Tired from TV gigs, Kabler films movie in Hopkinton
It’s 7:30 on a picture-perfect summer morning, and Roger Kabler is sitting on a rock on the edge of Lake Whitehall, savoring all that nature has to offer.
Kabler is an actor and a painter, having discovered his passion for the latter after the former made him feel like he was trapped under the rock, submerged in water, rather than comfortably atop it taking in the wondrous views before him.
He once lived a life that many only dream about — studying acting under renowned teacher Sanford Meisner in New York City, moving to Hollywood, breaking through as a stand-up comedian, appearing on “The Tonight Show” and “The Arsenio Hall Show,” landing a spot as a cast member on legendary comedienne Carol Burnett’s television variety program, getting a chance to star in his own prime-time sitcom, and serving as a TV advertising spokesman for a huge beverage company.
And he barely survived.
“I got a real taste of Hollywood and what it can do to an artist,” said Kabler, now 57. “I don’t blame anybody. I wanted to be in that business, but I didn’t go my own way. I did what they wanted me to do, and it didn’t work out. A lot of people crash and burn. And so did I.”
During that rough patch, Kabler saw his career flounder, his first marriage fall apart and an addiction worsen.
“A lot of people die from drug addition,” he said. “A lot of people in show business die. And I was on my way to doing that. So my sponsor suggested I get out, and I got out for four years, and I just learned something else that I love to do, which is to paint. It’s another form of expression, and I didn’t have to ask anybody if I could do it. So I just went wild and starting painting up a storm. When I first moved to Hopkinton I painted like a madman. I painted 53 paintings in one year just to make the bills.”
Then something happened that threw another curveball Kabler’s way.
Kabler is known for his uncanny ability to imitate celebrities. One such impression is that of Robin Williams.
In 2014, shortly after Kabler moved back to Massachusetts, Williams, battling health issues, committed suicide at his home near San Francisco, three weeks after his 63rd birthday.
Williams’ death affected Kabler profoundly. At first he did not want to revive his impression of the beloved comedian, but eventually Kabler felt a calling to return to the stage. Now Kabler appears in venues across the country with his act in which he pays tribute to Williams and then performs his own comedy routine.
Then last year Kabler embarked on another venture: a full-length movie inspired by Kabler’s own experiences. It’s about a man who sees visions of Robin Williams and is compelled to overcome his social phobia and perform as Williams. It’s called “Being Robin,” and the majority of the movie is being filmed in and around Hopkinton.
It’s not lost upon Kabler that his opportunity to helm his own movie — in addition to lead actor he serves as writer, director, producer and more — is happening far, far away from Tinseltown, some five years after he orchestrated his escape.
“I’m sitting on the rock right now that I landed on in Lake Whitehall,” he said. “This is where I want to live the rest of my life. The sky is blue. I can swim and I can heal from all those years of insanity. I came here to paint and to heal, and I end up doing more acting than I’ve ever done in my life. It wasn’t my plan to do this.”
ACT I: From Metrowest to Hollywood
Kabler grew up in Framingham and was exposed to theater and entertainment by his parents. At an early age he took to impressions, like Richard Nixon and Columbo.
“And then when I saw Robin Williams when I was 17 I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s me.’ I realized I had a real connection,” he recalled. “That was a big part of it. Then I was just entertaining kids at parties, and I started doing standup at 18 in Boston.”
After doing some acting locally, Kabler found his way to New York City at age 20 to learn more about the craft. He recalled doing a play with famous playwright Robert Patrick but called the experience “tortuous.” After 10 years in the Big Apple, Kabler decided to change gears.
“That’s when I went into standup in 1985, and it went real fast,” he said. “I did an act about an impressionist who loses his mind, gets lost in all his characters. Then I got started doing TV work.”
Kabler was a cast member on a CBS revival of “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1991. The show was short-lived, but Kabler cherished his brief opportunity to work alongside a legend.
