Photo credit: Kevin Stent, Sunday Star Times, 1998
We just lost a good man. Robin Williams. Comedian, actor, creative genius. And a rugby fan. I was on the board of the New Zealand Rugby Union in the late 1990s when the game was going professional and we were looking at lots of different ways of promoting the game and its stars, the biggest of which was #11 Jonah Lomu. An unlikely constellation of elements brought Jonah and Robin together in San Francisco for a memorable photo shoot. Robin had just been in Sydney promoting a movie and was being interviewed by Paul Holmes via satellite, but didn’t want to talk about the film, only rugby, and only the All Blacks. We got to thinking about whether there was a way to bring Robin into the All Blacks equation. Shortly thereafter Saatchi & Saatchi was heavily involved in the State of the World Forum in San Francisco and we set up one of the world’s first live conference websites – staffed by a group of young New Zealand journalists we had brought up for the event. I knew Jonah Lomu was passing through San Francisco at the time, so my friends at SweeneyVesty set about connecting with Robin Williams, which they did and succeeded with an invitation to Robin to come for a morning tea and photos with Jonah.
On the appointed morning he arrived at the steps of the famous Fairmont Hotel in an All Black cap ready for some rough and tumble. What Dreams May Come, directed by New Zealander Vincent Ward, was currently #1 at the US box office (Robin said with some measure of respect that Vincent was a “tough ass” director). The meet with Jonah was in the penthouse suite of the Fairmont, famous for being the venue in 1945 for President Harry S. Truman’s meeting with other world leaders to draft the charter that created the United Nations, and for its setting in several movies. Robin was gracious and he and Jonah huddled for about 40 minutes in quiet but intense conversation. It seemed off key to interrupt them for photos, but this was the purpose of the occasion, and Robin, a generous and consummate professional, uncoiled and leapt to the task, or rather leapt into Jonah’s arms, onto his shoulders, tackled him, scrummed with him, all for the lens of Sunday Star Times photographer Kevin Stent who was part of our conference media corp. Not surprisingly the photo made a big splash on the front page of next day’s Dominion. Jonah and Robin became lifelong friends, and New Zealand hosted the actor and his family on several occasions.
The hour or so with Robin Williams was one of the joys of life’s journey. May he be in peace.