Robin Williams's Change of Life

Originally published on November 22, 1993 | New York Magazine | written by Jesse Kornbluth

Robin Williams is a hairy man. "The only male in America who has to be spray-painted before he goes to the beach," one of his managers says. Would Williams pose for a nude cover shot? He says yes. His wife is less certain. "I'd be afraid that the fur police would splash red paint on the magazines," says Marsha Williams. "You know: 'This exploits animals.'"

A fur-ball actor would be sensational as a breast-beating drummer in a comedy about the men's movement. Or in the untold story of evolution. Or in a Kafkaesque chiller about a man who overdoses on Rogaine. But as a woman?

And yet on November 24, Robin Williams will apear on 1,400 screens in Mrs. Doubtfire, as a large, pigeon-breasted -- and thoroughly waxed -- woman of a certain age. Doubtfire is built on an irresistible premise: A divorced father disguises himself as a delightful English housekeeper so his ex-wife will hire him to care for their children. In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman's character had a certain latitude because he was dealing mostly with people who'd never known him as a man. But Williams had to deliver a completely believable drag performance. As director Chris Columbus points out, "In the film, if Robin's character doesn't fool the woman he'd been married to for fourteen years, she won't hire him -- and there'd be no movie."

This impersonation, and the slapstick that flows from it, will amuse the children in the audience. But theater owners would be advised to sell hankies at the popcorn counter for adults who have, as children or parents, endured a divorce. For what may be the decade's first family comedy can also be seen as a highly personal home movie -- a coded diary for Williams. The film plays on his divorce, the lessons he's learned from his new marriage, and the pleasure he now takes in creating out of joy instead of desperation. All it leaves out, it seems, is his early-eighties drug problem, his recent dispute with Disney over its marketing of Aladdin, the ongoing question of his wife's control of his career, and his take on NAFTA.

In 1988, when Carrie Fisher last celebrated her birthday in New York, Robin Williams was appearing at Lincoln Center in the Mike Nichols production of Waiting for Godot. The play was demanding for him -- Samuel Beckett doesn't encourage improvisation -- and when he walked into Fisher's party, he was exhausted. Still, his arrival was followed by a sound that Fisher knew well: the distant rumbling of metaphorical buffalo.

"You could see that Robin was beginning to vibrate," Fisher says. "And the sound of hooves was getting louder." She asked Marsha if she'd also heard them. Marsha had. And she knew what to do about them. "We may," she said, "have to go to a club."

"We can do it right here," Fisher replied, and with that, she baited Williams with a rumor beloved by the culture-impaired of several generations -- that Albert Einstein's brain and John Dillinger's penis are displayed in the same room in the Smithsonian. Williams considered the proposition. Then, for two hours, he became the body parts of the great and infamous. "Robin built the perfect man: Einstein's brain, Dillinger's organ, Tyson's mood, Elvis's stomach," Fisher says. "It was exhilarating to be his straight person. It's a privilege to keep up with him to a point -- and then, of course, nobody can."

That's the Robin Williams the public knows: Mr. Manic, a random-access free-association machine who can instantly recombine the most unlikely data into a bit that's provocative, smart, and, above all, gone before you know it. Starting as an extraterrestrial in Mork & Mindy, gathering steam as a disc jockey in Good Morning, Vietnam, and reaching the biggest audience in Disney history as the voice of Genie in Aladdin, Williams has used warp-speed humor to become the first performer since Chaplin whose work is equally loved by children and their parents.

It's easy for the public to overlook the less antic side of Robin Williams. His friends never do. Steven Haft, who produced Dead Poets Society, remembers that Robin and Marsha visited him and his wife, the writer Lisa Birnbach, soon after Haft and Birnbach's first child was born. "We were telling the birth story -- how, in the middle of Lisa's delivery, the nurses and doctors ran to another room, where a baby was lost at term," Haft says. "Robin and Marsha's first child had been born that year, and the story affected Robin so much he left the room. A few minutes later, I found him sitting by the crib, his hand on our son's back and tears streaming down his face."

