Whether he is performing on stage, television, or in the movies or participating in a serious interview, listening to and watching comedian/actor Robin Williams is an extraordinary experience. An improvisational master with a style comparable to Danny Kaye, his words rush forth in a gush of manic energy. They punctuate even the most basic story with sudden subject detours that often dissolve into flights of comic fancy and unpredictable celebrity impressions before returning earthward with some pithy comment or dead-on observation. Williams was born on July 21, 1952, in Chicago, the son of a Ford Motor Company executive. His parents were middle-aged when he was born and while both had grown children from previous marriages, Williams was raised as an only child and had much time alone with which to develop his imagination. One way in which he entertained himself was to memorize Jonathan Winters' comedy records. As his father rose amongst the Ford hierarchy, the Williams family moved frequently. Williams was a pudgy child and was often the new kid in the private schools where he received his education. Much of his quick humor developed as a defense mechanism against the teasing he endured. His father retired during Williams' senior year in high school and permanently settled the family in Marin County, CA. Williams finally found a niche at school, and by the time he graduated, he was physically fit, popular, and voted the funniest and most likely to succeed.
After high school, Williams studied political science at Claremont Men's College and also got involved in improvisational comedy. Interestingly, despite his lifelong interest in funny business, Williams initially trained to be a serious actor, first at Marin College in California and then at Juilliard under John Houseman. While at Juilliard, he helped pay his tuition by working as a mime. After leaving the prestigious art school, he returned to California to perform standup on the club circuit. It was during this time that he honed his tendency to move quickly from idea to idea. His first real break came after an appearance in L.A.'s Comedy Store, which in turn led to a regular gig on George Schlatter's short-lived, late '70s reincarnation of Laugh-In. From there, Williams was cast as a crazy space alien on a fanciful episode of Happy Days. William's portrayal of Mork from Ork delighted audiences and generated so great a response that producer Garry Marshall gave Williams his own sitcom, Mork and Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982. The show was a hit and established Williams as one of the most popular comedians (along with Richard Pryor and Billy Crystal) of the '70s and '80s. Though his ceaseless ad-libbing can grate on sensitive nerves, there is something teddy bearish about Williams that makes him tolerable; it certainly made Mork one of television's most popular characters.
Williams made his starring film debut in the title role of Robert Altman's elaborate but financially unsuccessful comic fantasy Popeye (1980). Three years earlier, Williams had appeared in the bawdy comic revue Can I Do It...Till I Need Glasses? (1977). He flexed his dramatic muscles in his next film, The World According to Garp (1982), but again did not find box-office success. Two more unsuccessful films followed, one of which, Moscow on the Hudson (1983), demonstrated his skill with foreign accents. Williams finally became a bona fide star when he was cast as real life military disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam. Whereas the real Cronauer was a rather quiet man, Williams' interpretation showed the comic at his maniacal best. DirectorBarry Levinson allowed Williams to pepper his radio monologues with plenty of humorous ad-libs. The film was a smash hit and earned Williams his first Oscar nomination.
His subsequent film career had its share of high and low points. He was remarkably restrained as an introverted scientist trying to help a catatonic Robert De Niro in Awakenings (1990) and exuberant as an inspirational English teacher in the comedy/drama Dead Poets Society (1989), a role which earned him his second Oscar nomination. His tragi-comic portrayal of a mad, homeless man in search of salvation and the Holy Grail in The Fisher King earned him a third nomination. In 1993, Williams lent his voice to two popular animated movies, Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest and most notably Aladdin, in which he played a rollicking genie and was allowed to go all out with ad-libs, improvs, and scads of celebrity improvisations. In 1993, Williams undertook an ambitious project with Being Human in which a man's troubled relationship with his wife is relived in five vignettes representing wildly different historical errors. The film was more experimental than other Williams efforts and the comedy was largely absent. While this film flopped, his other 1993 film, Mrs. Doubtfire, in which he played a recently divorced father who masquerades as a Scottish nanny to be close to his kids, was one of the year's biggest hits. He had another hit in 1995 playing a rather staid homosexual club owner opposite a hilariously fey Nathan Lane in The Bird Cage. In 1997, Williams turned in one of his best dramatic performances in Good Will Hunting, a performance for which he was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Since the success of Good Will Hunting, Williams has kept busy with films that have produced mixed critical and commercial results. Both of his 1998 films, the comedy Patch Adams and What Dreams May Come, a vibrantly colored exploration of the afterlife, received decidedly mixed reviews, although they fared respectably at the box office. Williams has also had the opportunity to play himself in the documentary Get Bruce, which features such fellow notables as Bette Midler, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, and his partner from The Bird Cage, Nathan Lane. He next had starring roles in both Bicentennial Man and Jakob the Liar, playing a robot-turned-human in the former and a prisoner of the Warsaw ghetto in the latter. Unfortunately, neither one of these films was particularly well received, with many critics and Williams fans wondering when the actor would forsake the maudlin sentimentality of his current roles for the excoriating humor he had exhibited to such great and enduring effect in his earlier films.
Though it was obvious to all that Williams' waning film career needed an invigorating breath of fresh air, many may not have expected the dark 180-degree turn he attempted in 2002 with roles in Death to Smoochy, Insomnia and One Hour Photo. Catching audiences off-guard with his portrayal of three deeply disturbed and tortured souls, the roles pointed to a new stage in Williams' career in which he would substitute the sap for more sinister motivations. In addition to his considerable film work, Williams has recorded three albums, appeared in a multitude of television comedy specials, and since the 1980s has been a primary host of Comic Relief, an annual televised benefit for the homeless. During the '80s, Williams overcame a serious drug addiction, divorced his first wife, and married his son's nanny, who has since become his manager and the mother of his daughter and second son.
