I interviewed Robin Williams once, at the Toronto Film Festival in 1999. It was tough and unpleasant. He entered the hotel room like a whirlwind, in a kind of manic frenzy. (I’d already heard him coming up the hallway, ad-libbing frantically in a succession of accents and funny voices, to a chorus of soft, obliging laughter from his publicists.)
Once inside, he went into improv overdrive, riffing on the curtains in the suite, the way the cups and saucers had been arranged on the coffee table, the unspeakable perversities of Canadian housewives . . . I sat watching, visibly unmoved by his shtick—I knew this was a strategy intended to disarm, to turn the journalist into a fan (because who wasn’t a fan, at least of some of his work?) and thereby forestall any actual engagement—and I remember after about a minute he stopped dead and stared at me through narrowed eyes.
“Ah,” he said. “Hard-ass, huh?”
The subsequent thirty minutes uncovered as deep a vein of self-loathing as I've ever seen. This was around the time of Patch Adams, but he was in Toronto for the premiere of Jakob the Liar, the tale of a shopkeeper trying to buoy the spirits of his fellow Jews in the Warsaw ghetto by relaying fictious good news from the Allied forces. Well-intentioned, overly sentimental, it played like a cross between Good Morning Vietnam and Life is Beautiful; like so many of his recent projects, it seemed beneath him, unworthy of his gifts. And so I tried to get to why, as an undeniably talented, clever man, he was making so many awful movies.
He admitted, eventually, that most of the films had indeed been lousy. But what he could do? Scripts were mostly crap. Studio executives were too conservative... And, yes, he’d also made some bad or expedient decisions. (“They offer you this money—what are you going to say?”) But, he added—and it was meant, I think, as a kind of mea culpa, an act of contrition—he was planning to return to live comedy. In a few days, he said, he was going to announce a North American tour, his first in over a decade. His face, as he said it, had an almost boyish enthusiasm.
That’s fantastic, I said—and I meant it, because Williams’ stand-up ranks among the best of the form; the prospect of seeing him onstage after so long was genuinely exciting. So what had made him decide to return to live performance?
And then, as I watched, all the eagerness drained from his eyes. “I guess, motherfuckers like you telling me I’ve lost my edge,” he replied coldly.
At the end, we shook hands. “That was tough,” he said. “But it was good.” But I didn’t feel good about it. I’d grown up loving him as Mork on TV, and what I’d encountered was the opposite of that: a profoundly unhappy person, disappointed in himself and unconvinced by even his real achievements. He was staying clean, he said, and that took work. The temptation was always there. The darkness always at his heels.
"It’s the smaller projects, the more intimate moments, that best displayed the precision of his craft."
And then, a little over a year later, he came out with One Hour Photo—one of his best screen performances, which tapped into some of that darkness and reminded everybody just what he could do with even an adequate script and an attentive director.
Watch him in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King—a great, singular film—and marvel at the shades he brings his character, a kind of derelict-savant: the careful balance of defiance and self-pity and grandiloquence he evokes. The bigger, more notable films made his reputation—Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society—and sure, he’s superb in each of them. But it’s the smaller projects, the more intimate moments, that best displayed the precision of his craft.
Ironically, two of them were on TV. He was a guest star in one of the finest episodes of NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street. ‘Bop Gun’ was written by David Mills and David Simon (who would go on to make The Wire), and in it Williams plays Robert Ellison, the husband of a woman who’s been murdered in a stick-up. Tourists from Iowa, they were in Baltimore on vacation, and now she’s dead, for no reason except they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which would be bad enough—except that Ellison then overhears one of the investigating cops joking about the case, and bragging about the overtime he’ll make from it. His reaction is a master-class in understatement; his grief and anger seem to hollow him out, make him wraith-like and unnerving. Of the experience of working with him, Homicide’s executive producer Tom Fontana said, ‘He could not have been more prepared or more of a gentleman to everyone, and he worked his tail off. That whole experience was a joy.’
I never watched The Crazy Ones, his recent TV series, but to me his curtain call should be a little co-starring spot in FX’s Louie—the sixth episode from season three. He plays himself, as one of two people who turn up to the funeral of a comedy club owner (‘the biggest piece of shit I ever knew’) who also happened to be his brother-in-law. He and Louie CK swap stories of the guy’s perfidy: he under-paid, his cheques bounced, he lied . . . Worse, Williams says, he was always trying to hang out with the comedians afterwards, like he was one of them. And always trying to get them to go to ‘Sweet Charity’, a dismal strip club by the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel . . .
But then, feeling some obscure sense of obligation, they visit the club, and find that this liar and cheat, this hopeless asshole, actually meant something to a lot of people: news of his death reduces the strippers to helpless sobs. As they watch, astonished, the DJ puts on Night Ranger’s ‘Sister Christian’ (‘This one’s for you, buddy’), and the song has never sounded so forlorn or so sad.
The end of that story, now, is heartbreaking: afterwards, outside the club, he and Louie button their jackets against the winter wind and shake hands and prepare to part. But Williams hesitates.
‘Hey,’ he says softly. ‘Do me a favour? If . . .’
‘Oh, I’ll go to yours,’ says Louie. And I really hope, now, that he does. Because more than most, Robin Williams understood that we mostly die, as we live, alone.
Anyone seeking support and information about suicide prevention is encouraged to contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
Watch 'One Hour Photo'
Friday 30 April, 12:00pm on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)
Director: Mark Romanek
Starring: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Erin Daniels, Eriq La Salle