This side of Robin Williams has surfaced before, but Mrs. Doubtfire -- 20th Century Fox's big movie for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and, perhaps, Valentine's Day -- is his first film to fully blend gravity and gags. Williams, predictably, is more comfortable playing interviews for laughs. Did he, after 41 days of four-hour sessions at the makeup table, come to feel like a man trapped in a woman's body? "Yes, and to release me, call this number -- the premature-ejaculator hot line," he says. "Look, there's a great English tradition of drag in comedy. It's like channeling. English channeling."

Then come the voices. First, his own: "There's no place like foam. You can pad anything. Or airbrush it in: hair, balls, whatever you want. Like that shot in Fisher King, when I dance nude in Central Park -- people were angry because you couldn't 'see' me." Now come the voices of a disgruntled audience: "Why isn't it showing? What are you afraid of? Richard shows his! I paid good money to see your thing -- show it! Crying Game: Give me the shot. Pan up. Matte it in. Give me that pendulum of joy!"

But when the conversation turns to Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams is as serious as a custody ruling. "Here's a guy who lives in a very random way and, through a painful process, finds there's more than him," Williams says. "And the wife [Sally Field], she does the same thing. We had an early go with the studio; they wanted the couple to get back together. Well, that's the one fantasy most psychiatrists will tell you is perpetuated by children of divorce who are in therapy -- and it's the one thing that professionals don't want to perpetuate. They'll ask kids, 'Ever have a memory of your mom and dad together?' The kids say no, but it's the grand concept: 'They're together. Sold to you by Norman Rockwell. The family, at the table ... even though they're all armed.'"

Williams wasn't directly involved in the last presidential campaign -- "So many Hollywood people were endorsing Clinton, you wanted to say, 'Someone should hang back; someone has to be in the business after Barbra sings'" -- but if you mention "family values," he bristles. "This movie is about real family values," he snaps. "After a divorce, how many fathers just give up? The tendency is to say, 'I love my son,' and then pull away. If you're lucky, the father becomes an uncle. But the weird thing is, he needs his kids as much as they need him."

This isn't just an echo of the passionately involved father in Doubtfire. Williams and Zachary, his 10-year-old son from his marriage to Valerie Velardi, are extremely close. But Marsha and his family counselor once had to prod him to stay connected. "They reminded me that no matter what angers I had, I had to put Zach first," he says. "Slowly but surely, it started to sink in. And we made it through."

The last house Robin Williams will ever rent in San Francisco is a monument to childhood. In the living room, facing cages of rabbits and iguanas, are upholstered miniature couches for his children with Marsha: Zelda, 4, and Cody, 2. The dining-room table is a way station for science projects, Christmas catalogues, and Dawn Steel's book, which Williams has retitled They Can't Eat You, but They Can Lick You. A vast plastic fort dominates the den. On the actor's desk, along with piles of books, sits a computer surrounded by the game cartridges Robin and Zach love. In anyone else's house, you'd think the parents were spoiling their children; here you wonder if Robin Williams, now 42, will ever become a full-fledged grown-up.

"Oooh, he's happy; he's lost it," Williams croons, huddled in a corner of his couch. "He's ... boring." Then his inner adult surfaces: "It's just that I'm not trying every second to shtick up. Now when I get up to speed, it's my choice. I don't have to drive my ass for some carrot that someone is dangling out there -- I've got the carrot. Like the English soldiers in Zulu: 'Wait, wait for it ... wait for 50 yards ... independent fire ... "

This summer, Williams tested that proposition by taking his family to an Italian villa where it was almost impossible even for his agents and managers to reach him. "After a week, something snapped, and I let go," he says, still amazed by the experience. "When you wander through a walled city like Lucca, suddenly variety is only the spice of life, not the name of a newspaper."

This month, the Williams brood will move to a villa overlooking San Francisco Bay. Two years after they bought it, their 12,000-square-foot mansion has been renovated, hard-wired, and outfitted with enough technology to power the arcades of a small city. Marsha and Robin Williams, who hold hands and smooch as if they were still dating, talk of spending the rest of their lives there. The irony of hearth and home isn't lost on the principal breadwinner. "Hook, Fisher King, Dead Poets; I always picked isolated characters, man-child characters, and then tried to make connections with people," Williams says. "It got to a point where I said, 'I can't keep trying to work out therapeutic issues on film.'"