“It was an incredible experience to work with her,” he said. “Oh my god, it’s comedy school. She was just a blast.”
Next came a starring role on “Rhythm & Blues,” an NBC sitcom about a white man (Kabler) who is mistakenly hired as a DJ at an all-black Detroit radio station. It aired in the fall of 1992, in a prime spot on Thursday nights between “A Different World” and “Cheers.”
After five weeks of poor ratings, the plug was pulled. Kabler said a key reason was due to the “power elites in Hollywood” who had control of him and the show.
“It started out great, but different elements kind of took it down fast,” he said. “I tried to improvise on that show and they were like, ‘Uh-uh-uh.’ As funny as it was, and the audience would go crazy, they’re like, ‘We need to stay with the script.’ ”
So Kabler was off to his next job, as spokesman for Zima, a malt beverage introduced by Coors Brewing Company in 1993. Kabler did a number of commercials as a smooth-talking, hat-wearing, hipster character in the mid-1990s.
Then his career, and his well-being, took a downturn.
ACT II: Back from the brink
Kabler tried to hang on to his acting dream in the late 1990s, but not much notable came out of it — a few TV series guest appearances, some voiceover work. In the meantime he was struggling with addiction, and it was taking its toll on his physical and mental health.
“I stopped [acting] entirely for four years, getting sober and stuff,” he recalled. “My sponsor said, ‘Just get out,’ because every time I tried to go back to it it’s triggered by that intense need to get back into it. In the meantime, my first marriage ended.”
In 2002 Kabler starred in a low-budget independent movie called “Who the Hell is Bobby Roos?” about an impressionist who loses control of his identity. “I was in a very raw place when I shot it,” said Kabler, who scripted the story, although the scenes were primarily improvised.
The film generated some positive reviews and won an award at the Seattle International Film Festival, but it did not have the financial backing so it was never released in theaters.
Kabler turned to painting in 2004 and found it cathartic. Moving away from acting, he eventually he came to the conclusion that he needed to leave Southern California.
“I was in a second marriage, it didn’t work out, I realized I needed to come home and start over,” said Kabler, who has a 26-year-old son from his first marriage. “So I got a van and I put everything I had into it and I started across the country.”
He ended up in an old building on Wood Street, the former Wheeler’s General Store, big enough to serve as his studio and with picturesque views of Lake Whitehall.
It was ideal — completely different than what he had been experiencing in Los Angeles.
Looking back, Kabler, who says he’s been sober now for 16 years, advises anyone heading for the bright lights to make sure they have other options.
“My message to anybody that wants to be in it is don’t cling to it too tightly,” he said. “Have something else to do. Because it can take you down. If it’s your big dream and it doesn’t happen or it goes bad, you need to be able to land on something else and somebody else. And if you’re in trouble, get out until you can be in it. That was my big lesson. Because now I’m working more than I ever worked, and I’m having a blast on my own terms. I don’t need Hollywood to tell me what to do.”
ACT III: ‘Being Robin’ is born
After Robin Williams’ death in August 2014, Kabler initially declined suggestions that he return to the stage.
Said Kabler: “People asked me, ‘Are you going to do a tribute?’ And I said, ‘No, absolutely not, I’m a painter now.’ And then I just felt Robin go [in Williams’ voice], ‘Hey, come on, let’s go back to work, OK, let’s go.’ And I’m like, ‘Ohhhhhh, man.’ I finally called the guy who does the bookings and I said, ‘Yeah, I guess I’m going to do a tribute.’ And the next thing I know I’m in California doing a casino in front of 600 people. That was our first show.”
Kabler’s show is a success, he says, in part because he doesn’t imitate Robin Williams so much as channel his energy. And Robin Williams had a lot of energy.
