Robin Williams photographed at The Dorchester Hotel, London, 1999

Harry Borden recalls the shoot: “While I was on a trip to New York in 1999, showing my work to magazines there, I had a call from The Observer Magazine. I’d been shooting portraits for the magazine for a few years. This time I was offered the opportunity to photograph Robin Williams, who was promoting his latest film. The only catch was that I had to photograph him the next day at the Dorchester Hotel in London. 

Following a string of roles in films such as Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting and Good Morning, Vietnam, Williams was a major star and this was an exciting offer. So I cut short my trip, booked the earliest available flight from the US and arrived in London the next morning. There, I met up with my colleague, journalist William Leith. The Observer told us we would have an hour for the interview and half an hour for pictures.

However, when we arrived at the Dorchester, Williams’ tough female publicist said, ‘You have half an hour for the interview and five minutes for pictures – if we have time.’ While taking in this news, we were led into Williams’ hotel room that was full of people. Williams had a big entourage, including a scary minder who was completely lacking in any warmth or sense of humour. 

The entire atmosphere felt rather intimidating. After the interview, I started shooting portraits. I was using a Hasselblad CM, a medium-format film camera. The lighting in the room was poor so I used a big Bowens ring flash. Although time was really limited, as I was trying to shoot the portraits, Williams talked constantly. While I was being hurried along, he was doing his shtick and trying to entertain everyone in the room. I found it really irritating. He could have said, ‘Give this guy a break and let him do his job,’  but he just shrugged his shoulders as if it was nothing to do with him and let other people be nasty on his behalf. So I had to persevere. 

As a passive-aggressive way of telling him to shut up, I asked him to put his hand over his mouth. It was also a way of getting his very hairy hands in the picture, which I’d first noticed years before when he acted in Mork & Mindy. I got one frame of him in that position, then he put his hand down. This was the most interesting image from the few rolls of film I managed to shoot. You can see the use of the ring flash by those distinctive ‘doughnut’ shapes reflected in his eyes.

In that kind of situation, where I have very little time, I usually keep taking pictures for as long as I can. However, in this case it was starting to annoy the people in the entourage and further sour the atmosphere. When I took out my Leica and took a couple of reportage-style shots, tempers started to fray. The minder threatened to throw me out of the window if I didn’t stop and the shoot came to an abrupt end. I had rapidly shot four 12-shot rolls – two black & white and two colour. Even though my portrait of him was taken in a brief, frenzied and ultimately unhappy shoot, it’s still one of my favourites.”

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