Those issues took root on a Michigan estate that makes the Williamses' new home seem like a cabin. The comedian's father was a stern and elegant Lincoln-Mercury executive, and although he had only one child in this marriage, he still rented a 40-room house on twenty acres in Bloomfield Hills. "Robin had the entire third floor," his mother, Laurie Williams, says. "He put his toy soldiers -- he had thousands of them -- in those rooms, carefully divided according to period." Williams not only staged intricate battles between soldiers of different eras, he created dialogue for them in what was, essentially, a childhood version of his performance style.

Still, he had no childhood fantasies of acting. He ran cross-country, wrestled, and studied hard. But when Robin was 16, his father tired of the declining standards of the automobile business. He took early retirement from Ford and moved his family to Tiburon, an elite Marin County community with a smashing view of San Francisco. Robin drove a Land Rover and started wearing Hawaiian shirts, but he was still committed to studying political science at Claremont Men's College.

There he discovered theater, and was so intoxicated by it that he dropped out to study acting. Robert Williams reluctantly gave his blessing but advised his son to study something practical -- say, welding -- as a backup. At Robin's first class, however, the welding instructor said, "You can go blind from this" -- which made his full scholarship to Juilliard even more welcome.

"Robin and I came in at the third-year level," says Christopher Reeve. "We were put in special advanced sections; often, we were the only students in a class. John Houseman had an idea of what the Juilliard actor should be -- well spoken but a bit homogenized -- so it's not surprising the teachers were thrown by Robin. He did a monologue from Beyond the Fringe that made us laugh so hard we were in physical pain; they said it was 'a comedy bit, not acting.'"

Williams stuck it out at Juilliard for two more years before returning to San Francisco, where he worked in restaurants, met his first wife, and worked on comedy routines. In 1976, he auditioned in Los Angeles before an audience of perhaps 50 at the Improv. His five-minute bit -- about masturbating and watching his penis grow so big he could never leave his room -- was a killer. The following year, when Joan Rivers met him on a Laugh-In revival, the 25-year-old comedian still seemed to be auditioning. "You know how it is: You're struggling, you want to be noticed, and the only way is to be the funny boy," she recalls. "We took a picture together -- and he never stopped mugging. You wanted to tie him down and say, 'Stop.'"

A child engineered Williams' big break. "My 7-year-old son Scott was reluctant to watch Laverne & Shirley or Happy Days or any show I did," says Garry Marshall. "So I asked him, 'What do you like?' He said, 'I only like space.' I told him, 'I don't do space.' 'Well, you could do it.' So I asked him, 'How would you do space in Happy Days?' And he said, 'It could be a dream.' Now, this was the fourth year of the show, and we were trying to find worthy adversaries for Fonzie. So we wrote a guest role for Mork, the extraterrestrial. And my sister the casting agent brought Robin in from my sister Penny's acting class."

The Fonz found that week's guest star to be genuinely ... out of this world. "My job stopped being about remembering lines or moves, but to keep from laughing," Henry Winkler says. "And yet Robin was so shy it was hard for him to speak. He did ask me, 'After a day of this, how do you perform at the Comedy Store?' I told him, 'After this, you really don't have the energy to perform at night.'"

But it came to pass that on a Happy Days episode broadcast in February 1978, Williams was an instant success. Garry Marshall knew exactly how to handle it: "We said, 'No, it's not a dream; it's real. It's another series!'" That fall, Mork & Mindy went from nowhere to seventh place in two weeks; its audience quickly reached 60 million. And Robin Williams, to Henry Winkler's eternal embarrassment, did have the energy to rehearse all day and close the Comedy Store at night.

As Williams discovered in the early eighties, life is not television. Popeye, his first movie, was less than a hit. Mork & Mindy ran out of steam; with the exception of The World According to Garp and Moscow on the Hudson, the films that followed were unmemorable. And he was dabbling in cocaine. "Humor is a dreadful curse, and Robin was like Midas, being funny endlessly," says old friend and Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle. "Getting blasted was the only way he could stop."

