The friendship between Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal was initially founded on making people laugh in an effort to do good. It deepened into an extremely close bond that lasted more than three decades and weathered career ups and downs and personal highs as well as lows. For a trio whose routines were often centered around verbal dexterity, when one member’s life was tragically over, the immediate response from the remaining friends was perhaps the most eloquent in the outpouring of grief: There are “no words.”
When Williams committed suicide at his northern California home on August 11, 2014, the world lost, as Crystal said while honoring his late friend less than two weeks later at the Primetime Emmy Awards, “the brightest star in our comedy galaxy.” But to Crystal and Goldberg, they lost not only a comedy cohort but a friend whose existence was woven deeply into the fabric of their lives.
Williams took Goldberg under his wing
Goldberg and Williams first met in the late seventies when, hot off the first-year success of Mork & Mindy, Williams would turn up at the Comedy Store in San Diego where Goldberg was performing. “We would improvise. It was Robin Williams!” Goldberg remembered when she honored her friend alongside Crystal during a 2014 taping of The View. “When we re-met, he was, ‘Boy you grew up!’… And then babysat me and [has] taken care of me for as long as I can remember. And we aged together and have grown up together. There was nothing we couldn’t do together. Nothing we couldn’t do.”
Goldberg and Williams reunited in the mid-eighties when, in conjunction with Crystal, they were approached to front the first Comic Relief charity telethon in the United States. Based on the English charity of the same name and dedicated to the memory of comedian Andy Kaufman, the American version kicked off in 1986 and has since raised more than $70 million dollars for charities that provide support for people living in poverty.
Williams, Goldberg and Crystal hosted the event’s four-hour-plus maiden fundraiser which aired on HBO and included comics such as George Carlin, Richard Dreyfus, Penny Marshall, Howie Mandel, Minnie Pearl, and Bobcat Goldthwait. The first telethon netted over $2.5 million for charity and the trio would continue to host the specials through 2006.
Crystal joked that he and Goldberg 'were like parents' to the eccentric Williams
Discussing their “friend and brother” on The View, Goldberg asked Crystal who was the Williams that they really knew? “I’m not sure,” Crystal replied with a smile. “He was such an amazing performer... Many times, the three of us would be on stage and Whoopi and I were like his parents and we’d taken the crazy son out. It just became so magical to work with him… But for us, it was a chance to get to know each other and we became the closest of friends.”
Off-stage the personal bond between the stars grew deeper as they helped disperse the proceeds from Comic Relief to individual charities, visiting shelters across the country and presenting checks. These were moments away from the spotlight where they could be their true selves, no pressure to be funny or deliver jokes.
The trio had regular long phone calls and left each other funny voicemails
Though they had met in the late seventies on the stand-up comedy circuit, Williams and Crystal’s friendship was solidified thanks to Comic Relief. “There became this amazing bond and we were fiercely protective of each other. In great ways,” Crystal recalled to Goldberg of the time. “We were very protective of Whoopi. When [she] would host the Oscars – Robin lived in San Francisco and I’d be in L.A.– she’d do her opening and the phone would ring.” It was Williams. “’'How do you think she’s doing, boss?’” Crystal remembers Williams asking. The friends would then remain on the phone throughout the telecast, offering praise, support, and commentary of Goldberg’s latest gig.
The long phone calls became a regular occurrence between the trio. Especially for Crystal and Williams who would often conduct entire conversations in the voice of made-up characters. In the 2018 documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, Crystal says he always knew that if he had a missed call from his friend it was going to be a great day.
“The phone would ring and I’d look at it and see the 415-area code. I knew it was him. I knew it was going to be something really good,” Crystal recalls in the film. Williams would conduct the call as Ronald Reagan, or a character he had devised, such as Sam from the Sibilance Society.
When Williams underwent heart surgery in 2009, Crystal left him more than a dozen voicemails from Vinny the Valve Guy, a character Crystal had devised who had “supplied the valve” that was inserted during Williams’ surgery.
Documentary director Marina Zenovich told HuffPost that Crystal had kept some voicemails from his pal and provided them for the film. “Hello, Bill, it’s Lord Sisley,” Williams, with an upper-class English accent proceeds on one such recording. “I’m in Africa. And dear God, man, you should be here. There’s creatures who would adore you. I send you all my love. But not like that day in boy’s school. Something different. Something wonderful. A hug. But if you wish, Bubbly, call.”
To Zenovich, it was proof of how wonderful they were to the other and the fun they shared. “I think they really loved each other and could keep up with each other,” she said. “One line, in particular, I love in the movie is when Billy says, ‘Everybody wanted something from him. I just liked him.’ You really got a sense of that.” Crystal’s participation in the film was particularly moving, recalled Zenovich. “It was a very emotional interview because he just had such a heavy heart. I was just really moved by him talking about his friend. You really got the sense that he thought they would grow old together and they weren’t going to. And you could feel that sense of loss.”
Crystal and Goldberg are very protective of their friendship with Williams
Following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease shortly before his death in 2014, Williams revealed the information to only his close-knit circle of friends, Crystal included. In the biography, Robin by Dave Itzkoff, Crystal recounts when his late friend told him of the diagnosis: “I never heard him afraid like that before. This was the boldest comedian I ever met – the boldest artist I ever met. But this was just a scared man.”
Unlike the voicemails and recorded antics on the Comic Relief stage, the quiet, private moments between the friends will remain largely unknown. “Incredibly difficult times” is how a circumspect Crystal remembers the period before Williams’ death, telling Entertainment Tonight, “You know, friends trusting each other with the darkest of secrets that I’ll keep that way.”
Goldberg is equally hesitant to discuss the deep bond she shared with Williams, forged alongside Crystal so many years ago. At the SAG-AFTRA Foundation opening of the Robin Williams Center for Entertainment and Media in 2016, Goldberg was asked to recall personal moments she shared with Williams. “I have so many memories of Robin. There is no way I can share the jokes that we said and the things that we did,” Goldberg replied. “Even years later, in 2016, it would still be a problem today. Those secrets will never be revealed.”