Robin the robot

Originally published on December 12, 1999 | Calgary Sun | written by Calgary Sun Staff

SAN FRANCISCO--Like Dorothy and her dog Toto, Robin Williams has been to Oz and back. During his visit, Williams got to play versions of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion.

His magic carpet tornado is a movie called Bicentennial Man, which opens Friday.

It's a $120-million special effects movie that chronicles the efforts of a robot named Andrew (Williams) to become human.

His journey from machine to man takes 200 years. Given the robot suits and makeup that Williams had to endure, filming of the sci-fi epic seemed almost as long.

"My robot suit weighed 35 pounds. I had to wear it for 12 hours a day. It was like bondage without the fun," says Williams.

"It chafed me in unnameable places in very bad ways. The costume and special effects people kept adding pads to the costume. It also seemed that every time I clenched my fist, I blew a knuckle."

The robot costume was so complex, it required four people to ease Williams into it each day.

"It took them 40 minutes to get me in, but only five minutes to get me out. I called them Team Robotico."

Williams says he often felt like an upright turtle.

"I knew that if I ever fell over and actually survived the fall, I'd never be able to get upright on my own," he says.

Initially, the idea was to have a stuntman wear the robot suit and simply have Williams supply the voice. Director Chris Columbus says that idea was short-lived.

"As good as our stunt people were, they weren't Robin. He brought a certain walk and presence to the suit that no one could duplicate. We could tell instantly when it was Robin and when it was someone else.

"The only scene in the movie that Robin didn't film was Andrew walking across the desert. He said he just didn't want to be in the equivalent of an Easy-bake Oven for two days."

Williams recalls that several executives at Disney talked to him after they saw the first filmed footage of him as Andrew.

"They asked if I could give Andrew a few more facial expressions. I tried as diplomatically as is possible for me to explain that Andrew is a robot for the first third of the film, which means he can't have a wide variety of expressions. I'm not sure it ever sunk in, but they left us alone."

Eventually, Andrew gets mock skin, which allows him to look like Robin Williams, albeit a less hairy Williams.

"We doubted any scientist would create a cross between an ape and a human, which is essentially what I look like," Williams says.

That required almost daily waxing and shaving sessions for Williams, or as he recalls, "a torture session. Body waxing--and I've had to do it for several movies--is the equivalent of some foreign power attempting to get top-secret information from me."

The infinitely less hirsute Williams actually resembles a young Harrison Ford.

"I don't think they'll be offering me one of the Star Wars prequels," admits Williams, going into his version of Yoda imploring Luke Skywalker to "use the farce, Luke."

The Bicentennial Man marks the end of one of the busiest times in Williams' film career. He filmed Patch Adams, Good Will Hunting, What Dreams May Come, Jakob the Liar and Bicentennial Man without a break.

"I have not signed for any more films and it's a relief. I'm exhausted physically and creatively. I need to get back to my roots and rejuvenate," he says.

To this end, he plans to do a live standup comedy tour next year.

"Like the Cowardly Lion, I need to get my courage back. I have to learn to be completely fearless again. With film, there is a real safety zone for a comedian that eventually inhibits creativity. You find that you're not pushing the envelope as much anymore."

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