Child at Heart

In Jack, Robin Williams is a boy trapped in a man's body--kind of like real life

Originally published on July 28, 1996 | Toronto Sun | written by Jim Slotek

HOLLYWOOD--You know how it is with kids. One minute they're deadly enemies, the next, all is forgiven. That even works with man-children like Robin Williams and million-dollar feuds like the one he had with Disney.

After sitting out one movie, he's back as the voice of the genie in Aladdin (in the made-for-video Aladdin And The King Of Thieves) and starring in the Disney/Touchstone comedy/drama Jack, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and opening Aug. 9.

"No, I don't have a contract with Disney," Williams says jovially about his former enemies, before lapsing characteristically into shtick. "Actually, they have a contract on me. A man named Tony has been following me around. (Mafioso voice): 'I want you to stop saying things about Mr. Eisner. The man has the warmth of a snow pea.' (Goofy voice): 'You made fun of the King!' (Mickey): 'Robin, we'd like to talk to you outside.'"

Suddenly he's Robin Williams again, no longer speaking in tongues. This is the fifth time I've interviewed him in 12 years, and his Mork-like outbursts do not dominate the sessions the way they used to. "People talk about how childlike Robin is, and of course that's true," says Coppola. "But he is also a man and a father, and increasingly that part has taken over."

In the end, Williams speaks maturely of the bad blood that came out of Aladdin, a movie he did for a fraction of his normal fee, on the proviso that Disney not market the film as a Robin Williams movie. Which they did, "merchandising tie-ins, the whole thing. I don't mind if they make dolls. It's when they use my voice that it gets interesting."

Finally, they all came out friends, and Williams and wife Marsha got a Picasso for their Napa Valley ranch-house. "The thing is they didn't give me a Picasso as a payback for violating the agreement. The Picasso came first, then they violated the agreement, then we broke off the marriage. Then they apologized, and that was all I wanted. I wanted them to say, 'We violated the agreement and then we put out a press campaign that made it look as if you were sticking us up for money.'

"Studios do this all the time, but they just don't cop to it. (He adopts a voice): 'Shhh! You mean lie?' But they did and they admitted it and now we're back.

"It was tough for a while. How do you tell the kids, 'Daddy's fighting with Disney, so we won't be going to Orlando for a while? No more plush toys or Hunchback packs or merchandising.'"

Such cynicism has no place in the world of Jack, a more painful, reverse twist on Big, in which Williams plays a boy with a bizarre medical condition that causes him to age four times as fast as other kids. When he is ten, he is the physically-40-ish Robin Williams, breaking free from his overprotective mother (Diane Lane) and getting to know kids his own age (if not size).

The sad man-child role came easily to Williams, who says he drew from his own unhappy childhood--which he talks about pointedly, with little humor. His father, a Lincoln-Mercury exec in Detroit, kept the family in a 40-room house in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (they later moved to Tiburon, a wealthy San Francisco suburb).

"I lived in that big house and I was pretty much alone. I still went to school, but I was kind of out in a big farm in the country way away from everybody. I remember getting picked on, having to find alternate ways to get home 'cause you don't want to get your ass kicked. I was picked on for being small. At a certain point I felt fat, pudgy. That's why I became a wrestler in high school. At least if you're only going to be 103 pounds, you can kick another 103-pound guy's ass."

Says Coppola: "I think it was Hemingway who said that to be a great artist you have to have an unhappy childhood." The two Napa Valleyans have this much in common. "I had polio as a child," says Coppola, "and was kept from any contact with kids. There was a lot of longing. And I think that was why I empathized with this film.

"I read the script of Jack with Robin in mind. And I read it kind of like Kafka's Metamorphosis. I said, 'If you accept him as a giant cockroach, it's going to be good. If you don't accept Robin as a 10-year-old, the premise falls.'"

"So I came up with this concept to have Robin in a situation with eight or nine nine-year-old boys (his co-stars in Jack). I'm an old camp counsellor and we did all sorts of activities. We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and slept on the mountain."

"We called it Camp Coppola," says Williams. "We did kid things, rode bikes for days, went to toy stores. By the end, it was weird, I'd assimilated all this stuff. It was like time-travelling by association.

"Y'know, it's all little things at that age that are important--your 'stuff,' things they have, friendships. When the world collapses, it collapses completely. That's why they break down and cry and the next minute feel great."

Of course, every age has its own reality. And Williams notes his own kids "aren't in the age range to be of much help (with the role). The six-year-old (Zelda) is too young, the four-year-old (Cody) is a Ninja, and the 13-year-old (Zachary) is like, 'Dad, please, I'm dyeing my hair, I can't talk now.'"

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