Robin William has shrugged off drugs and laughed his way through stand-up comedy, TV and a movie career worth more than a billion dollars at the box office. At 46, he’s the funniest man on the planet – and impossible to interview.
It’s like being pinned down and tickled from head to toe for an hour. As his Good Will Hunting co-star Ben Affleck notes: “He’s got a mind that runs five times faster than anyone else’s. He can make jokes faster than you can laugh.”
Seriously, no kidding, Robin Williams believes comedy is a drug more powerful than cocaine.
It’s not possible to reproduce on paper just how funny he is in person – wearing a mismatch of bright green and purple trousers, a hug fluorescent tie and red rimmed specs.
He switches accents and characters quicker than a Formula One car changes lanes and everything he says is side-splittingly funny. Your jaw gets locked in the laughter position and you stomach muscles ache and beg for relief which doesn’t come until… you question his penchant for starring in children’s’ movies, the most recent being Flubber, Disney’s remake of their 1961, The Absent Minded Professor.
And then the comedian has a total sense of humour-failure. He’s sick of being criticized for making kids’ movies.
“Children are people too, so why shouldn’t actors make movies for them,” he argues.
“Basically, I do a movie like this for my kids. People say, ‘aren’t you worried about ruining your career by doing kids’ movies? How?” he barks. “People don’t look down on you and go, ‘Oh, you wuss, you little booger-eating bastard!’ And as long as I get offered good children’s movies, I’ll continue doing them, as well as adult movies, of course.
“There are lots of wonderful children’s stories out there and there’s a need for children’s movies. They shouldn’t be looked down on. I’m doing these movies for children,” he says proudly, “because why can’t they be entertained and have good movies too?
“And like Flubber, it’s a laugh for them. I saw the first screening with my six-year-old son Cody and he was laughing like crazy. He loved the basketball scene. And my eight-year-old daughter Zelda loved the robotic assistant, Weebo. Kids have imaginary friends and they have computers – and Weebo’s essentially a combination of the two. OK, this isn’t great art,” he concedes. “This is a children’s cartoon and you see when you watch Flubber with children that they have such fun with it.”
Williams plays the mad Professor Phillip Brainard, who has forgotten two dates to marry his sweetheart, Sara. His mind is occupied with inventing a revolutionary new source of energy with the help of his over-amorous flying robotic assistant, Weebo. Late on the afternoon of his third attempt at a wedding, all of the prof’s hard work in the lab comes together when he creates a miraculous goo that, when applied to any object, enables it to fly through the air at remarkable speed. The stuff defies gravity and looks like rubber. It’s called Flubber.
Robin describes Flubber as “a friendly blob. Imagine an amoeba on acid. It looks almost like a pear sometimes – imagine Elvis in his later years.”
Robin was drawn to the movie for two major reasons.
“Firstly, I’m fascinated by science. My half-brother teaches physics and chemistry in Memphis and my character reminds me so much of him. His house is exactly like the prof’s, full of scientific instruments and columns of books.
“Secondly, the movie was filmed in my hometown, San Francisco,” says Robin, who hates being away on film shoots and missing his kids.
He makes a conscious effort to be the opposite of his own father, who neglected him when he was growing up. Robin was an only child who spent much of his childhood on his own on the third floor of his family’s 40-room house in Detroit.
“It wasn’t that I had an unhappy childhood,” he recalls, “but that it was lonely. I suffered from a considerable lack of parental contact and was raised basically by the maid. My mother was always busy organizing benefits while my dad wasn’t home a lot. He was a vice-president for Ford motor company and was out on the road a lot.
“I didn’t have any siblings, till I found out later on I had two half-brothers, but they kind of came into my life much later. But as I say, it wasn’t an unhappy childhood. I had all these toys and I think it was that which bred this imagination of creating different things. Many people say that as children they had imaginary friends. I had an imaginary agent.
“The kind of isolation of being an only child with parents who’re away and too busy for you, that breeds a desire later on to perform, it’s like, “LOVE ME!!!” he cries, throwing his arms out and changing to a show-time accent.
Although at high school his classmates voted him “most humorous” and “most likely to succeed,” Robin insists he was a very quiet, reserved teenager.
“I know people kind of doubt that, but I was actually very shy. I was heavily into sports such as running and soccer and wrestling. The whole sport thing was my salvation. Wrestling empowered me in the same way that performing does.”
When Robin decided to enroll at the Juilliard School of Acting in New York, after a brief stint studying political science, his father took him aside and advised that he learn welding first, as a back-up profession.
Although Robin made a touching tribute to his dad’s well-intended suggestion when he accepted his Oscar – for Best Supporting Actor (Good Will Hunting) – earlier this year, today he admits that through most of his life “I had a troubled relationship with my father, who was basically cold and authoritarian.
“We had a strained relationship until 10 years ago, shortly before his death, when we finally reunited. The wonderful thing was that I got to connect with him before his death.”
During Robin’s studies at the Juilliard School, he became best friends with the man he calls his brother, Christopher Reeve. Of Reeve’s terrible injuries Robin says, “He makes me realize we’re only here on this tiny ball for a short time and you’ve got to make it worthwhile.”
