It was a little over a month prior to Robin Williams’ revelation this week that he had entered rehab after resuming drinking following two decades of sobriety that Hollywood.com sat down with the legendary comic and Oscar-winning actor. We were there to talk about his current film The Night Listener, but as always our discussion was fast and free-wheeling, covering a variety of topics as quickly as Williams’ electric brain, always hard-wired directly to his mouth, allowed.
He showed no sign of troubled times, and while he often fired off hilarious one-liners at Broadband speed, he also was relaxed and revealing when the conversation veered into serious and darker corners. When he said that hitting the road for more live stand-up performances was “part of the dream,” we wondered what the rest of his dream included. “Angelina Jolie,” he quipped without missing a beat. “No. I think that it's just to keep working and enjoy life as it's been going. It's been going quite wonderfully.”
Today Williams seems to have taken the first step to try to ensure that things stay on course. Read on for more of Williams’ thoughts on the light and dark sides of his life and career.
Hollywood.com: Is there a flip that you switch to be funny or serious?
Robin Williams: Yes. I think that it's a choice. There is a conscious choice. So yeah, I can turn it off or on according to need or according to inspiration. If someone says something that seems like a nice opportunity I will go that way. I will attempt to find the comedy in a Spanish maid. So then we have moments like that, and then you have moments where you realize it's okay and you can talk straight if you want.
HW: When was the most difficult time for you in your career?
RW: After Mork & Mindy was cancelled. I didn't even find out about that in person. I read about it in Variety, and I was dressed at the time as a three-foot frog doing The Frog Prince with Eric Idle. It was just this kind of devastating thing of like, “Well, the ride's over. That's it. Game's done.” Then Eric was great, because we had a great and funny day of shooting and I realized, “Maybe not.” It was just this thing of like, “Okay, that's it. Game's over. I have to go rob a convenience store with a transvestite.” That was kind of like, “Where do we go from here?” and then you realize that there are a lot of places to go. And that was kind of the roughest point.
HW: Did it take you a while to figure out what to do next?
RW: About an hour, because I was actually performing and doing comedy with Eric that day and I said, “Let’s keep doing this.” Then I went back into standup and kept going with that and that really helped. It always helped to have the ability to kind of talk about it and still get the kind of feedback and it was literally like a survival mechanism and it also helped to move out of L.A. because you're not surrounded by the business. I was literally stopped by a cop once and he handed me a script: “You were doing forty, but hey, Mr. Williams, it's just an idea.” And parking lot attendants knew how your movie did last week: “Sorry about last weekends grosses. Too bad you were number three. I thought that you would open big. I thought that the movie had legs, but they were little legs, Robin.”
HW: When did it occur to you that you could do more drama on a regular basis--was there a tipping point?
RW: It was probably after Dead Poets Society that I got the chance to do that, and after Insomnia it opened up a whole other side, with the dark kind of stranger roles. It was like, “Oh, good.” That was a really sort of wonderful access. Like if you play videogames, it's like accessing the next level. “You are now welcome to the dark parts.”
HW: But you knew that you could them, that you could access that within yourself?
RW: Oh, I knew that in spades, especially during that time with the cancellation of Mork & Mindy, and from my drinking years you know that. You find that there is a wonderful side of yourself that stays hidden for witness protection reasons [Laughs].
HW: When did your realize that you had a unique comic voice?
RW: I haven't realized that yet, but I realize that it was working pretty well when I was about in my twenties. I was all of a sudden trying to find a sort of unique voice versus a kind of combination of other things. It was kind of interesting. There was a show one night in San Francisco, a big benefit show and I really started to have a good time and I went, “Hey, this is me. This isn't like Jonathan Winters or something.” Everyone starts off being kind of someone else.
HW: Is weird to you that you think the way you do?
RW: That's almost like a Freudian question. It isn't weird. It's basically that I realize that's how I'm wired. That's what I do. I mean, there is the idea of kind of looking at things from a different perspective, but in that I hope to find things that other people can relate to that aren't so out there that it's lost on people.
HW: So doing live stand-up is still part of the game plan?
