My Phone Call From Robin Williams

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the Happy Feet Press Junket in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Saturday, Nov. 5, 20
Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the Happy Feet Press Junket in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011. (Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP Images)

Robin Williams called me on a spring day in 2005. I was on the waiting list for a heart transplant. He called to wish me good luck. We talked for more than an hour. Robin began by asking about my daughter, Barbi. She was why he called in the first place. Barbi, and her sisters, probably thought I was on my last legs. Nobody gets on the waiting list for a heart transplant who isn't. But my situation was made all the more precarious because I'm a blood type B. When you get a heart transplant, you must get one from your own blood type. Only about 8 percent of the population is type B. So, getting a B-type donor heart is an infrequent occurrence. It doesn't happen every day. I had been on the waiting list since September 2003. Time, my time was definitely running out.

Barbi had this idea that it would nice for me to talk with people whose work I admired, people who had inspired me, people who had made me laugh, made me cry, made me think, who somehow had touched my life. There was nothing spiritual going on here, just a daughter's wish that her daddy should be happy, particularly in trying circumstances. Robin Williams wasn't the first famous person she asked to call me.

One morning in the winter of 2005, my congressman, John Lewis of Atlanta, called. What a thrill that was. John Lewis, perhaps the last honest man in Congress. Later that day the phone rang, and this time it was Bill Cosby. Then followed the deluge. As the weeks rolled on and winter became spring, and I was still waiting for a heart, nearly 50 famous people called me. Senators, including a young Barack Obama and a very old Robert Byrd. Other members of Congress called. Governors too, from Howard Dean of Vermont, to Arnold Schwarenegger of California, to my home state Gov. Sonny Purdue. Athletes, from Bo Jackson to the Atlanta Braves. So many others called, people like Tom Clancy and Father Andrew Greeley, Christopher Hitchens and Noam Chomsky. So many, almost 50 in all.

And on that special spring day when my phone rang, this time it was Robin Williams. Like everyone else, Robin was kind enough to take the time to wish me good luck. Most of these calls lasted a few minutes. They were warm and friendly. Not a single one seemed forced or difficult. Nobody had to call. This was a pure act of generosity. Some calls lasted a while longer than others. I'm a novelist, and Barry Levinson took a lengthy moment to tell me how he wished he could write novels and be free of the rules that guide writing for the screen and television. I told him I wrote novels precisely because there are no rules. I'm not a good enough writer to do it any other way.

Christopher Hitchens gave me a reference to help me with a novel I was working on about Richard Nixon. He gave me a name to call and he gave me the man's private cellphone number. He added, "Tell him I gave it to you and do it quickly before he hangs up on you." I did just as instructed much to my benefit. Ralph Nader and I talked for 30 minutes and then almost another 30 minutes. Whoppie Goldberg and I talked for seemed like forever. She was very nice. It was just her kind of call that must have been what my daughter Barbi had in mind for me.

But the best call, and the longest too, was my phone call with Robin Williams. He was interested in every detail about a heart transplant. What was the waiting like? How did I handle the pressure of never knowing when -- or if -- a new heart would come to me? Robin really wanted to know the answers. And he wanted to know how I could write not one, but two, novels while both dying and waiting at the same time. "What else can I do?" I told him. We went from one subject to another in a flash. And when we had talked that one through, Robin immediately asked another question about something else. At one point he wanted to know all the people who had already called me. I started down the list and then I said, "Robin, you're talking to only person who will ever be able to tell you that he received phone calls in the same hour from Jackie Mason and Noam Chomsky." "You talked to Noam Chomsky?" he cried out. "Wow, I'd love to talk to him. What did you talk about?" "Grandchildren," I said. And of course, we had. For those who know and admire Noam Chomsky, you might find it a waste to actually get him on the telephone and spend those valuable minutes talking about your grandchildren. But that's what we did. I talked about mine and Noam Chomsky talked about his. Grandfathers never get enough. Robin Williams was speechless, but even through the telephone I could see the huge smile on his face. He asked me, "Who would you like to talk to that Barbi couldn't get to call you?" Robin already knew about my Richard Nixon novel in progress. "John Dean," I said. "Oh, yeah!" Robin screamed out.

When it was time, finally time, to end our conversation, Robin asked me, "Is there anything I can do for you?" He had that sound in his voice. You know it when you hear it. I'm sure he appreciated how delicate was the fiber upon which my life balanced, how badly the odds were lined up against me. You never really get used to knowing that any moment could be your last, that tomorrow is a distant dream. "Nothing, thanks," I answered. I was just waiting for new heart, trying to stay alive. As I look back today, I wish I had told Robin Williams to stay alive too.