Horsing Around with Robin Williams

Bruce Northam piloting a Manhattan horse-drawn carriage (brother Bryan on left)

Before embarking on my first extended tour of Asia, I drove a horse-drawn carriage around midtown Manhattan. It was the mid-80s, I worked the streets at night when it was still legal. On my way home after midnight, I’d often try my luck in front of the Hard Rock Cafe, their debut club in NYC (Hard Rock launched its first cafe ever in 1971 in London and the brand now has 176 cafes, 24 hotels and 11 casinos).

In front of the exit of the original NYC landmark, which was still then on 57th St. way before the tour-bus troops arrived, I’d sit atop my equestrian perch and greet the partiers as they exited and easily convince customers to join me for the ride home back to the stable on 11th Ave between 37th and 38th Streets (now a park opposite Javits Center).

This was pre-regulated, lawless Manhattan, when rolling down 11th Ave late at night meant a sea of bikini and high-heel clad hookers, hot dog vendors selling beer to their johns, and the occasional snaps of distant gunfire (back when it was still justly called Hell’s Kitchen).

NYC’s original Hard Rock Cafe

One summer night, Robin Williams, Paul Shaffer (Letterman), and John Cleese (Monty Python) emerged from the 57th Street Hard Rock Cafe, intending to step right into their waiting limo. Only Robin looked at me and the carriage, so I offered him a free ride. Shaffer and Cleese were already in the limo, but they’d have to wait 15 minutes until Robin was finished making me howl with laughter.

Robin walked up beside me and swore that he wanted to go but that the other guys wanted to go home. His eyes scanned the horse and carriage with magical wonder. As a consolation prize, I offered him the joint (a tip from a previous customer) from my shirt pocket—I’m not sure if he was in sober mode—and he also indecisively declined on that by lurching to and fro while exclaiming yes (loudly) and no (whispering).

Then he began an odyssey of mock exits toward the limo, where he’d stroll slowly away while peering over his shoulder, open the limo door, and then come running back to the horse like a little kid. He jumped up and down, saying things like “Ohhhh, I want it. I want to go,” while miming childlike desperation. He rocketed between conversations with me, my horse—and the joint—all the while clinging to different parts of the carriage.

With each of his comings and (fake) goings, his pals in the limo would lower the window and beg him to get in. He’d walk over to the limo, open the door only to slam it again, and then run back alongside my lofty seat on the carriage, and once again, beg to go on the ride or get the joint out of my pocket. It was classic Robin Williams playing should I stay or should I go with full flair. After 10 mock returns to the limo, and running back to the carriage each time with even more energy, he finally got into the limo. As it pulled away, he opened his window and parked his chin at the base like a puppy and gave me his best pouty expression. As the limo angled out of sight onto Broadway, he peered at me and my horse with his timeless funny-sad face…and slowly waved goodbye.