Robin Williams was a rare comedy genius and one hard to keep up with. In interviews, attempting to match his banter was often the best method; he would riff on all manner of subjects, taking every morsel he heard and instinctively turning it into a joke. He always managed a great Australian accent, and once in the confines of a stuffy Paris press conference for Insomnia, he came over to say “G’day”. I would later run into him on a beach in San Francisco and he knew exactly who I was and introduced me to his dog. People weren’t just journalists or nobodies to him: they were all human beings. He was a humanist above all.
At the aforementioned press conference during French Fashion Week, he had ripped off his shirt and pigeon-walked, pretending to be a model (despite his extremely hairy chest). Another time he riffed on the dancing penguin he voiced in George Miller’s Australian animated film, Happy Feet. “I get to sing the Gypsy Kings version of Hotel California as a leettle penguin,” he said. “For me, it’s a very good thing.” He went on to impersonate two fairy penguins “that turned out to be gay in Central Park Zoo,” and then things became rather ribald.
More than anything, he loved his kids and said they kept him young. “When I’m driving my 12-year-old son to school I get rap first thing in the morning”. He then went off into an expletive-loaded rap riff, and I suggested that it kept him young.
“Yes, it does dear,” he agreed, talking slowly in an elderly Australian voice. “It keeps you so young, the young people’s music. We never had bitches with big booty when I was growing up.”
Do his kids’ friends come home to ogle at him? “No, I just exist as this strange guy. They just say, ‘Hi, Mork’.” It’s not like, ‘This is your father who got the Academy Award’. No, that doesn’t bother them.”
If he could edit his memories, he said he’d cut the years from 30 to 38. “I’ve already edited them biologically because I was drinking then so that helps with memory loss, but I would edit them more.” One assumes he would edit out the death of his good friend and fellow rager, John Belushi, who died of an overdose in 1982.
Below are a few quotes from my interviews with Williams over the years.
The Final Cut
Riffing on his past drug-taking and heavy drinking, he joked about his attendance at Villains Anonymous.
“It would be, ‘Hi, my name is Robin, I’ve been playing villains.’ ‘Nice to have you Robin.’ I think they’re fun to play. Anthony Hopkins says they’re very seductive. And interesting too. This character in Final Cut [the appropriately named Alan Hakman] is not a sociopath like the guy in Insomnia, nor as damaged as Sy in One Hour Photo, but he has a certain obsession about trying to absolve others by editing their lives. He has his own memory that he can’t shake, and an incredible guilt. There are certain things he’s trying to remember, but your brain sets up barriers to protect you or maybe just to protect itself. That’s what therapy is about – like as Freud said, ‘If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother’.”
His means of escaping the old life came with the birth of his first child and with the responsibilities of parenthood. “I didn’t want to be unaware, I wanted to be present and I was.” Comedy helped, too.
Was there ever a day when he didn’t crack a joke? “There’s probably been a few. I remember there was a day in 1974. But I always find something—making fun of things just helps you to get you through the day.”
Did it start as a defence mechanism? “No, it started as a way of getting laid. It started a bit in high school, but more in college when I did this improv class. The thing about performing comedy, it’s not like rock’n’roll—but it’s close. All of a sudden, you’re, ‘Hey!’ and you start to feel empowered. It just empowered me in a different way than political science, the other thing I was studying at the time.”
Williams studied at the prestigious Julliard acting school in New York, but when acting work proved scarce, he found he could make money doing stand-up. One discipline, of course, fed the other and he recalled being greatly influenced by a class he took with Marlon Brando.
“Brando did things that nobody had seen before. One day he brought in used car salesman, because he said this man is acting every day. They brought in this shitty car and made him sell the car. This guy was improvising like a madman; you could tell that he could sell any car. It was a kind of survival mechanism.”
Williams was the first to admit that comedy is the hardest of all. “I used to have a pillow that said ‘Dying is easy, comedy’s hard’.”
While he will naturally be remembered for his smash hit turns in broad comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire, he was always keen to flex his dramatic muscles, even if at first, it was a struggle to be taken seriously. His early roles, as a cartoon character in Popeye and as an alien in television’s Mork & Mindy, set the tone for his career.
“My first dramatic part was in The World According to Garp. I saw it as a chance to play dark and weird, yet in video stories in America they put Garp in the comedy section. Actually, that was my first character with tragic tendencies.”
As early as 1986’s Seize the Day, a little-seen movie where he played a man who loses everything, he was drawn to roles that were obsessive, withdrawn and peculiar. Likewise, few saw his performance in Christopher Hampton’s The Secret Agent, where he played a man prowling Edwardian England with explosives strapped to his body.
“When you play comic parts people just see the comedy and go, ‘Oh, you’re a crazy person’. Then all of sudden you start playing a nasty, strange person then they go, ‘Oh, he’s acting now’. It’s the same thing with Bill Murray. When people saw Lost in Translation they realised he’s a dramatic actor, but he always was a great one in movies like Groundhog Day. To be a good comic, you have to be a good actor.”
One Hour Photo
“I would say the comedy pays the bills and the drama brings the trophies. With a movie like this you’re basically working for nothing and you agree to that up front because it’s worth doing. That’s what’s nice, you’re not bound by any pressure, because the salary is no longer this giant thing, and you can go, ‘Okay, we’re working off the radar’. That’s the same with my next movie House of D, directed by David Duchovny. I play a man who is high functioning retarded. These movies aren’t made by committee, which means they’re not tested. My favourite thing was when Barry Levinson got a card back from a test screening of Rain Man that said, ‘I kept waiting for the little guy to snap out of it’. Test people know they have a movie to change, but with these smaller movies it’s nice that the movie is what you read.”
On His Huge Passion for Cycling and the Tour de France
Williams was once good friends with Lance Armstrong.
“The Tour de France is such an amazing event because it combines so many different sports: downhill skiing, car racing—but without explosions, and endurance-wise, it’s insane. I usually train with Lance for a couple of hours, but I know all the cyclists. I ride with them when they’re relaxing, but when they put the hammer down it’s ‘Bye bye’. Other celebrities play golf to spend time alone, but for me, it’s riding my bike. I go for hours and it’s great.”
Watch 'One Hour Photo'
Wednesday 2 September, 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND (NOTE: no SBS On Demand catch-up)
Director: Mark Romanek
Starring: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Erin Daniels, Eriq La Salle
What's it about?
Sy Parrish (Williams) has lovingly and painstakingly developed photographs for the Yorkin family since their son was a baby. But as the Yorkins' lives become fuller, Sy's only seems lonelier, until he eventually convinces himself he's part of their family. When Sy discovers the family's dark secret, a bizarre and thrilling confrontation ensues.