Remembering Robin Williams: Garp’s world comes to Fishers Island
This column was published in the May 28, 1981 issue of The Suffolk Times:
In a Southold Town planning Board meeting two weeks ago, I overheard a board member mention that a movie called “The World According to Garp” was being filmed on Fishers Island.
Nine phone calls later, I was talking to Ed “Itsy” Atkins at the Wilmerding Estate on Fishers Island.
I could barely hear him. “Speak up,” I said. “Is there a movie being made there?”
“I can’t talk too loud,” he whispered. “There’s a movie being made here.”
He finally gave me Eric Myers’ number in New York.
Mr. Myers is Warner brothers’ publicity director for the film, and on my thirteenth call, he set up a visit to the film site for Suffolk Times photographer Jim Lennon and myself.
On Thursday, New Suffolk notables Scott “Scooter” Brautigam and W.C. “Willy” Fisher, powered us over in Scooter’s inboard/outboard “Bluejeans.” Approaching Fishers Island from the west, you can’t miss the Wilmerding Estate, a massive cedar-shaked, onion-domed mansion on the northwest shore.
We didn’t miss it, but we couldn’t find a place to dock. We finally ended up at Gada Construction, where we tied up. By a wild coincidence, Gada was doing construction work for the movie and they agreed, after a few phone calls, to drive us over. Scooter and Willy went to the Pequot Inn to wait.
Eric Myers met us after I talked to him on Ed “Itsy” Atkins’ walkie-talkie. He showed us around the film location. Behind the camera in a baseball cap was George Roy Hill, the movie’s director, who won an Oscar for his direction of “The Sting.”
Robin “Mork” Williams was sitting on the grass. He is playing the title role of T.S. Garp. With him was Mary Beth (“Interiors”) Hurt, who plays Garp’s wife Helen.
It was an overcast day — perfect for photography. Jim wandered off. Someone yelled “Cut!” and a mass of people headed to the house. I found myself walking beside Robin Williams. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I asked him if he had a statement for the press.
“About what?” he wondered.
“Uh, the movie?”
“Oh, it’s like a fairy tale on acid.”
We wandered up toward the house. A Coast Guard cutter churned by in the distance. I asked how he liked Fishers Island.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “Very peaceful.” Someone called him and he excused himself to go back to the movie.
In the back yard, next to a yellow, mint Morgan sports car, casting director Marion Dougherty said that hundreds had read for parts in “Garp.” After several meetings, they decided that Robin Williams was right for the leading role. The toughest casting, she said, was for a boy to play young Garp. “Robin has distinctive features,” she said. Robin Williams’ mother supplied pictures of him when he was 8 and 10, and after seeing millions of kids, they settled on a boy named James McCall. She said that Robin’s jaw dropped when they first met, the resemblance was so strong.
I met production designer Henry “Bummy” Bumstead, who escorted me through the Wilmerding mansion. This is Mr. Bumstead’s sixth picture with George Roy Hill. He also won an Oscar for “The Sting.” Inside, he pointed out the transformation of the elegant rooms to reflect the various time periods in the book: dark-grained woods for the earliest scenes; art deco for the 1940s and bright white paint for the ’60s. All will be returned to its original condition except for the paint, which Mr. Wilmerding would like to keep. He reportedly is staying in the guest house during filming.
Out on the lawn, giant klieg lights had been wheeled in for another scene. In the book, the mansion’s location is Dog’s Head Harbor, New Hampshire, the childhood home of T.S. Garp’s mother, nurse Jenny Fields (played by Glenn “Barnum” Close).
A few years after her unusual conception of Garp, Jenny Fields writes a wildly successful autobiography called “A Sexual Suspect” which makes her a heroine to various feminist groups — especially the Ellen James Society.
Members of this society have cut out their tongues in sympathy for Ellen James, an 11-year-old girl raped by two men who, forgetting that she could still identify them in writing, had cut out her tongue. The house at Dog’s Head Harbor becomes a home for this society.
The scene being filmed was the Ellen Jamesians voting on wether or not to disband. George Roy Hill directed the women through a couple of takes of wordless balloting. Bonnie Corsaro, a Fishers Island resident, had lined up Fishers Island women to play all but one of the Ellen Jamesians. I asked her why Warner Brothers had selected Fishers Island for the movie.
She said that George Roy Hill had been sailing here a few years ago, and when the movie came up, he immediately thought of this estate. “You don’t forget Fishers Island,” she said. The film, which is being made entirely in New York State (Greenwich Village, Eastchester and Millbrook along with Fishers Island) should be finished sometime in July.
Jim and I got a ride back to the Pequot Inn from two teamsters working on the picture. We got lost looking for a landmark, a big rock.
Back at the Pequot, owner Ann “Denson” Morel said that Robin Williams had been in a couple of times. She said he drank a Coke and watched TV. “Mork and Mindy” wasn’t on.
We got Scooter and Willy off the pool table and headed back to the boat.