"See, the problem is that God gives men a brain and a penis, and only enough blood to run one at a time."
Robin Williams' Fender bender
THERE'S a theory that most comics are pretty boring out of the spotlight, and sometimes even bordering on the morose.
Robin Williams is just not one of those guys. Within a couple of minutes, he's launched into a series of rapid fire gags, observations and crazy voices, turning something he saw on the television news last night into an hilarious anecdote. Then he's off on another tangent and then another and, well, you just try to hang on as the Williams comedy roller-coaster races from one thought to the next.
For almost three decades, Williams has been hailed as a comic genius, the ultimate ad libber who we first met as Mork from Ork in the 1978 comedy series Mork and Mindy, and who 27 years later is still making us laugh.
Williams' latest character is a robot called Fender in the new animated movie Robots.
The larger than life misfit is made of old broken machines, talks a million miles an hour, breaks into song and is the comedy star of the movie. It's a perfect role for Williams.
"It's much easier to see an animation because it's not me," Williams says. "It's this character, this weird collection of parts, part coffee machine, part blender - you don't have to look at yourself and go 'I'm old, look at my hair'."
Williams says the role also gave him ample opportunity to ad lib "like crazy".
"It's free, you're given the base and they said 'he's kind of damaged' and I went 'really'," Williams says, raising his eye like a madman.
Robots tells the story of a young robot called Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor) who leaves his small town to try his luck in the metropolis of Robot City.
Williams says he particularly loved the father-son relationship between Rodney and his dad Herb, and saw some parallels with his own life where his father encouraged him to become an actor.
"We grew up as the baby boomers with our parents who went through one war if not two, depression, and had their dreams if not quashed then altered severely. And they came to me and said, 'all right you're going to do it'," Williams says.
"I am going to sacrifice myself for you to make it happen."
Today Williams says he is trying to encourage his three children to make their dreams come true. His son Zach, 21, designs computer games, daughter Zelda, 15 is an actress and Cody, 13, is a poet.
As Williams mentions this other side of his life, I ask him if the same manic comedian on display today also exists at home.
Williams says he is "kind of quiet". "Everyone says 'oh you must be crazy at home'. I can't. I wouldn't survive," Williams says.
"They say, 'Dad, don't do that'. I used to read them stories and do the voices in the story and they would say, 'don't do that, just read the story'.
"But my son will be playing this hardcore rap and I'll go, 'yo, poor bitch' and he'll go, 'don't do that don't be f..king with my homies'.
"My daughter loves this band which is kind of wonderful, very sweet and innocent and I'll start singing like that and she'll go 'shut-up'."
Williams's wife of 16 years, Marsha, also has a problem - namely her husband's quick mind.
"My mind moves in different speeds at different times," Williams says. "Sometimes you can be too fast, my wife will always say 'listen to the question'.
"Wait for it, it's like the old thing with the Zulu warriors 'OK (Williams now moves into his best toffy British accent) front row, independent fire, wait for it, wait for the question'."
Williams says he heads off in different directions in conversation on or off stage because "I'm curious about a lot of stuff and I'll go off on riffs if I think it's appropriate and sometimes inappropriately.
Like Oliver Sachs said, 'sometimes voluntary Tourette's'. No sooner has Williams mentioned the word Tourette's, that he's off again, making fun of George Bush, returning to his British accent to celebrate the Brits naming of Iraq "because it's a wreck" and then into a Indian accent talking about Gandhi as a man in a diaper who won't eat - "strangely redundant".
It's at about this time you realise there is no stopping the man when he's on a roll like this. The notebook's put down, the questions shelved. You simply sit back and listen to one of the funniest guys in the world do what he does best.
Robin Williams: "Robots"
The more one interviews Robin Williams, the tougher it is to keep a straight face. Anyone who has sat with the brazen comic for as long as this journalist has, knows it's always a challenge but while promoting his return to animation, as an anarchic robot headed for the junk heap in Robots, Williams promises to be in control. "It's just really good to see you, so thank you. This is fun to do, an interview like this, 'Oh, hi. Nice to see you again.' " Oh yeah Robin Williams is in the house. Here he is in his element, having returned to the cartoon world that almost reinvented him a decade earlier with Disney's Aladdin. He responds unequivocally when asked if he has fun doing animated films. "No shit, dad," he replies, laughingly, adding that it's all about letting loose and riffing. "And when you have someone with a sense of humour like Chris Wedge you know that he'll add more and that he'll give the visual to this."
Of course, a movie such as Robots might begin with the written word, but Williams will take a script and go off on whatever tangents he feels he can get away with, as he explains in his own inimitable way. "Yeah, Chris goes in and says, 'Here are the lines.' I'll go in and I'll take that and go, 'Alright, I'll go off in this way.' Or you have to try different scams and things because that character basically a street scam artist. So you first just try to get inspired for what the voice will be. At first I tried a kind of Bowery guy. 'Are you crazy like that?' Then I'd try like a little bit of a Homie-bot, like, 'Yo. Yo.' Then I tried to bring it down and do a little crankpot. 'Yeah, yeah, it's really good.' Then I brought it back and made it slightly off, a little off, but then you kind of get it simplified because you realize that kids are going to watch it. Then you modify that for effect and then once you've got the base you can go off. And with him and with real animations you can build on it over a period of time and they add layer after layer and layer. You see the early drawings and you go, 'Okay. He's got a crank for a head. I like that.' Then, 'Okay. He's falling apart. I can work with that.' And these parts are from different people maybe, things he's found. You work off all of that. Then you start to build off the fact that if he falls apart he's still going to make it like an alcoholic. [Drunk Character] 'Everything is okay. I'm fine. Shit happens, happen. I have no drinking problem, there's just a lot of alcohol around.' You build off of that."
