From the Archives: The Robin Williams Syndrome: Comic harnesses his inner child


Just about this time of year, it’s supposed to be raining. But paradise--a technical term for the city on this particularly fine day--simply refused to oblige. The sky was a hard enamel blue despite the autumn odds, and Robin Williams, who takes nothing for granted in his adopted hometown, was crowing over his arid good fortune.

“People will be going, ‘What’s that, Ma?’ ‘That’s rain, Tommy.’ ‘What’s that like, Ma?’ ‘Well, you know when the sprinklers go off?’ ”

Today, Williams is all soft fur and chopped-up kimonos. His milky blue eyes are shaded by a fringe of brown puppy-down hair. His barrel chest is encased in a delicate vest made of Japanese fabric swatches. Even his feet scream Robin Williams--one is shod in a red sneaker, the other in primary yellow.


As he riffs and trudges down a dusty path in Golden Gate Park, Williams is feeling very much on solid ground. To his left the rich foliage breaks to reveal the Polo Fields, a sanctuary en plein air . There only a week earlier, Williams, among others, had been entertaining the troops--the 300,000 mourners for rock and benefit impresario Bill Graham and the embattled ‘60s ideals he stood for.

“There was a great quote of (Graham’s). He said, ‘When things piss you off, you’ve got a choice. You can either sit there and kvetch and say, “Oh, this is awful,” or do something about it.’ I think the one thing I picked up from him is you can do something about it and also have a great time,” muses Williams, himself a stalwart of Comic Relief benefits for the homeless for four years.

Williams “feels this responsibility to what he stands for,” says Lynda Obst, who co-produced the actor’s recent film “The Fisher King,” “be it the innocence and the joy of childhood, which he can bring into his performance, or that innocence of the time we all shared in the ‘60s that Bill Graham emblemized.”

If it takes a certain innocence to emerge from the ‘80s, altruism intact, then Williams is the grown-up of choice to harness his own inner child for fun and profit. It’s a quality that sets him apart from most other box-office behemoths. After the hard-charging politics of the ‘60s and the materialism of the ‘80s, here comes the movie star for the ‘90s--a combination of the two, the reluctant millionaire with a message.

So Williams’ selection as the born-again adolescent Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” would seem to be stunningly obvious.

“The minute Steven heard that Robin wanted to do Peter, he was ecstatic,” says Kathleen Kennedy, a co-producer on “Hook” (TriStar’s big holiday release, which opens Wednesday). “He felt that Robin embodies everything about the child inside of us, and that was really the message that he was trying to achieve with the movie.”

But perhaps paradoxically, playing to type has often been a double-edged sword for the latest Peter Pan in his own battles at the box office. His first film role, Robert Altman’s “Popeye” (1980), may have seemed a logical next step from his dazzlingly successful portrayal of TV’s interplanetary Mork from Ork. But the big-screen fantasy was a notorious commercial and critical disaster, flayed in part for binding the actor behind a turgid cartoon character.

Now, Williams is mindful of certain eerie similarities to Peter Pan. “I was like, ‘This is a little frightening,’ ” he says. “That’s why doing Peter Pan is still a little like, oooohhhh, another character with the name P . Another icon. Oh, man. You want that pressure?”

What’s more, Williams’ typical roles have tended to confront him with a critical conundrum--he’s cast for being Robin Williams, then he’s castigated for it.

His portrayal of the cuddly schizophrenic Parry in “The Fisher King,” another baby step from his stand-up persona, may have been anointed by some East Coast critics, but it drew typically mixed reviews: The Chicago Tribune wrung its hands over “so much burly humanity, particularly of the overbearing Robin Williams variety” and the Boston Globe groaned, “You wish the film would go off the deep end, as Williams’ character would do more often if it weren’t so tied to his stand-up comic reflexes.” Even Williams acknowledges that his wife, Marsha, reminds him when his act interferes with his acting.