RW: I've been doing that still. I mean, I do that, but that's part of the dream. That's later on when I go home this summer, and take a little time off and then start again, going back on the road again to some clubs. You have to start off and just lay the base. There is a lot to talk about as in everyday.
I think that I'd like to go back on the road, but I have to just take some time. I've been doing a lot of movies…It feels good when it works, and when it doesn't work there is nothing harder and there is nothing worse. But there are times when it doesn't work and you go “Okay. I learned that.” But when it works it's kind of wonderful and if you really find new stuff it's great.
HW: Who are some of the comedians who you think stayed sharp in their later years and left a great legacy?
RW: I think George Carlin has pulled it off by just having the great Jonathan Swift vitriol. He had a great line the other day. He said, “Just because the monkey is off of your back doesn't mean the circus has left town.” Cosby has pulled off the long program, but Cosby is just a great storyteller and he's true to the word of never getting obscene. He doesn't ever get obscene and never uses any blue words. Robert Klein, he's fun. But you're talking about people who've been around a long time. You have a lot of people [on screen]. You've got Bill Murray. I love it when Eddie [Murphy] comes back, and anything that Steve Martin does. He can do both [comedy and drama]. I would love to have Steve direct more, because he's such a bright man and has such a great eye and not only being an art collector, but also being a great writer. He has both.
HW: You have a very strong and serious and compassionate side that comes through in all of your performances. Is there ever a situation where you're ripping on someone where you think you went a little too far?
RW: Oh, yeah, I have. There've been times where I went, “Oh, well, yeah--I shouldn't have talked about the [wheel]chair.” But sometimes you do it and they love it. It's hard to tell. When I was with Chris [Reeve] we would make jokes like “How is the lawn blower tie?” because he had the respirator. And then I call it the Black & Decker tie. The first time I introduced him and I said, “Here's my friend, Christopher Reeve. He's on a roll.” Sometimes if you walk the edge you're going to fall and say something that will be offensive on that level, but obviously you can't stop, though. And if you do that and say something that was offensive, afterwards you say, “Listen, I'm sorry. I went too far.”
HW: You’ve won an Oscar for a dramatic turn in Good Will Hunting. Do wish comedic actors got the same kind of recognition and awards that dramatic actors receive, like at the Academy Awards?
RW: I would like to honor all of the guys who didn't get one, mention all of the names. Go back to the start. Chaplin had to wait until he was pretty much thrown out of America. Chaplin, Keaton, Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, The Marx Brothers – all of those guys. With the comedies it's like they're always treated as if [in a condescending tone] “Yes, those are there and, sure, it pays for the industry, and well, sure, that's how it started--but they're damaged people. That's what they do. They're just this side of mentally challenged”…I mean, you realize how many great comedies there are and how many people are affected by them. Comedy is a great art when it works. I've never seen anything funnier than Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor in that scene around the dinner table. That alone would get an award if you're just going for shear funny. They're always talking about “Well, is it meaningful?” I think that it's meaningful if you had a great laugh and you actually come out of there going “I'm a human being. I laugh. I fart. I grab. I do things. I'm awkward. I don't know what I do most of the time. I fall down. It didn't happen to me. I was laughing at him.” It's all part of that, and now you have a whole generation of new people coming up. And comedies can be dark, like Dr. Strangelove. [Peter Sellers] didn't get an award that year. John Wayne did.
HW: Is it just as gratifying for you when something like an RV succeeds and something like Good Will Hunting or The Night Listener?
RW: Oh yeah. The fact that RV survived the initial [critical] maelstrom and then kept going is wonderful. And then you get guys coming up to you going “I took my family to that and we laughed our asses off.” It's like Sullivan's Travels. It's like you go, “Hey, dude—that's what it was, wonderful, to have a good time.” It never claimed to be anything else. I wasn't trying to change your life. What message did you want to take out with this? “Have a good time—and a little poop. Good luck.”
HW: What would you like your work to say about you?
RW: That I'm a human being that helps, with a slight intelligence. That would be good. A functioning intelligence. That'd be good too.