In 1982, John Belushi overdosed a few hours after a brief visit from Williams -- and, almost overnight, Williams cut drugs and alcohol from his life. "People would come up and say, 'Are you a friend of Bill W.?' I'd think, Did I do drugs with Bill W.? Did I sleep with him? But I didn't have to join a group. Zach was about to be born, and I didn't want to miss it because I was coked up or drinking. I was hideous enough feeling hung over without a baby screaming. I mean, there are times when you think, God made babies cute so you don't eat them -- imagine if you're loaded."

Sobriety, however, put his misery in starker relief. His marriage was a sham. He would come offstage with wild cheering in his ears, then race to a club so he could keep the high going. "As wonderful as he was, he was no prize package at that point," recalls David Steinberg, one of his managers. "He was in a little trouble -- there were four or five personalities trying to get out. The stage was the only place in his life where no one could fool with him."

While Robin Williams was falling apart, Marsha Garces was studying textiles and Mandarin Chinese and working as a waitress in San Francisco. She had a running joke: "If I'm 30 and still slinging hash, drag me out of here." Some years shy of that landmark, Zachary's godmother told Marsha that the 18-month-old child was having tantrums, that an unsympathetic nanny was taking care of him, and that she was an ideal replacement. This was news to the striking, dark-eyed woman who had been married twice without feeling much passion for children. But the prospect of moving to the comedian's 600-acre ranch in the Napa Valley was appealing, and there would be time for her to hand-dye fabrics.

Robin and Valerie, however, drifted in and out -- "I rarely saw either of them," Marsha says -- and her responsibility to the child was large and time-consuming. But the tantrums stopped, and her relationship with Zachary blossomed. A year later, when she was ready to move on, Williams was looking for an assistant to accompany him on his national tour. Marsha thought, This is a way to stay in Zach's life without being there. And so, at about the same time Valerie went off to live with a boyfriend, she went on the road with Robin.

Their relationship was anything but romantic. "He was too screwed up," Marsha says, "and I wasn't interested in being sucked dry." So she talked tough to him: "You've got two great careers, you're really intelligent, you're healthy, you're strong, you're handsome, you have a great son -- and you're totally depressed. You're an adult, Robin; pull it together!"

The situation changed at the end of the tour, when Williams was making history as the first comedian ever to play the Metropolitan Opera. "Robin was complaining, in a joking way, about the bimbettes who knocked on his door at the hotel," Marsha says. "I asked him, 'Why are you so surprised? If I weren't working with you and I didn't know how screwed up you are, I'd be interested in you!' And he said that gave him a feeling that he could be really loved."

As was their custom, Marsha was the last person Robin saw before he went onstage. And, as usual, Marsha hugged him just before the curtain went up. "I told him, 'You can do it. You're okay. I love you' -- which is what I say to my friends all the time." To Williams, though, the words meant something more. "Marsha used to tell me I was a good person," Robin says, "and finally I believed it."

Got a cause? "I'll go to the opening for 'Save the Shrimp,'" Williams says with a sigh. Got a child? "If you can get to Robin personally," says Mark Johnson, the producer of Good Morning, Vietnam, "he'll perform at your kid's birthday." Marsha believes her husband suffers from an affliction not unknown to artists: "He has no defenses. That's why it's really easy to put the screws to him. If he likes you and you want to manipulate him, just push a button -- he'll do what you want."

A popular dinner-party conversation in Hollywood concerns the role of Marsha Williams in her husband's career. Is she merely a talented gatekeeper? Or is she her husband's most insidious manipulator? Robin and Marsha reject the more cynical view as vehemently as they do a late-eighties People article that suggested they got together before his first marriage had quite run its course. The probability of Williams's speaking to People again in this lifetime is small. And those who regard Marsha as nothing more than the star's wife may find themselves doing little business with her husband.

"A lot of women's careers in Hollywood are shaped by men," explains Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg's longtime producer and now the partner of her husband, Frank Marshall. "Sure, Marsha got into the business because of Robin -- but they won't let her stay in it unless she's good."