Forget his nemesis Hook. In this incarnation of Peter Pan, the hero’s biggest challenge could be his own shadow--"that little manic guy” as Williams has tagged his public image, a 78-rpm comedian weaned on a steady diet of audience feedback. For despite Williams’ success on Hollywood’s terms--big box office--getting the public to see him as more than a frenzied funnyman has been no joke.

“It’s hard because people want to know you’re a certain thing,” he says. “They still say, ‘That’s the little manic guy. He’s the little adrenaline guy. Oh, yeah, he touches himself. He doesn’t do that anymore. But wait a minute. He’s the little manic guy who played the really quiet guy and then the really scary guy. Oh, no, wait . . . ‘ “

Williams’ shrewdest career moves may have been those that allowed him to fly without a performing net--his comic shtick--ultimately enabling him to buck Hollywood’s tendency to tuck actors into neat corners, particularly those with strong comic identities. Ever since his tour de force in “Good Morning, Vietnam” in 1987, Williams has parlayed his romance with the box office into an unusually broad range of roles and been rewarded for his trouble with two Oscar nominations (for “Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society”).

His future could hold the biggest stretch yet. Williams wants to fly without his box-office parachute--his immense likability on-screen--in favor of playing roles that would be, frankly, despicable. Given his druthers, Williams would rather have played bad boy Hook.

“It’s like a champagne villain,” he says. “You can have a great time. It’s necessary to change people’s parameters of you. You start getting the reputation for being the cuddly guy and then you (say), ‘OK. Let’s mess with that.’ Try something that’s slightly insidious and try to push those bounds a bit.”

“He’s treating the whole film-star experience as though he were still a student, with an appetite for new experiences, instead of being guarded and cautious and safe,” says Christopher Reeve, a friend of Williams’ since their days at New York’s Juilliard School in the mid-'70s. “It’s a unique phenomenon, that he’s growing as he becomes more successful. Usually, I think, people become more limited as they become more successful because they want to hang onto something that works.”

“He’s a city-state, what a friend refers to as singular artists working within the mainstream,” says Peter Weir, who directed Williams in “Dead Poets Society.” “A city-state with its own army, its own controls and foreign policies.”

Williams is considered peer to the handful of actors who can “open” a film, the industry term for the ability to snare an audience simply by showing up. He can command $4 million to $7 million a film. (For “Hook,” Williams will earn a portion of the box-office gross instead of salary.)

“He can get a movie made,” says Obst, who credits Williams with doing exactly that for the quirky “Fisher King.” “He is a green light.”

As he peers into the jaws of middle age at 40, Williams has come a long way from the frenetically brilliant young talent who beguiled yet befuddled his acting teachers.

But Williams denies his success is due to playing to the great Hollywood maw. If he did any adapting, he says, it was to the scripts, not the town: “I adapted to the character and to the director, who said whatever energy you had before was not viable for this. It’s like the old joke--a skin graft on a leper. It won’t hold.”

“Hook,” Peter Pan’s third shot at the big screen, was cobbled from the original stage play and three of J. M. Barrie’s Victorian novels--"Peter and Wendy,” “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” and “The Little White Bird.” The movie opens years after Peter has left eternal youth behind in Neverland (as Barrie called his fantasy time-free zone in the original stories). He has become Peter Banning, the creaky, curmudgeonly grown-up he had once forsworn. His former enemy, Captain Jas. Hook (Dustin Hoffman), itchy for combat, kidnaps Banning’s children. And wih the help of Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts), Peter must return to Neverland and resurrect his own callow soul to save them. It’s a state he rediscovers when he learns to crow, fight and fly.

The role appeals to the predictably childlike part of Williams that loves to hunker down with the four computers and fantasy figures in the “war room” of his sprawling Napa Valley ranch--a part-time home--and finds nothing more enchanting than the prospect of playing with his children Zachary, 8, and Zelda, 2. (On Nov. 25, a third child, Cody, was born--not, Williams hastens to add, yet another Z name: “Oh, look, when is Zoetrope coming over? Is Zeus home? And Zippy?”)

