Remembering our movie with Robin Williams

Aug. 16, 2014 @ 12:55 PM

When word of Robin Williams’ death spread around Chapel Hill last week, lots of people felt they had lost an important friend.
After all, we had made a movie together. And, in the filming of the movie’s final scene, many even got to see his fanny.
More about that later.
It usually slows down in Chapel Hill in the summer when the students go home. But not in the summer of 1998 when Williams and a large Hollywood crew came to town to film the movie “Patch Adams.” The campus and its buildings became a movie set. Williams himself spent more time in the Wilson Library than many students ever have.
Lots of Chapel Hill folks signed up as “extras,” seeking a chance to mingle with the stars and get moments of fame on the screen. Hundreds of us gathered around Memorial Hall and waited to be called.
Every now and then, someone would get a chance to be a part of the background. But before we could get near a camera we had to visit the costuming area where a vast array of 1970s clothing made it possible for us to dress back in time. The double knits, corduroys, and sweaters were too heavy for the hot summer temperatures. Nobody complained. That clothing signaled to everyone that we had been picked.
It turns out that there was still more waiting around -- as scenes were rearranged, canceled, and postponed. Being "called up" did not necessarily mean that you were going to be on film. It only meant that they wanted you there, just in case they needed you.
While we waited and talked with each other, we learned something we should have already known. The stories we can tell each other are often a lot better than any Hollywood movie.
Williams, who played Patch Adams, sometimes rode around campus on a bicycle cheerfully greeting passers-by. But we were instructed not to talk to him or try to get an autograph, unless he initiated a conversation.
The real Hunter D. “Patch” Adams, an unconventional physician with strong ideas about the failures of the American health care system, was easy to spot with his gray ponytail, Hawaiian shirts and balloon pants. He seemed always to be available to discuss his proposals for a better approach to medical service. He talked about his dream to build a hospital where care would be free and he could show the value of using humor in the healing process.
For a few days, we could pretend that we were real movie people. We were thrilled when hundreds of us were picked to be a part of the final medical school graduation scene set in front of Carroll Hall, which was playing the part of the main building at the fictitious Virginia Medical University.
It took hours to complete this scene. But the payoff for our waiting was unforgettable. As Robin Williams playing Patch Adams walked down the aisle after receiving his diploma, his robe opened in the back to “moon” his professors sitting on the graduation stage, leaving the audience with the memory of seeing Robin Williams’ fanny, something we have always talked about whenever we ran into anyone else who had been an extra on that day.
We will still talk about that moment. When we do, we will remember that our special friend, Robin Williams, can still make us smile.
D.G. Martin’s column appears Sunday in The Chapel Hill Herald and Wednesdays on The Herald-Sun editorial page. You can also find them online at www.heraldsun.com.