A worthwhile life to Robin is one that’s spent with his children or making movies for them. Their presence has changed his life dramatically. For starters, he’s now an early riser. Our interview is at dawn.
“After working as a stand-up comic in clubs for 15 years, I’d forgotten what mornings were, but now I’m doing better. They wake you up at 5 am. All of a sudden you’re being kicked in the face by your son saying ‘Time to watch cartoons Daddy.’ And you go, ‘Right, let’s put a tape on, OK.’ But uh, uh, it’s Boogie Nights! Wrong tape!”
His children are also the reason he’s now clean and sober. There was a time when stardom first hit, that drugs and alcohol threatened to destroy Robin’s career, if not his life.
He was snorting cocaine with actor John Belushi on the fateful eve that Belushi died from a drug overdose.
“Cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you’re earning too much,” Robin quips, and then adds, “when you do drugs you have a couple of choices – you can either die or spend time in prison. When John died, that shocked me into starting to clean up my act, but what really did it for me was when I realized I was going to have children.
His kids are just becoming aware of exactly who their father is, aside from being their doting dad, of course.
“Sometimes we’re in a playground and Cody will shout at the top of his voice, ‘Do you know who Robin Williams is? He makes a lot of movies and some of them are good.’ I’m like, ‘Shhhh,” he cringes. “It’s not so much that he’s impressed, but that he uses it, he likes it.
“And Zelda – she’s actually got to the point where we go to movie premieres and she’s working the camera and posing, and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ She’s eight!’
“And Zachary’s 14, so nothing really impresses him, unless I brought Pearl Jam over for dinner. He’s been wonderful though. He’s very impressed by movies such as Good Will Hunting. He saw it the other night with his girlfriend and it was very special to me for two reasons – I met her, and secondly when you get, ‘That was good,’ from a 14-year-old, it’s like…” he beams and punches his fist in the air.
Zachary is the son of Robin’s first wife, Valerie, and the younger two are the product of his second and current marriage to Marsha Garces, former nanny to Zachary and present producer and president of the couple’s film company.
Controversial newspaper reports claimed that Marsha had wrecked his first marriage, but Robin insists, “My life was saved by Marsha, not ruined by her. Our romance only started a year after Valerie and I had separated. I was self-destructive at the time and Marsha told me to pull myself together. She made me believe I was a good person.”
As a family they travel to exotic holiday locations, most recently Australia’s Barrier Reef, and to the kids’ favorite destination, Disneyland, where the kids can see their dad’s Aladdin character, Genie.
“We’ve been there a few times now and it’s weird seeing this blue genie everywhere. I’m now part of the stable,” Robin grins proudly.
After featuring as the voice of Genie in Disney’s Aladdin for free – though Disney did give him a Picasso to say thanks – the relationship turned sour when Disney used Robin for promotional tie-ins without his consent.
“I had said, ‘I’ll do the movie for free, just don’t place me with the products.’ And they did. So I just walked away. People said I should have sued the s**t out of them. But why? It wasn’t that type of relationship. I did the movie as a favour. The relationship went sour, that’s all. It was a hurtful thing. I went, ‘OK, f**k it, until they apologize.’
“And they did. Publicly. They said ‘Basically, we violated an agreement and then put our negative press on top of that.’ My thing is, I don’t want to see hamburgers and toys. I just want to make movies and I don’t want to be subliminally selling kids a lot of other stuff.”
Since the apology, Robin and Disney have restored their relationship, otherwise he would never have agreed to star in Flubber.
When he’s not visiting Disneyland or starring in Disney films, Robin oversees Comic Relief, which he founded in 1986 with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, runs a restaurant with his pals Robert De Niro, his co-star in Awakenings, and Francis Ford Coppola, his director in Jack, and revisits his stand-up roots.
“I did some stand-up just three days ago. I was on stage in a club in San Francisco. It’s liberating. Up there you ain’t a cartoon any more, you can talk about the world.
“Going into a comedy club is like a drug for me. It’s much cheaper than Prozac. It peels away the pretense of my being a movie star. You’re nobody in a club. The attitude is, ‘Hey boy, make me laugh.’ So you have to go out there and do it. You kick into a different gear and it’s important for me.
“Children’s movies are great, but on stage I’m back as an adult. I’ve got tits and everything else! You can play and there’s a whole lot of energy that takes place. That’s what I want to do when I finish my next movie – just go on tour for four or five months. I need that.”
And if he were to be a professor like his character in Flubber, he reckons he would invent “a chemical that would allow us to bridge the gap between the human brain and the animal brain, so we would end the violent tendency towards genocide that we humans have, but which few animals harbor.”
Realizing the profundity of his statement, Robin bursts our laughing and says, “Sorry, that was a little too serious. What I’d really invent is a second penis. Then you could be coming and going at the same time.”
Perhaps he should stick with the first answer. Humor isn’t always necessary, even if you’re the funniest man on the planet.
PERSONALITY October 23 1998