For Williams, his journey to Toon Town began with Aladdin which won him a special Golden Globe Award. "Oh yeah. That was the first time that I could really riff. It was like stand-up on film," he recalls. What brought him back to animation, he says, was "seeing them design the world," admits the actor who is all into computer games. "I love computer graphics and have had Pixar envy for a long time," he adds, laughingly. "I guess after 'Aladdin,' we had the falling out with Disney and then the reconciliation, but I think that during that time I missed a lot of chances to work with Pixar and then this came along and I caught a wave. I got to work with Chris, who's good friends with John [Musker] and is, I think, equal on that level of creating worlds, so I wanted to be a part of it." The Robots experience may have reenergised Williams' interest in doing more animation, "but you know, you have to pick and choose. You don't want to do so much of it that kids go, [Kid Character] 'Is this you? Really, I'd like to see a movie without you.'?" Not there's any chance of that, with all the recent dark roles he has taken on. "Yeah. I got dark, psycho roles. I get nice letters from prison. It's like, 'Hey, pretty boy', " he adds, assuming the voice of a prisoner.
Williams has been on top of his game for over two decades so it was no surprise that he received the Golden Globe this year for Lifetime Achievement, but cheerfully denies it had nothing to do with sucking up to the much maligned Hollywood Foreign Press. "No sucking up. It's just like I'd known them for twenty seven years and they were like, 'Why did you bring up the Pia Zadora thing?'
'Look, it happened. I know you, you're like my extreme extended European family. We come, we have a nice meal and we talk. Hello.' I've known them for so many years. It's kind of interesting because the Golden Globes are so much looser than the Academy Awards for better or worse. It has an open bar and you'll just see people half way through the awards going, 'This is fucking great.' And the FCC guy is going crazy."
But the Golden Globe and Oscar winner has a lot to be pleased about as he continues to balance between the mainstream and the off beat, as the actor prepares to shoot 'The Night Listening, ' which he describes as a "small movie in New York, where I actually play a writer who finds out that there's a kid who's a fan of his and the boy tries to meet him, and it becomes very convoluted. It's nice to balance that with the animation, so it keep the kids off guard." Talking about animation, he has also finished Australian director George Miller's Happy Feet. "I play about six things in that, such as a couple of different penguins, a sea lion and a little Argentine penguin."
There also remains a possibility of Mrs Doubtfire 2. "They're trying to write it. A friend of ours is writing it, and I think that if she can do it right, it'll be okay. If they don't do it right, it's not worth doing it. You've got to find a way of doing the character. How do you take it on after so long? You've got to be able to do her, do the character, why is she dressing up again, and how did she get away with it? The first one was so much fun because the conceit was pretty good and the makeup was great. The really good news now is that that makeup has come along. The make-ups have just gotten better and better and better."
Robin Williams will be heard but not seen
Robin Williams once was as ubiquitous as that Oscar whipping boy Jude Law, wallowing in a stream of sentimental mush like Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man.
Then he lowered his profile and cleansed his artistic soul by playing creeps (One Hour Photo) and killers (Insomnia).
"I get different fan mail now," he says via phone while nursing a cold at home in San Francisco.
This year, the madcap comic's new goal seems to be breaking the attendance record at awards shows.
First, he accepted a lifetime achievement honor at the not-exactly elderly age of 53 at the Golden Globes. Then he cracked Sideways jokes at the Independent Spirit Awards. He topped that by stealing host Chris Rock's thunder of controversy at the Oscars, protesting the censorship of a SpongeBob-inspired tune with duct tape over his mouth.
"We were thinking of a shock collar, but I couldn't get one in time," says Williams, who was to gospel-wail such lyrics as "Olive Oyl is really anorexic, and Casper is in the Ku Klux Klan." Instead, he rattled off a few safe zingers because "when you have a network worrying about a half-million-dollar fine, you know ... 'I saw a breast!' I saw a doorknocker."
Where you won't see Williams is in his latest film, Robots, opening Friday. Instead, you'll get a cheerful earful of his trademark Tourettesian riffing — from a Castilian party crasher to a gender-bending Britney Spears — as he brings Fender to vocal life. (Related story: At ease with Robin Williams)
"He's a skid robot," Williams says of his walking junkyard of discarded parts who shows the big-city ropes to naive hero Rodney (Ewan McGregor). They band together with other misfits to fight a corporate plot to make their kind obsolete. "It's the haves and the have-bots."
The computer-animated comedy from the makers of Ice Age marks the actor's first cartoon feature since 1992, when he rubbed the box office the right way as the shape-shifting Genie in Disney's Aladdin.
For director Chris Wedge, the ad-lib-erated Williams was a perfect fit. "You bring a script to him, put it on a podium and then gingerly step out of the room to see what he does."
Why has it taken 13 years for the actor to return to the genre? "No one asked. They were worried I might be uppity," Williams says, referring to his feud with Disney after the studio broke a promise not to use his voice to promote Aladdin tie-ins. With Robots, "when it comes to products, they have to use other characters. Upfront, we say, 'This is the drill.' "
Williams has another voice job lined up, as a trio of penguins and a sea lion in Happy Feet, out in 2006. He wouldn't mind speaking for others full time. "I could be Mel Blanc. I could be up here and ride bikes and occasionally show up at Pixar."
Robin Williams has a screw loose
He's the voice of an automaton in the new animated "Robots," but when it comes to freedom of expression, Robin Williams is very human.
The man who has always been dangerously funny ran up against ABC's censors who wanted him to tone down his Oscar rants.