But there’s another part of Williams that is equally at home with the icy adult. That side finds its face in his portrayal of the dour corporate lawyer and absentee father Peter Banning, who resembles Williams’ own father, Robert, a grim realist and peripatetic Lincoln-Mercury executive. The elder Williams, who died four years ago, was nicknamed Lord Stokesbury, Viceroy of India, for his no-nonsense demeanor.

“No one wants to acknowledge that they have an anal . . . retentive, ordered, don’t-mess-with-that side, or a driven business side, even though no one really imagines me to be like that,” Williams says. “I have that side from my father, who was a very ethical businessman, who was very good at it.”

Indeed, Williams resonates to the dark underbelly of this very Victorian tale, a chiaroscuro shading overlooked in Peter’s TV and animated incarnations. It’s the side of youth that is singed with loneliness, abandonment and orphanhood. It’s Peter’s desire not to grow up because he is afraid of dying.

Segue to Williams’ own solitary childhood in Birmingham, Mich., a wealthy suburb of Detroit. (He didn’t grow up with his two older half brothers from his parents’ earlier marriages--McLauren Smith, a physics teacher in Memphis, Tenn., and Todd Williams, an itinerant wine merchant.)

“I was living in this huge estate,” Williams says, and then, with a Williams-esque flourish, adds: “It was miles to the next kid.”

Robin would spend hours at a game table--a sandbox on stilts--that his father had built for him. The table was transformed into battlefields (to be succeeded, years later, by the Napa war room). Robin dispatched his 20,000 plastic soldiers to battle in various voices, an early version of the actor’s Hydra-headed flair for character performance.

And then he turned 12.

Robert Williams, who’d served on an aircraft carrier in World War II, sat his son down one day and taught him a lesson about life’s murkier realities. “He told me some pretty horrific stories,” the actor recalls. “ . . . A kamikaze hit the bridge. . . . He was lying there bleeding for eight hours. He tourniquetted himself. And he basically said, ‘Listen. There’s nothing more horrific than to lose the image that (dying for one’s country is) glorious-- Dulce et decorum est . . . .’ That whole horrific stuff, horrific, lonely, horrifying. And that kind of wised me up. And I gave them all away to some little kid.”

The Williams family moved to Marin County in Robin’s high school years, and he didn’t stray far for college, attending--and flunking--political science courses at what was then called Claremont Men’s College. Much more enticing were the improvisation classes that would ante up his early audiences--some of them patients in mental hospitals.

“The suggestions were quite amazing,” he says. “ ‘Suggestions of a place?’ ‘Outsiiiiiide.’ ”

But Williams’ first goal was to be a serious actor and, passing on his father’s suggestion that he pursue welding as a backup profession, he opted instead for Juilliard. There he found a role model in John Houseman, then a head of the acting school, who advised that classical training could take him anywhere as a performer and infused Williams with the fire to merge acting with activism.

But the stately Juilliard School had no idea of what to do with the brilliant but manic Williams.

“He wasn’t your standard Juilliard product,” classmate Reeve says with some understatement. “Robin simply defied description. . . . He and I were in the advanced program together at the end of the third year. They asked him to go back to the first-year level and start over again, I think simply because they didn’t know what to make of him.”

Williams’ high-energy shtick may not have played before the Juilliard powers that be, but it was standing-room only in the school’s locker room, where other actors competed to keep up with his machine-gun wit.

Williams tried his hand at mime on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and improvised at comedy clubs around town. New York was true to its cold and lonely form, however, and Williams returned to San Francisco, without having graduated, to pursue a woman.

But serious acting opportunities were scarce at the time there, and Williams found himself drawn to the burgeoning market for stand-up comedy at coffeehouses and clubs like the Boardinghouse and Holy City Zoo.

