SAN FRANCISCO--Comedy, drama, silliness, seriousness, Shakespeare, science-fiction, bike-riding and the burdens of superfame: Robin Williams has more colours than a chameleon.
That is the key to both his survival and his success, says the complex actor and comedian.
"People just want to be entertained," Williams tells me in a wide-ranging one-on-one interview in the hilled city he calls home and where he spins around town on one of his 20 glorious hi-tech bicycles (Williams can leave almost anyone but Olympic athletes huffing and puffing behind).
"They see you do something wonderful and they want you to do it again... and again... and again... until they get tired of it and want somebody else.
"That's the danger. If you do it again and again and again, they'll finally go, 'Harrumph! Seen that!'
"But that's what you wanted! 'Used to...' And you're dead."
He remembers a recent public incident that still bugs him. "It's the woman coming up to me in the airport and going: 'Be zany! Be zany!' What? She wants me to be wild.
"So you have to keep re-inventing yourself like Madonna. This year is her Indian year. Last year was the Valkyrie year. Two years ago it was the Edsel-tit year. What do you do? You change yourself.
"I've been freed because films such as Dead Poets Society or Awakenings or The Fisher King or Good Will Hunting have been successful. And it isn't just the Academy Award (for Good Will Hunting). That perception started a while ago. I re-invented myself from comedy to do drama. You keep changing. So it's just another colour you get to paint with."
So Williams has transformed himself again, this time into a robot in Bicentennial Man, a Chris Columbus movie based on an Isaac Asimov short story and the novel The Positronic Man, co-authored by Asimov and Robert Silverberg. Bicentennial Man, a serious comedy that takes the robot's saga on a 200-year ride starting in 2005, opens in theatres tomorrow.
"It's on a grand scale," Williams says, of the movie's scope. "Yet it's very intimate. It's a weird intimate epic."
The plot hinges on the discovery by Sam Neill's family that their new household robot--played by Williams in extraordinary makeup--has special powers that suggest he accidentally got a human element built into his mechanisms. As the story progresses over its 200-year time frame, the robot becomes more and more human.
"It's about one family and basically a servant," Williams says with a smile. But the themes: "Human relations! Life! Death! And everything in between. There is also the idea, somewhere in there, about what it is like to be human, about what it is like to attain humanity, to be moral."
Williams, whose most recent movie, the Holocaust drama Jakob The Liar, was a disaster at the boxoffice because of unfavourable comparisons to Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, is fascinated by the complexity of human life. For him, Hollywood celebrities--including himself--are not that interesting. Certainly not as much as people who truly contribute.
"To me, the true celebrities are scientists and people doing extraordinary work. To me, Mother Teresa was one of the most amazing woman of all time. She just didn't have the merchandizing down. But she was the absolute celebrity."
As for scientists, well, he says to consider the Nobel Prize, not the Oscar. "What for me is always strange and somewhat sad is that I can't see them, and the Nobel Prizes are the one awards show I'd love to see. Just for the dancers."
The comedian can re-invent himself but he can't resist a good joke.