While promoting his new movie "Robots," opening Friday, luckily those censors weren't around.
Williams couldn't resist riffing on the sexual identity of certain recent movie characters.
"Forget SpongeBob SquarePants. What about Oliver Stone's Alexander? Ollie made Alexander so gay he was no longer Alexander the Great but Alexander the Fabulous!" Williams said.
And when he's not engaged in controversy or commentary, Williams has even managed to make his movie career fabulous again.
Next month, he will star for director David Duchovny in the drama "House of D" with Tea Leoni and Erykah Badu. Adding with a mad laugh: "In David's movie I play a mentally challenged delivery boy, which wasn't that much of a challenge for me," Williams said.
He will star later this year opposite Woody Harrelson in "The Big White." Here he plays a travel agent protecting a frozen corpse that two hit men want to examine. He does another voice in the upcoming "Happy Feet," directed by George Miller, about a musically gifted penguin in Antarctica.
In "The Krazees," due next year, he's a psychologist father who can't deal with the idea of his daughter reaching puberty, and he morphs into several different characters to get his emotions under control.
And then there's the animated "Robots," which marks his return to animation after playing the genie in the now classic Disney film "Aladdin."
Directed by Chris Wedge ("Ice Age"), an Academy Award winner for the short film "Bunny," the film revolves around the wacky world of robots.
There's a young 'bot inventor, Rodney (Ewan McGregor), who dreams of helping robots everywhere including his crush, Cappy, a gorgeous 'bot (Halle Berry). There is Big Weld, the master inventor (Mel Brooks), and a misfit 'bot group whose leader is Fender (Williams).
Other celebrity voices include Greg Kinnear, Drew Carey, Jim Broadbent, Amanda Bynes, Paul Giamatti and Dianne Wiest.
Fender, whose limbs can't stay attached to his body, becomes friends with Rodney, who regularly repairs Fender.
"They called me to play the damaged 'bot. Boy, that was a stretch," he said. "I guess that's because I'm 53! Old age! Let me sit down."
He stood for some 32 hours to tape "Robots," although not all his ad-libs made the family-friendly film. He mentions outtakes so graphic that they can't even be put on the DVD. "I guess I got too adult," Williams said. "I can't help it. I feel inspired, and words just roll off my tongue."
And then there are times when Williams prefers to shut up.
He took a tiny break from movies because there wasn't much that really challenged him.
"Good is worth waiting for," said Williams, who admits he hasn't been onscreen as much lately because "the scripts just haven't been that exciting."
He has become beloved to movie audiences with sentimental roles in "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993) and "Good Will Hunting" (1997), which earned him an Oscar.
"Those were wonderful roles, but for a long time afterward, I was offered the same sweet type of man again and again," he said. "I longed to do something different."
So he began dabbling in darker roles ("One Hour Photo," "Insomnia"). Truth be told, Williams wants to play every character.
"I'm fascinated by examining behavior," he said. "I love to explore characters who are lonely and how they make human connections."
But strange characters aren't exactly the most gratifying characters.
"Gratifying is different," he said. "Gratifying is doing 'Awakenings' and meeting [famed neurologist] Dr. Oliver Sacks. That's interesting and fascinating to me on a deeper level."
Working with friends is also good in his book. He took the role in the upcoming "House of D" to be around his pal Duchovny. "I remember when I was shooting 'Jumanji,' and I was a huge fan of 'The X-Files' so I visited the set one day," Williams recalled. "David refused to believe I was there."
"He thought they were playing some kind of UFO joke on him. It was like Mork had shown up on the 'X-Files' set for his cameo with Mulder," he said, adding that the two have been close friends since that day and always planned on working together.
Williams became fascinated with the arts while growing up in the Chicago suburbs. He ditched his political science studies to enroll in the Juilliard School to study acting. Stand-up comedy led to his big break on the sitcom "Mork and Mindy" in the late '70s.
He doesn't rule out a return to stand-up. "I took a long time off from stand-up, but when I went back, I realized just how much I missed it. I'm working on a new show now."
During a recent lull in movies "where I wasn't getting offered anything interesting," Williams took his act out on the road.
"Acting in a movie is precise work. But once I stand on a stage, it's just me. I'm in free form," he said. "Live is the best because there is no going back. It's like parachuting out of a plane, and I love the idea that the chute might not open. That's the fear and the joy."
The joy is also his family, including 15-year-old Zelda and 12-year-old Cody with wife Marcia Garces. There is also 21-year-old Zachary from his first marriage to Valerie Velardi.
The kids are following in his footsteps. Zelda has a small role in "House of D," and Zach has been offered parts in movies. "The kid is so studly, but he's not interested. He's studying linguistics at New York University.
"Being my kid, it's amazing Zach turned out so well," he said, laughing.
But don't believe him, because Williams is very serious about fatherhood. He laments that Zelda is actually dating and thus driving her famous father nuts.
"When you have a teenage daughter, your whole life comes back at you," he said. "You know exactly what the boys are thinking when they turn up at your door."
Expect to hear more about it in his new live show -- or not. "Oh, Dad can't let it all flow," he says. "Do you want me to get in trouble?"
Robin ... On Everything
A lightning-quick round with Williams:
On doing a movie based on his own life: It would be called "Hairy Guy."
On Martha Stewart in prison: I can see her holding up a plate of pasta in the prison mess hall and asking, "Is this al dente?"
On directing someday: I wouldn't want to direct. Peter Weir said a great thing: "There are people who direct and then there's plumbers who go, 'I can direct.'" Some actors can direct and I'm not one of them.