Stand-up was a shield between Williams and other people; he called character comedy his “duck-and-cover” technique for eluding commitments: “For a long time, it was just this ego fix of (needing) to get out there and get some laughs, because it’s a great way of avoiding dealing with anything. ‘They think I’m great. What’s wrong with you?’ ”

When Williams moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to stoke his career, success was virtually instantaneous. That year he was discovered by director Garry Marshall’s sister, Ronny Hallin, who caught Williams’ act at a nightclub and suggested him for the role of a space alien on “Happy Days.” (Marshall’s son had just seen “Star Wars” and concluded that “Happy Days” needed an alien to call its own.)

Mork from Ork, the interplanetary innocent with a mean improvisational riff, won his own spinoff show, “Mork and Mindy,” which made Williams a sensation. The series ran from September, 1978, to June, 1982, downed finally by poor ratings. Williams moved back to Napa, which he’d been straddling during the Mork years.

Those heady years of instant fame were stoked by late nights, drugs and alcohol. Williams had been with John Belushi mere hours before Belushi was found dead of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles in 1982.

“It was a strange thing because my managers sent me to this doctor because they said I had this cocaine problem,” Williams says. “He said, ‘How much do you do?’ And I said, ‘A gram every couple of days,’ and he said, ‘You don’t have a problem.’

“That was before they’d started to acknowledge it was psychologically addicting. And then at a certain point you realize, maybe it is. Physically I’m not craving it, but mentally I’m really thinking it might be a good idea.”

Belushi’s death, coupled with Williams’ own impending debut as a father, made him realize that drug use was in fact a bad idea. It’s something he talks about freely now with some zeal, although he typically Robin-izes the subject, transforming it into comedy, proselytizing minus the pain: “Freebase? It’s not free. It takes all your assets. But if that sounds exciting. . . .”

Flush with his TV triumph, Williams crossed over to film in 1980 with the eccentric “Popeye,” lured in part by Robert Altman at the helm. But the actor’s charms were trapped somewhere behind the gruff voice, prosthetic arms and turgid script.

In what was to form the pattern of his career, Williams lurched to an entirely different kind of role in 1982’s “The World According to Garp,” a bizarre literary take on radical feminism, directed by George Roy Hill. In “Garp,” Williams the comic persona was totally subsumed by the demands of the script. Williams has sought limits like that throughout his career in a paradoxical quest to expand his range. When he made a misguided attempt to improvise, Williams says Hill made “his weasel face” and cut the camera.

“It was hard at first because it was new,” he says. “It’s like putting on braces, and then eventually you learn to walk a little differently. You’re all of a sudden, ‘Oh, I don’t need that chop to make something work.’ ”

Williams’ next film, “The Survivors,” was a bust, a well-meaning survival comedy directed by Michael Ritchie that suffocated from predictability. It took a former stand-up comedian to rescue Williams’ film career from the comic typecasting inferno--Paul Mazursky, who directed him as the Russian jazz musician of “Moscow on the Hudson,” a sometimes elegiac film that showed him off as a tender romantic lead.

Surprisingly, another turning point was the deservedly obscure flop “Club Paradise,” an anti-development island comedy directed by Harold Ramis that taught Williams a painful lesson. “ ‘Club Paradise’ was a sheer effort of greed,” he says. “I just went for the cash and went, ‘Great, now make a commercial movie’ and I got creamed.”

(The film found a lonely and unlikely champion in Pauline Kael, who declared it heroic. “She raved about that movie, and I was like, ‘ Hooooooo . Pauline, sweethaht, dahling, dahling? Did someone else get ahold of your word processor? Talk to me.’ ”)

Williams’ characteristic response was to veer in the opposite direction. His next film was “Seize the Day,” a PBS drama based on a Saul Bellow novel about a deeply troubled father-son relationship, for which Williams received actor’s scale. He regards it as one of his finest efforts.

But the film that really jump-started his career was “Good Morning, Vietnam,” a box-office El Dorado that raked in $123.9 million domestically. As radio deejay Adrian Cronauer, Williams was finally able to improvise entire monologues during the broadcast segments, which he did to dizzying effect.

