Photographer Profile - Arthur Grace: "Who knows why two people hit it off?"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday October 4, 2016

Arthur Grace  first met Robin Williams in 1986, shooting a cover story about the comic for Newsweek.

At the time, Williams was on tour, polishing his stand-up act for what would be a career-defining HBO special, Robin Williams: An Evening at the Met. Grace joined him in Pittsburgh — actually, at the curb of the airport there, where Williams and his manager, David Steinberg, were waiting to pick him up.

“I threw my bags into the empty trunk of the rental car and hopped into the back seat,” Grace recalls in his new book, Robin Williams: A Singular Portrait 1986-2002. “A few minutes later,” Grace continues, “David glanced at Robin and asked if he had heard that a certain show-biz acquaintance of theirs had died the day before. Robin looked straight ahead and said in a deadpan tone, “Ahhh, death … nature’s way of saying, ‘check please.’”

It was the beginning of a long relationship between the photographer and the comedian.

“I got a call some weeks after the story came out from Robin asking me if I wanted to shoot the album cover for The Evening at the Met  show, and I said sure. And from that it snowballed,” Grace says.

Entertainers weren’t Grace’s regular beat at the time — he was based on the East Coast and covering the Reagan White House, among other news stories — but the director of photography at Newsweek, Karen Mullarkey, happened to know a surprising fact about him: Grace had once spent a week or so doing stand-up himself. She thought he’d be a good fit for Williams.

She probably didn’t anticipate how good a fit: Grace would go on to photograph Williams professionally and privately again and again over the years. He worked on the sets of 16 of Williams’s movies — Jumanji, Mrs. Doubtfire  and  Good Will Hunting  among them — shooting one sheets, or advertising posters. Grace moved to Los Angeles in 1995, when his wife got a job there, and he and Williams got together for lunches at each other’s homes and for holidays. Grace shot Christmas pictures of Williams’s family. They went on vacations together to Squaw Valley in California and Cap Ferrat in France.

“And many times we just hung out where I didn’t shoot at all,” Grace says. “I just carried a point-and-shoot camera with me and if I wanted to take it out and shoot I did.”

They remained close, right up to Williams’s suicide  in 2014. Grace says the news hit him “like a ton of bricks.”

“I’d seen him before his death. He was working in LA on his TV show The Crazy Ones, and he came to my house for dinner,” he says. “After I heard that he was dead, I just shut down. The phone started ringing, everybody wanted pictures, and I shut it all down. I said, look I can’t deal with this.”

Several months later he began going through his thousands of photographs of Williams. “It took me a month to round everything up. Then I edited 500 pictures down to 300, made color copies of all of them and taped them up to the wall,” he says. “I was holed up by myself, wondering if I had a book that was worth doing.”

Funny Every Night

He did. His new book features 190 photos, 150 of which have never been seen. There is Williams rehearsing for the Comic Relief fundraiser in 1990 and on the set of the film Toys  in 1992. There is Williams relaxing at his ranch in the Napa Valley and reading a story to his daughter Zelda in his home in San Francisco. And there is also Williams in the backseat of a limo after he won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting  in 1998.

“Who knows why two people hit it off?” Grace says. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of common interests.”

Or at least mutual admiration: “I thought he was unbelievably funny, and he loved people who laughed at whatever he said,” says Grace.

Grace’s fondness for comics dated back to his own stint as a comedian. After dropping out of Brandeis University, he was roped into doing a stand-up routine for several nights at a coffee house on Cape Cod owned by a friend. “I invented a character called the Sky Pilot and did a kind of bizarre act,” he says. “There was lots of free association.” He came away from the experience with an awareness of comedy’s rigors.

“To be funny every night, no matter how you feel, wasn’t for me, so I’m interested in people who can do that,” he says.  Grace’s friendship with Williams led him to photograph a number of comedians — from George Burns and Bob Hope to Billy Crystal and Sam Kinison — for his 1991 book Comedians.

Likewise, says Grace, Williams was intrigued by his work as a photojournalist. After studying photography in college Grace broke into the business as a Boston-based stringer for UPI in 1972 and within 10 months found himself covering the conflict in Northern Ireland. He then became a staff photographer for the news service, covering Europe and the Middle East. Later he became a staff photographer for Newsweek.

 “I’d been in and out of Eastern Europe for years, shooting the Solidarity movement in Poland and in the Soviet Union and Mongolia, and Robin loved all that, and the different stories I’d go off and do — especially the White House,” Grace says.

An important basis for their friendship was simply trust, says Grace. “I could shoot whenever I wanted to. I was never told, ‘Stop you can’t shoot this,’ and that’s highly unusual for a celebrity. He knew the pictures weren’t going to show up somewhere where they weren’t supposed to. That kind of trust is built up over an extended time. That’s what it takes. Years matter.”

Fearlessness Under Pressure

In 1991, Grace photographed a wedding for only the second time in his life.

Robin Williams had recommended him to Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, who brought him in to document their wedding in East Hampton, Long Island. It was a multi-day affair filled with the biggest and most powerful people in the film industry, and, writes Grace in his book, Williams remained relatively subdued, “like he was on his best behavior because adults were in the room.”

He got to be himself at a dinner after the wedding ceremony, when Spielberg asked for a volunteer to come up and entertain everyone during dessert. His guests, Grace recalls, acted like the offered mic “was radioactive.” No one wanted to bomb in front of an audience like that.

“Suddenly,” Grace writes in his book, “the most intrepid entertainer in the tent and the funniest improv comedian on the planet, Robin Williams, popped up from his chair, grabbed the mic from Steven, and had the crowd in the palm of his hand for five minutes.”

It was an example of Williams’s greatest attribute — his fearlessness, says Grace. “Although it was brief, it was the one performance of Robin’s I’ll never forget,” he writes.

Grace debuted his book in August at the Comedy Store in Hollywood. “A comedian friend of mine got a group of some of the best young comics in the country to perform,” Grace says. “They each donated 20-minute sets in honor of Robin, and the entire gate for the evening went to Robin’s charities.”

Laughs, like photographs, are legacies.