On the backlash over his political comments: Backlash? I live in San Francisco. It's as blue as you can get. Have I performed in red states? Yes. I just come out and say, "Come on." I think if you hit 'em on it, but not in an angry way, you're fine.
On the CIA: Now, it's the Central Intuitive Agency. They have two psychics from L.A. on call.
Robin Williams: "The Final Cut"
Robin Williams is nothing if not unpredictable. Being alone with the comic master and actor, in a tranquil hotel high in the Hollywood Hills, the 53-year old is in a pensive mood, occasionally reverting to shtick, but generally incisive and philosophical. Starring in a sombre, yet provocative sci-fi thriller, The Final Cut, Williams says that at 53, his priorities and perspectives have changed, more enhanced as it were, by the recent death of close friend Christopher Reeve, an event that has prompted him to cancel most recent press events. "I mean the only thing is when you start to lose friends like this week, you do feel mortal, and there have been a few friends have gone recently," says Williams, appearing here at times subdued but still energetically talkative. Referring specifically to Reeve's sudden death, the actor was, like the rest of us, shocked at the news. "Yeah, it was like a blind signal, but I never knew and people have told me that he really lasted much longer than they thought and I didn't know that once you have an injury like that, you're kind of on a clock. I knew he'd been fighting and that when you get an infection of any kind, it's pretty brutal because the whole body is disconnected, and not working as a unit any more."
The Oscar winner admits that work is no longer the be and end all of his existence, but rather "friends and family and just taking and doing films only when they are like something interesting and not rushing off to keep working at all costs." And of course fatherhood has made him mellower over the years, he admits "and homed and now that my son is 21 you kind of take stock a lot more. He is graduating from NYU this year, he has got a girlfriend and living in New York and my daughter is 15 which is, you know, revenge, this wonderful kind of thing in my act that is coming to haunt me. She is very sweet, very gorgeous and still that wonderful combination of sensitive but also outrageous."
As for his work, more recently, we have seen Robin spring up in a recent series of dark, edgy films, in which he has plays characters disconnected from the boundaries of society, such as Final Cut, a strangely fascinating film set in a future in microchips implanted in your brain record everything you see and here. Then when you die, a "cutter" assembles the footage into a memorial video for your funeral, editing out all of the unpleasantness. The most sought-after cutter is Alan Hakman (Williams), a detached man who believes his work can absolve the dead of their sins. While editing the memories of another cutter, he uncovers a disturbing piece of his own past which leads him to question the way he's lived his life. Williams' Hakman is another character whose isolation is something he says he can identify with, because "as an only child what is not to know and do I have that in my own life am I capable of being kind of a loner, very much. I mean my major hobby is riding bikes alone, when I go on long distance rides for two or three hours and that is very comfortable for me and the isolation of that kind of distancing is part of also being a comic. You are kind of an observer and then you perform," Williams explains.
Yet on film, Williams has not playing for laughs of late, with Final Cut being the latest in a string of dark characters. I even jokingly suggest that perhaps he decided after the unfortunate Father's Day, he might have decided that he should give popular screen comedy the boot. "No it's just when they sent Insomnia I said are you serious, can I play this? They went 'yeah' and I think that kind of opened up another like 'eeee', he says, imitating a can opening up. I said I would love to and asked my agent to look for them. It wasn't like after Father's Day going, oh fuck off. You know finding a good comedy is a hard deal, but when Insomnia came along I when oh man. First of all to work with Pacino, great, and playing a murderer, yeah," he adds with glint in his eyes. "Then One Hour Photo playing this kind of quite creepy guy that you always see in the news, ['He seemed like such a nice man'], and then with The Final Cut, the technology combined with the kind of complexity, I went I am in. All you have to do is make sure the two parts work, so if the writing is good, which it was, you have to make sure the visuals are good."
Audiences who have often flocked to see the ingenious comic may forget that the actor is classically trained, and so he says, taking on these dark and introverted characters remind him of why he wanted to act in the first place. "When you are trained to do that, you are trained to do all of this and that is part of it. Is there such a thing as stand up tragedy? No! Do you get to use the skills you learnt back then? Very much and usually with these characters you get to do the kind of the inlay work." Asked what a future cutter may need to excise from Williams' reel if the technology explored in Final Cut were to exist, he offers a laugh, again suggesting that some of his past films, like Father's Day, might need to be cut from the memories of future mourners. "Yeah that is why at the AFI tributes, that one is never mentioned, along with Club Paradise. There are a couple that go: where are those movies, I don't know it is hanging out with Bicentennial Man. Let's see 28, 29 second year Mork and Mindy till about the birth of Zachary but there were a few years which I actually edited out very well with alcohol and have made it very difficult to access that file. I think there are enough cells that you would be like: it is already in a witness protection program and thank god there is no penis point of view. That cam I don't want to know, but I think that would be edited or there would be only a few highlights from that time," says Williams, laughingly.
It was, in fact, the abovementioned Mork and Mindy that truly established Robin as a unique voice in American comedy. Now out on DVD, Williams, who often jokes about the series in his stand up, has vivid memories of the sitcom that changed his life. "I can remember it vividly - I remember the first year as being amazing fun, the second year being kind of fun and then I remember the third year that the network took over. I remember when we had Raquel Welch dressed in a kind of a lift and separate outfit that even Serena Williams would go; uh, ah, and two playboy bunnies coming to kidnap Mork. I went what an interesting area - I knew that mothers and fathers were saying, put the kids away quick, quickly. Then when I was dressed as a Denver bronco cheerleader, at that point, I went "we're doomed" and then you saw the network going crazy. But the last year kind of redeemed everything because Jonathon Winters showed up playing my son, and all of a sudden it got to be fun again, then it was over. And when that happened, it wasn't like even euthanasia, because they don't bother to tell you. I read about it in the trades: Mork and Mindy cancelled." But Williams was to eventually find his footing on the big screen, despite early failures with the likes of Popeye. "It was Garp, which thank God happened. Then I started to come back to do Moscow on the Hudson, and then I decided to just do movies, and realised - once the pressure's off you start to do interesting ones."