But it took “Dead Poets Society” in 1989 to firmly establish Williams as a serious actor, partly because he turned out to be a box-office force in Europe (the film culled $140 million overseas and $94.6 million at home). In Japan, whose rigid school system echoed the film’s, lights were kept low for five minutes after screenings to give the audience time to compose itself. Williams’ overseas appeal meant he was getting dramatic scripts that could be expected to recoup costs in Europe’s art-film market.

With “Dead Poets,” whose free-thinking prep school teacher urged his charges to “seize the day,” Williams was able to make good on John Houseman’s activist acting lessons. Indeed, outsider hero roles have had particular allure for the actor. In 1990’s “Awakenings,” Williams played a dedicated, dithering doctor who briefly resuscitated post-encephalitic patients in a sort of mental limbo in the face of his naysayers.

Williams reverted to type with Parry, the homeless schizophrenic and erstwhile medieval scholar of “The Fisher King"--perhaps the quintessential Robin Williams role. The film was an urban myth that blurred the line between genius and madness, that called on Williams’ qualities of innocence and gentleness and that challenged his audience to find dignity among the downtrodden.

Along those activist lines, Williams is contemplating playing Harvey Milk, the murdered San Francisco supervisor who was the city’s first public official to acknowledge his homosexuality. “The range of homophobia in America is so huge,” Williams says, “plus he was an amazingly charismatic and dynamic man. Very complex.”

Williams is confident and self-assured these days, bereft of the demons he once exorcised on comedy stages (where he now makes only periodic forays). It’s a transformation many credit in part to his second wife, Marsha, 35, a Wisconsin-born artist. (They met when she joined the Williams household as an au pair for Zack.)

Meeting Williams, it becomes clear why the far-reaching course of his career and his desires have sometimes been so sharply at odds with people’s expectations of him. There is, of course, the hilarious, brilliant, zingy, laser-quick Robin Williams, the accessible but sophisticated jester who will suddenly metamorphose into a stinging parody of Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Swaggart.

“It’s as if he was momentarily possessed, speaking in tongues from wherever great comics and comic writers go when they leave. He is their medium,” Peter Weir says.

But there is perhaps a more pronounced side of Williams that is deeply serious and thoughtful. At one point, he reaches into his shirt to reveal a Coptic cross on a chain, which has, almost metaphorically, been hidden for most of the day. It is a symbol of the divine spark that he believes powers his own creativity.

“Whether it’s something in nature or the creation of a piece of music, there are times when you say, ‘There’s something behind all that,’ ” Williams says. “It’s quite beautiful, and at times you think there’s also a dark side, something quite evil.”

Williams subscribes to no particular organized religion and says his upbringing was similarly unstructured, although his mother, Laurie, his own comic inspiration, is a Christian Scientist. “I used to joke and say she was a Christian Dior scientist. She only wore certain makeup,” he says.

These days he’s thumbing through the Koran because he wants to see what lies beyond the Western interpretation of Islam as “religion with a Smith & Wesson clause--if you kill a nonbeliever, you get right to heaven.”

Far from a recluse, Williams et al. live mainly in the middle of the city, on an unassuming Presidio Heights street; they’re renting the tawny-shingled home while their bay-front house is renovated. And if others of his ilk prompt everyman to admire and desire them, Williams seems to inspire something else, that elusive grail of actors everywhere--the sheer, unadulterated affection of his public.

In fact, for the past few hours, they’ve been peppering him with hellos with almost rhythmic regularity, greetings Williams returns in courtly fashion. Even as he hunkers down on a log in Golden Gate Park, a dark-haired woman, surprised at her celebrity find, plops her son next to Williams for a quick picture. Then she hurries off, leaving him again to explain why he keeps returning to roles like the unevenly received Parry of “The Fisher King” that nevertheless show compassion for the dispossessed.

“You’ve got to try and help in some way,” he is saying as the shutter clicks behind him. “People forget that Christ hung out with lepers and sinners, thieves. He preferred to be with them than the people in the temple. There he found salvation, in those acts of compassion. The moment you serve the grail, it’s yours for all eternity.”