Something's not right here. Robin Williams has just arrived for a breakfast interview at the elegant Hotel Bel-Air to discuss his return as the voice of the big, blue genie in "Aladdin and the King of Thieves," the second "Aladdin" sequel produced for home-video release.
He's dressed the way one imagines a comedic maestro would be: orange plaid shorts bright enough to burn holes in the retinas of casual passersby, an orange silk shirt, and a baseball cap. Still, something's off. The dining area is noticeably... quiet. Williams is famous for his manic, whiling interviews--equal parts comedy, performance art, and nervous energy. But right now Williams--the man behind Mork, Popeye, Garp, Peter Pan, Genie, Mrs. Doubtfire, and a man trapped inside a board game--is fresh out of zany.
"It's too early," he groans after ordering an espresso. The night before, he returned from Puerto Rico, where he attended an American Paralysis Association benefit with his friend Christopher Reeve. When his interviews do turn into a comedy vortex, Williams says, "The lights are on and suddenly you're like, 'Oh, people!' Then it kicks in, either out of fear or a sense of fun."
Fans don't see this thoughtful side of Williams often, but they'd better get used to it. After building a superstar career on characters with one foot firmly lodged in childhood, Williams has realized that he must grow up, at least on-screen.
This realization came while sitting on a swing during the filming of "Jack." In the Hollywood Pictures film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Williams plays a child whose body ages four times faster than normal. "This is the last one," Williams says of his boy-in-the-body-of-a-man roles. "This is the ultimate one. This is the metaphor gone beyond hyperbole into a smile. I can't do it anymore after this. I'm 45. This is way beyond the Peter Pan syndrome."
In the future, expect a more adult version of Williams--such as the suck-up Osric in Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" this Christmas, or the deadly chemist who makes bombs to order in "The Secret Agent," a thriller based on a Joseph Conrad novel.
"I just want to work with characters, with great ensembles of people," says Williams, sounding more like the actor he first set out to be when he attended the Julliard School, rather than the inventive comic that emerged. When asked if the move will disappoint his fans, Williams says, "You have to kind of say, 'If you're disappointed, I'm sorry, but I have to keep trying new things for my own sanity.'"
In the meantime, however, children can enjoy Williams as the magical morphin' power genie in "King of Thieves." For the production, Williams set his stream-of-consciousness comedy free, ad-libbing impressions of everyone from Woody Allen to Sylvester Stallone, which Disney artists later animated.
"I went into a room and started improvising, and these guys kept throwing ideas at me," he recalls. "It just got wild. They let me play. That's why I loved it--it was like carte blanche to go nuts. Of course, there were times when I'd go tasteless, when I knew the mouse was not going to approve: 'Oh, come on, boy. Rub the lamp, the big spout. Don't be afraid!'"
Disney has high hopes for "King of Thieves," which it's marketing like a feature film. The first "Aladdin" sequel, "The Return of Jafar," was created as a trial balloon to test whether consumers would buy original movies made exclusively for home video release. When "Jafar" sold 10 million units to rank among the 20 top-selling videos of all time, Disney began mining its library for winning concepts to bring to video. A second sequel to "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" has been filmed starring Rick Moranis, while sequels to "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," "Pocahontas," and "Lady and the Tramp," are among at least 25 projects in development.
Other studios have joined in the act, too. MCA/Universal Home Video recently released a successful sequel to the cult science-fiction hit "Tremors" and will soon offer further sequels to "Darkman" and "The Land Before Time."
"Jafar" was made without the original voice of Genie. Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson) filled in when Williams had a falling-out with Disney over "Aladdin." Williams had been paid scale--$75,000--for the blockbuster, which reportedly generated more than $650 million in profits. But it wasn't the money that upset him. After all, he has a million-dollar Picasso hanging over the fireplace in his living room, a gift from Disney for his services.
Instead, Williams flipped when his saw a TV ad using his voice to hawk Disney merchandise. "It was a violation of an agreement that we made," says Williams, whose wariness of the corporate world stems from his father's disillusionment as an automobile-company executive in Detroit. "I said, 'Listen, I'll do the cartoon, and I'll do it for scale. I don't care. Just don't use my voice to sell merchandise.'"
When a new regime took over Disney, chairman Joe Roth was startled to find that the low-budget "Jafar" had earned more profits than "Pretty Woman." So Roth called Williams to apologize for the violation of the agreement. "They put out a statement," says Williams. "I said, 'Thanks.' That's all I needed." Disney had already recorded "King of Thieves" with Castellaneta and had animated a third of the film, but was willing to start over when Williams signed on. Asked if he got more than scale for doing "King of Thieves," Williams just laughs and says, "Oh, yeah." But Disney still can't use his name or voice to sell merchandise.
Disney's not complaining. "With Robin, it's a much stronger film," says Ann Daly, president of Buena Vista Home Video. "It elevates the project to a new level. Nobody can do what he does in the recording studio. The animators were inspired by him."
Williams still drops into comedy clubs unannounced--"It's cheaper than therapy," he says--and would like to go on a national tour next year. After headlining five $100-million box-office hits in the 1990s ("The Birdcage," "Jumanji," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Aladdin," and "Hook") he seems eager to stretch the boundaries of his career with more character roles.
"When your name's above the title, there's a lot of pressure on you," says Williams. "When you're a supporting actor, you're free to do the character."
That's one reason why doing the Genie appealed to him. Williams also believes that cartoons are universal, bridging the gap between children and adults. As the father of Zachary, 13, Zelda, 7, and Cody, 4, Williams feels a sense of responsibility toward his work. "Jumanji" was on the scary side, so he wouldn't let Cody see it. "It's a personal responsibility," he says. "People talk about being politically correct, but you can only be personally correct. Could you sit back and watch that with your children? That's all I care about."