These days, we don't see Williams in too many big-budget Hollywood films. "But I haven't been offered any big ones in a while. It is not like I am not looking, but it is like if you do get offered a big movie you would be offered a supporting character which is okay. I am 53 now, so I will gladly play the assistant for anything, or the older mentor, but I haven't found anyone I want to do. Until then, there is not that desperate desire to work at all cost." Except when it comes to stand up comedy, which Williams has continued to return to with a vengeance. "Been doing it a lot. I can go out on the road and do a gig like I did one day in Vegas and that pays the bills and it is also there is a lot to talk about." Williams says that as a comic, he is grateful for the existence of George W. Bush. "Oh he has been the gift, thank you god! Good news bad news." Not that he wants this president re-elected by any means, he hastily adds. "I think if it is close it will be very interesting and if there is anything that even approaches what looks like Florida, it will get real interesting." If John Jerry were to win, though, Williams says that stand up comedy will have to change as well. "It will be interesting because then you will have to go, 'okay what are you going to say now funny boy!' But is interesting, because then you have to readjust the firer, because it has been so easy with the boys, with the group. There have been so many great gifts of comedy, my favourite being at the convention comparing Bush To Churchill which is like comparing Mark Twain to Carrot Top. But it has been interesting because I think finally people are listening and I am hoping."
When Robin is not worrying about politics, or immersing himself in a dark character, he heads out on 70 mile bike rides, a passion that has fuelled him for years, and cemented a close friendship with Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. "I've got a ride this weekend in Houston, Texas with Lance's ride called Tour of the Roses which is a huge ride with thousands of people at different distances, 20 miles, 40 miles, 70 and 100, for his Cancer Foundation. It's a great thing for me because number one I can't dress like a pimp and go on a golf course. I love bikes and riding for me is kind of the only time I can really shut it down. Where I live is so beautiful, it's not like a hard call to go out 40 miles in this beautiful country and then end up by the ocean, and then climb up, a 4 mile climb up to a mountain top."
Talking to a contemplative Williams, one can understand why he has decided to take on characters that exemplify a sense of inner isolation. There is no Williams persona on screen, but as a wild, crazy stand up comedian, perhaps the real Mr Williams is allowed to shine through. "because on stage you're free. You can say and do things that if you said and did any place else, you'd be arrested. After Mork and Mindy, the only thing that really kind of kept me going was the stand-up because it was like, you could talk about it and somehow, make fun of it and still in a weird way, make money from it and come back from it and that allowed me to keep going. So it was a survival mechanism more than anything else."
Asked what ambitions he till has for himself, Williams pauses. "To be that character actor and to keep doing interesting characters in interesting pieces like Final Cut, working with interesting material and finding groups of people you haven't worked with, at this point. That's the only reason to keep going with it." He can always fall back on doing voices in animated films, as he is doing for Australian director George Miller in Happy Feet. "Oh man it is a blast and he is so much fun because he just lets you rip. He put me in a room with all these Latino comics and it has been so much fun. I play about four different characters: An Argentinean penguin, a big Emperor penguin, and a sea lion, amongst others." Williams says he is dying to visit him in Australia, especially if Bush is re-elected. "I just tell him to just save me a house and find me something by the water". Is Australia ready for Robin Williams? They could do much worse. We'll also see [or hear] Robin turn up in the animated Robots, admitting that doing cartoons, reminds him of his childhood. "I love cartoons and animation and when I did Aladdin, all you do is you go in and rift and then they draw it. It's the greatest job in the world." It appears that Robin Williams may have found his true calling after all.
Robin Williams speaks about Death to Smoochy, Insomnia, One Hour Photo
It's quite the year for Oscar-winning genius Robin Williams: A serial killer in Insomnia, a seemingly quiet but obsessive photo developer in the extraordinary One Hour Photo, a disgraced children's TV show host in the unforgettable Death to Smoochy and to cap it off, a return to his roots in stand up comedy. So will the real Robin Williams please stand up? PAUL FISCHER tried to remove the comic mask in the midst of an unusual locale for Williams: The Sundance Film Festival.
