to the Soviet Union. It was his wife who stopped him from accepting yet another glass of wine. Whew. Thank goodness!
I finished my show tour and by the first of May I was on a direct flight to Malaga and The Voyage of Columbus was assured of becoming my next film.
All the doors were opened for me and Spanish Tourism even gave me the use of an apartment in Seville for my headquarters. Columbus did most of his pre-trip organization in that region of Spain called Andalucia.
Seville, here I come!
The Columbus DVD
Robin Williams’ story of filming The Voyage of Columbus will continue
in future issues of TAD.