“It is exhausting,” Kabler said. “It’s an athletic event for 45 minutes. But it’s also a mental struggle, because I’m not the genius. I’m just trying to align my thinking so that I’m available. I leave myself open. And I really remember Robin saying [in Williams’ voice], ‘Listen, you’ve got to get out of the way, OK? I’ve got this.’ I’ve just got to get out of the way and let him go through. Whatever my perception of him is, I’ve just got to let him work through and do whatever he’s going to do in the show.
“And that’s also the fun of the film. I don’t really know what’s going to happen when the cameras are rolling, because I invite Robin to play. And that’s a real spiritual manifestation.”
Kabler took lessons from his first movie, which he said “cost nothing to make,” and had a very clear vision for this film.
“This one I’ve got a full crew, it’s very expensive, and I’ve got a script that I’ve written on my phone,” he said. “It’s much more of a real production, but it’s also not a Hollywood production. It’s a Hollywoodville production.”
While Kabler is at the helm of the project, he does have help.
Kevin Baldwin, a playwright and theater critic, has been assisting with the screenplay. The filming is being handled by a Rockland-based production company called Hop Top Films, led by cinematographer Evan Schneider and assistant director/production manager Paul Taft.
Actors include some professionals but mostly amateurs, including friends and neighbors (plus a three-legged dog named Sammy). Kabler’s co-star is Alainna Rodgers, his love interest in the movie as well as real life.
Rodgers was studying to be a cardiovascular invasive specialist and doing some community theater in Florida when she saw Kabler’s act, got to know him and eventually decided to head north to Hopkinton.
Of Kabler she says: “He cares so much about the relationships in his life. He has friends from when he was in preschool. That’s integrity. And that’s one of the other things about this project and why I’m here. There’s lot of integrity in this project.”
ACT IV: ‘Compelled to tell this story’
Kabler, who never met Williams, said he has communicated with Williams’ family to make sure they know he’s not exploiting him. According to him, they aren’t concerned.
“I’m not getting rich off Robin,” Kabler said. “Robin’s using me, by the way. I feel like I’m not using him, he’s using me. I’m a vessel for him.
“One of the reasons I’m making this film is to get some answers. Like, what is going on? Why am I completely throwing my beautiful, peaceful life as a painter aside for three years of running around the country? In three weeks I went from LA to New York to Phoenix and then did a show at the Rod and Gun Club in Woodville. It’s exhausting, man. But I’m compelled to tell this story.”
After five days of filming in July and four days in August, Kabler said the movie will be one-third complete, at which point he will take a break from filming, edit scenes together and try to raise more money.
“Once we brought the trailer up people started throwing money at the movie,” Kabler said. “But they need to see some edited scenes for some real investing. That’s how it works.
“That’s instead of going to Hollywood and going, ‘Hey, buy my movie.’ Because they would take this thing and turn it upside down like they did to the rest of my career, and I’m not letting that happen. … This is a homemade movie but it’s also very, very rich in character and emotion and humor. There’s a tremendous amount of love and spirit in it. I don’t need a lot of fancy effects.”
By design, the movie’s premise will have the audience somewhat confused, something not typical of a mainstream movie.
“This is about a man who feels that he may be touched by this incredible comic genius or that he is being plagued by psychiatric issues,” Kabler said. “You don’t know if this is a real manifestation of Robin Williams or if this is a guy who is crazy. Either way, his motivation is to do something healing for this man everybody adored by continuing with his work or by giving his audience something that he feels can help heal. So it’s a very funny movie but it’s also creepy.”
Added Baldwin, the co-writer: “It’s an esoteric film. There’s going to be certain elements that some people may not get right away. It may require a couple of viewings. But it’s going to be one of those films that after a certain amount of time people will be, ‘Oh, wow, I get it.’ They’ll walk away having had a very moving experience along with some laughs.”
Kabler takes pleasure in the movie’s ambiguity, and he thinks Williams would have enjoyed the approach as well.
Said Kabler: “I wanted to make this film as if Robin was at the helm and saying [in Williams’ voice], ‘No, I want to [expletive] with them a little bit. Let’s mess them up.’ ”