Mr. Doubtful

Originally published on March 3, 1996

NEW YORK--That's no way to treat a lady. Calling her Betty White on steroids or Bea Arthur on a bad hair day.

But wait, that's no lady. That's Gene Hackman in full drag and the man slinging the insults is none other than Robin Williams, who himself got all trussed up in Mrs. Doubtfire.

"My first day in drag on Mrs. Doubtfire, they nicknamed me Dragzilla, so I'm getting my own back," explains Williams who is one of the few celebrities who doesn't get all dolled up for the new comedy The Birdcage.

Williams says he wasn't as amazed at Hackman's appearance in drag as most of his costars.

"I'm from San Francisco. I've seen some pretty gigantic Vanna Whites and whole herds of Judy Garlands. Nothing in drag surprises me, including myself."

Based on La Cage Aux Folles, the screamingly funny 1978 French farce which spawned two sequels, The Birdcage tells the story of a pair of middle-age gay lovers who must masquerade as a straight couple.

Williams plays Armand Goldman, the owner and manager of a famous drag nightclub. Broadway musical theatre star Nathan Lane plays his lover Albert and the diva of the club's spectacular stage shows.

Director Mike Nichols and the top brass at United Artists studio originally approached Williams to play the drag queen.

"My manager begged me to play Albert. He said it would give me carte blanche to be the most outrageous I've ever been. But I've been a big bad woman before.

"The challenge for me was to play the more subtle Armand and see if I could still get my share of laughs."

Williams insists this is the same reason he turned down the Patrick Swayze role last year in To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar.

"It's bad enough that the Mrs. Doubtfire people want to put me back in drag for a sequel. I don't have to wiggle into a bra and pantyhose for every other studio in Hollywood."

Williams says he's been "offered truckloads of money and have had every appendage on my body twisted to do a sequel to Doubtfire but nobody can come up with a decent script.

"I'll never do a sequel to anything just for the money."

Williams had never met Lane before the first rehearsal for The Birdcage but recalls it was "love at first laugh. In just minutes Nathan and I were like an old vaudeville act.

"Mike Nichols laughed so hard, he had to bite his hand so that we could finish reading the script aloud."

The mayhem continued throughout the filming.

"The absolute worst was the day Gene Hackman had to give his speech about the changing seasons of America. It took us a whole day just to get through.

"Mike finally threatened to bring in an acupuncturist to numb our laugh centres or a traffic policeman to fine the next person who broke up," says Williams.

"If the audience reacts anywhere near how we did, they'll have to insert intermissions to allow people to recuperate enough to get into the next scene."

Since completing The Birdcage last year, Williams has filmed the bittersweet comedy Jack, in which he plays a child who ages at an astronomical rate, and has laid down the soundtracks for Disney's sequel to Aladdin in which he will reprise his role as the Genie.

The manic man of 1,000 voices says he isn't nearly as manic any more at home.

"My children put the reins on me. They'll say: 'Enough with the voices dad,' or 'Just be dad at dinner tonight.'

"I get the message and comply but I pity any producer who tries the same thing."

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