The last place one would expect to find the manic Robin Williams is in the heart of independent film country atop the mountains of Utah: Sundance. He was here to introduce One Hour Photo, a very untypical vehicle for the actor, which opens later in the year. At the top of a Roots store in busy Main Street, Williams is donned thick to the nights in a heavy parker coat and woolen ski cap. After a day of skiing, he announced his arrival by declaring that it "was time to Par-tay." Interviewing Williams is a challenge but here at Sundance, the irreverent performer was able to focus, breathlessly amidst the cold of the back-alley office in which we met. In this much-discussed era of post-September 11, the time was ripe, says Williams, to hit the country doing what he does with effortless energy: Stand-up. And much of his routine bravely treads those 9/11 waters. ""It's a lot of talking about that," he said. "Wet burka contests. It's a full gamut, what we've been through, the security measures. It's freeing performing stand-up. Comedy in movies is the toughest of all," he admits. His return to stand-up began as a benefit in Washington, and at that point he knew he needed to return to live comedy. "When we performed that night it was like a great thing to have and the response was huge, actually. Then I started performing in clubs in New York, at a place called The Comedy Cellar. I thought if any place would be a good test, it would be New York. The audience is great, and tough. They were saying I had to talk about this stuff and I went, 'Okay, maybe it's time to go back.'." It hasn't been difficult for Robin to remain comically relevant, as he explains in true Williams fashion. "With George [Bush], it's pretty easy. I mean the fact that he almost died from a pretzel, the fact that we have hundreds of millions of dollars flying air cover over Washington and he dies from a snack food. I mean you can talk about everything. Somebody was on Letterman and he had a great point. He was saying that they can't find Bin Laden, but he's a 6'5" Arab on dialysis. Just look for tracks in the sand." Williams still lives in San Francisco, a city he loves to poke fun of in these uncertain times. "We have the Golden Gate Bridge; defending it is one hummer - and I'm talking about the car -with two National Guardsmen in complete camouflage. They don't get out of the fucking trucks. They are in complete camouflage but I have one thing to tell them, the bridge is BRIGHT GOLD. It's kind of like from the Elmer Fudd School of Defense. [Fudd's voice] "Be very, very quiet. I'm looking for an Arab. Hahaaaaa." And they'll just sit there. They'll let people go walk across the bridge back and forth and they're thinking that some kid with a backpack is going, "I'm going to take it out." And they won't let bicyclists go across - like somebody is going to have something in pants so tight you can tell what religion you are. It's just insane all this stuff that's going on. Patting down - I have a friend who's daughter is 7 month old and they patted her down like she's got a grenade in her diaper. But as we saw with the man who tried with the mid-Air Jordans, you have to be careful. I mean, the guy trying to light up a shoe: 'It's a no smoking shoe section, sir. Step away, thank you.' "
Williams' rattles off the one-liners with consistent machine-gun like abandon, but when it comes to his upcoming film work, the actor is more focused, knowing that it's his year. First up is Death to Smoochy, which he loudly describes as one "fucking kick-out nasty comedy," portraying a fired host of a children's show who seeks revenge on his replacement, a Barney-like rhino named Smoochy (Ed Norton). This is a dark, comically savage satire on capitalistic bureaucracy directed by Danny DeVito. So where does the bitterness in Williams's sometimes deranged Rainbow Randolph come from? "What the fuck does that mean?" Williams questions with mock anger. "The bitterness comes from my memory of when they cancelled Mork and Mindy. Is it inside? Yes, I have a darker memory of television. Is there a nastiness? Oh sure, that's why I get to perform on stage so that kind of gets it out."
Williams also gets to sing and dance in Smoochy, and he's having a ball talking about this new career move. "I always wanted to do a musical. Because I can't skate, the chances of doing Bicentennial Man on ice are really low," Williams quips. The actor revels in the art of self-mockery, unconcerned about the pratfalls he may have taken with such critical duds as Patch Adams, the aforementioned Bicentennial Man, and the forgettable Jakob the Liar. This year, Williams will turn heads in his trio of dark films. "Why so dark my man? I think because first of all I asked my agent to look for one, but he found three. One Hour Photo was the first one and then Smoochy came through for which I went, 'God, it's Danny and this is nasty funny, and Fosse; I'm in.' Plus enough sequins to make Liberace go, Shut up. Finally Insomnia showed up and that was with Chris Nolan and Pacino and I went, 'Man these are great choices. I knew they are all kind of nasty and dark but hey, what else?' "
One Hour Photo was screened throughout January's Sundance, and the crowd was enthused. Here, he is cast as a Wal-Mart-type photo processing clerk who takes way too much interest in his customers, one family in particular. Williams is a polyester-wearing nebbish who is not quite what he seems. It's possible that performance, possibly his best thus far, may throw his fans. "People won't ask for autographs so much," he said. "That'd be great." Discussing the distinction he drew between playing that character and the irreverent psycho in Smoochy, Williams says that Smoochy "was easier to play because you have access, you can explode and kind of get it out, while One Hour Photo is so retentive. I begin to understand Ashcroft, a man who lost to a dead man if I may say so," he adds laughingly.
If One Hour Photo is dark in a quiet, ethereal way, Williams' other film, the Al Pacino starrer, Insomnia, from Memento's Christopher Nolan, will represent yet another side to the actor's curious persona. Here he plays a psychotic murder suspect tracked by Al Pacino's cop in a small Alaskan town. "Mr. Method Meets Wild Boy," Williams exclaims. But the actor learned a lot from working with Pacino, he says. "I learned to just stay out of his eye-line," he begins laughingly. "I also learned that for the reputation he has of being 'Mr. Method,' he's pretty funny and really has a good time yet he also stays in character and which is a weird thing. He knew that I worked differently because I shuffle to the beat of a different drummer yet working with him is a blast because basically it's a seduction; my character is just talking him through, trying to convince him that what I did was all right."
Now, Williams is on the road again, away from the Hollywood spotlight, and the only one he has to face is himself, minus the cocaine that was once his drug of choice, recalling that "Cocaine is God's way of saying you have too much money." He trained for this latest road trip cycling by day and polishing his routine by night at clubs near his home in San Francisco. "It's a bit like being in Switzerland during a nuclear war," said Williams, who lives with his second wife, Marsha Garces Williams, and their two children. "The business is kind of at a distance. I can make raids, go to L.A. but I'm not surrounded by the constant 'How am I doing?' "
Based on what we're seeing from Williams this year alone, he's going very well thank you.
Who's afraid of Robin Williams?
Alessandra Stanley’s piece today in the International Herald Tribune is a reassuring reminder that no matter how domesticated the Academy Awards may have appeared Sunday night, plenty of inquisitive minds are still alive and well. An inexhaustible fuel sustains such dissenters, their sharpest tool a keen sense of humor.
