In remembering Robin Williams, friends and family members have hailed the depth of his commitment to supporting a range of charitable causes. In many instances, he donated his time and money without fanfare or recognition.
But the cause that Williams, who died Monday at 63, was most associated with in the public eye was Comic Relief and the series of telethons that he co-hosted with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg on HBO in the 1980s and ‘90s.
The org, founded in 1985 by comedian Bob Zmuda, focuses on efforts to ease the crisis of homelessness, with an emphasis on health care services. To date, Comic Relief has raised more than $70 million in the U.S.
Zmuda got the idea for Comic Relief by watching the 1985 “Live Aid” concert that raised money for famine relief efforts in Africa. He took the concept of staging a comedy version to his former comedy partner, Chris Albrecht, who had just joined HBO as VP of original programming (and is now chairman-CEO of Starz).
Zmuda knew the telethon would need heavyhitter hosts to draw other talent. Albrecht had worked with Williams, Crystal and Goldberg during his previous tenure as an agent at ICM. It wasn’t long before the trio was on board and helping to recruit a who’s who of comedy stars for the inaugural three-hour “Comic Relief” telecast on March 29, 1986.
Zmuda also knew Williams from their days in the trenches of Los Angeles’ comedy clubs in the late 1970s. Williams was eager to help out with Comic Relief in part because he had come from a privileged background and felt an obligation to do what he could to help others.
“Robin was a silver-spoon guy,” Zmuda told Variety. “He came from a well-to-do family and he always felt it was important to give back.”
Comic Relief “couldn’t have happened without the three of them,” Albrecht told Variety. “It was about putting together the publicity machine not just for the show but for the issue. Robin was certainly dedicated and passionate about making sure that the (homelessness) issue got platformed with as much visiblity as possible.”
Albrecht recalled the nervousness among the hosts and producers in the opening moments of the first telecast, staged at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles.
“They went out on stage and did their opening monologue and the phones started ringing. We were standing there going ‘Oh my god, people are actually calling and donating money.’ We were almost beside ourselves with giddiness,” he said.
Zmuda recalled that the “Comic Relief” director learned an important lesson within the first few minutes of the telecast. “Always keep a camera on Robin, because he’s the one who’s going to be bouncing around all the time and you never know what he’s going to do,” he said.
In addition to co-hosting eight editions of the telethon between 1986 and 1998 (plus a 2006 event to raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief), Williams, Crystal and Goldberg made many visits to homeless shelters and service orgs around the country. It wasn’t all about photo ops, Zmuda assured.
“They would rehearse the hell out of that show for weeks beforehand,” he said. “And they’d go to homeless project sites and interface with people. This guy had a big, big heart.”
Albrecht echoed Zmuda’s admiration for Williams’ dedication to the cause.
“It played a big part in their lives and (Comic Relief) was a big part of helping the public understand the really harsh realities around the issue of health care for the homeless,” Albrecht said.
Here is a video of Williams’ set from “Comic Relief VI” in 1994.