Stanley makes a reference to the five-second delay, which serves as a cushion for network self-censorship should any unacceptable spontaneity occur during the live awards ceremony. However, other forms of “editing” take place behind the scenes at the Oscars, as was the case with presenter and comedian, Robin Williams.
Williams made his entrance with a piece of tape covering his mouth, which he ripped off in order to present the award. Stanley reports that a song Williams had prepared to sing at the Oscars had been censored by ABC executives as well as producer Gil Cates:
“Williams, the presenter of the Academy Award for best animated feature, decided last week that his one minute on stage would be a prime time to lampoon the conservative critic James Dobson, whose group Focus on the Family last month criticized the character SpongeBob SquarePants for appearing in a video about tolerance that the group called ‘pro-homosexual’.”
Williams called upon composer Marc Shaiman and writer Scott Wittman for material. The first draft included the lines:
“Pinocchio’s had his nose done! Sleeping Beauty is popping pills!
The Three Little Pigs ain’t kosher! Betty Boop works Beverly Hills!
When Cates advised Shaiman to make the song “less political,” Shaiman directed the lyrics away from politics and toward gossip:
“Fred Flintstone is dyslexic, Jessica Rabbit is really a man, Olive Oyl is really anorexic, and Casper is in the Ku Klux Klan!”
Shaiman’s efforts weren’t enough. Last Thursday ABC’s broadcast standards and practices officials objected to the “sexual tone,” potential offensive remarks toward minorities and suggestions of the “glorification of drug use” in the revised lyrics, as in the line “the Road Runner’s hooked on speed.”
Rather than cutting 11 of the song’s 36 lines, Williams, Shaiman and Wittman decided not to present the song at all. Williams remarked at an interview on Saturday,
“For a while you get mad, then you get over it. We thought that they got the irony of it. I guess not.”
It turns out that the perfect accessory to an Academy Awards tuxedo is white tape.
Multi-talented Robin Williams
After 25 years in the business (and counting...), Robin Williams is still at the top of his game and one of the funniest guys around.
He's an Oscar and Golden Globe-winning actor and comedian who has starred in such hits as Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams is a true genius. No one can make us laugh like he can and no one is as unpredictable. His comedic talents continue to shine year in and year out, and they always leave us wanting more. Whether he's on stage, film or television, watching Robin Williams -- even for a second -- is a memorable experience.
He has come a long way from his early stand-up routine; now one of Hollywood's biggest stars, he has explored just about every role and earned a few billion laughs along the way. But don't discount his serious work: For every The Birdcage, there was a Good Morning, Vietnam, where he got to showcase his range as an actor and prove that he is more than just a funny man. Such versatility remains unrivaled and will probably never be matched again
There's something to be said for the fact that Williams' career continues to grow with age. And like fine wine, it only gets better. Sure, he has had his share of disappointments, but he's taking risks and always manages to bounce back.
But what makes Williams so universally loved is that, regardless of his age, he is still young at heart. Whether it's through film or his charitable causes (like Comic Relief or performing for U.S. troops), he can always put a smile on our faces and make us forget about our worries. And at a time when the world could use some laughter, Robin Williams' gifts are appreciated even more.
"Personality" makes up about 99% of who Robin Williams is. He's energetic, unpredictable, and an eternal optimist. But most of all, he's a riot; watching him during an interview means having to hold your stomach to keep from laughing too hard. You never know what he'll say next -- being the improvisational genius that he is -- and nothing and no one is safe from his barrage of jokes and imitations.
Williams loves to make people laugh and isn't afraid to cross certain lines and taboos to do so. Whether he's poking fun at Michael Jackson or weighing in on the now infamous Liza Minnelli/David Gest wedding, every word he utters is both outrageous and inspired. There are some who may say that he goes overboard (any given question regarding a current film can cause him to break out into song or do jumping jacks), but as long as his fans eat it up, who cares?
It's these kinds of characteristics that make Williams' movies such a delight (no matter how they end up faring at the box office). As far as his comedic performances go, his outlandish roles are often a reflection of his persona and that is a formula that has consistently worked in his favor.
We all enjoy a good laugh now and then, but being married to Williams must be torture on one's funny bone.
Still, for all the women who complain that their men are boring and lack excitement, at least there will never be a dull moment with Robin around. He can turn an ordinary dining experience into a full-fledged cabaret complete with sound effects and hand puppets. As far as physical attraction goes, women may not find him as appealing as George Clooney or Pierce Brosnan, but looks don't last forever; humor, on the other hand, goes a long way.
What hasn't he done? For the past 25 years, Robin Williams has appeared in over 35 films, including hits like Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Aladdin (and that's just the tip of the iceberg). There isn't a person on this planet that hasn't been touched by Williams' vibrant personality and insane humor.
Williams has solidified his position as one of the funniest men of all-time and an icon in American film history. For his efforts, he has been rewarded with countless awards, including a Golden Globe in 1993 for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for Mrs. Doubtfire and Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1997 for Good Will Hunting, as well as worldwide praise from fans, critics and peers. It's no surprise that Entertainment Weekly once called him the "Funniest Man Alive."
Williams possesses that special quality which, if put in a room of college kids, would make him the coolest guy in the room. Inside that adult exterior, there's a 12-year-old child that bursts out at the drop of a hat. He may be old enough to be one of those kids' fathers, but deep down, Robin's just one of the guys.
We love Robin Williams, we really do. And while we agree that his clothes should match his eccentric personality, it's time he gives those wacky socks a break. Even though he's the only one who could remotely pull it off, seeing a man in his 50s with fluorescent green socks is a little much, even if it is part of his "act." He has been known to wear kaleidoscope-patterned suits and Hawaiian prints on talk show appearances, but with his recent more dramatic roles, Williams has been stepping out in some classy threads and cool suits.