Starting in 1986, Marsha began proving that she was more than decorative. "For Good Morning, Vietnam, I did everything from massaging him to going over lines with him to writing," she says. "For two weeks, we sat around with books about 1965." The concern for accuracy showed in Williams's performance. Good Morning, Vietnam, distributed by Disney's Buena Vista division, won Williams his first Academy Award nomination.

Dead Poets Society, which cast him as a brilliant but impolitic English teacher, brought another nomination and another box-office hit for Disney. Again, Marsha was a factor. "What Marsha was doing on the set had less to do with the film than with helping Robin through a very difficult period," says Steve Haft. "We were filming Dead Poets at a time when he was formally ending his marriage, and the hardest part of that decision was knowing he'd be waking up without his son there. Robin was far from home at an important moment in his life, but Marsha created a home that could travel with him."

By the time Awakenings rolled around, Robin and Marsha had married, become parents, and integrated Zach into their new family. That balance enabled Williams to be effective in a serious role, based on the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, even as he joked and mugged off camera. "Robin has an almost instant access to parts of the mind -- dreamlike parts, with phantasmagoric associations -- that most of us don't," Sacks says. "Robin becoming other people reminds me of Theodore Hook, the early-nineteenth-century wit who could improvise operas, playing every part. He was the most popular man in London, constantly invited out to dinner and to perform. For Hook, as for Robin, the demand never let up. But Hook never had a chance for quiet inwardness -- he drank heavily, and he died in his fifties. Robin's brilliance, however, is considerably controlled. He's not in its grip."

"Oliver decided that Robin had 'voluntary Tourette's syndrome,'" says Penny Marshall, who directed Awakenings. "But Oliver also thought Bobby [De Niro] was so into his role he had symptoms, and I knew he just got off the phone doing the napkins for the Tribeca Grill. To me, Robin just has a very large personality -- to make up for all those who have none."

During the five months of filming in a Brooklyn hospital, Williams would lighten the mood by delivering his speeches to De Niro in the voice of Harvey Fierstein. When Columbia Pictures was sold to Sony, he pretended to be a Japanese executive watching the dailies. And when De Niro, who is apparently afraid of cockroaches, had to shoot a scene in which a bug crawls across his desk, Williams wrapped pipe cleaners over his ears and pretended to be a roach who didn't get the part.

"Marsha was also helpful," Marshall says. "While we were filming, the Berlin Wall came down, the Czechs became independent -- and then came the earthquake in San Francisco. I asked, 'Shall we tell Robin?' She said, 'Let him finish the shot.'"

Hook was a much more certain commercial proposition, but Marsha was initially ambivalent about Robin's involvement. Spielberg was not a critics' pet, the budget was high, and the audience might not want anyone to tamper with its memory of the original. But the deal called for Williams, along with his co-stars, to get a percentage of every dollar the film earned -- wouldn't that have considerable appeal to a woman who grew up far from rich in a Milwaukee suburb?

"Money's never been the reason for me to recommend anything," Marsha says. "Unless the entire country collapses, we have as much as we'll ever need. I'm more interested in looking at what Robin hasn't done and seeing what's next. I'm prejudiced, but I've never seen anyone with his range."

When Robin Williams walked into a Disney recording studio to tape what was then a bit part in Aladdin, he had three children and a considerably mellowed metabolism. But he wanted to leave something wonderful behind for his kids, he says, so he did a little more than he was asked -- about 30 hours of tape, by his estimation. And then, with all that unexpected gold in its possession, Disney completely changed the film and made Genie a major character. "Robin went in with a trio and came out with a symphony," says David Steinberg. "What Disney did was hire an orchestra to play it."

"I was improvising, and the animators came in and laughed, and it just grew," Williams explains. "In times like this, when there's so much crap running around, it's great to laugh and be free. I felt wonderful; that's why I did it. And it was such a pleasure when it came out and people said, 'I loved it as much as my kid did.' But then some things happened later on."

What angers him isn't that he usually gets around $8 million a movie but got scale for Aladdin -- that's par for the course for those who lend their voices to Disney's animated films. But at dinner, according to Williams, Disney executives agreed not to use his voice to merchandise products inspired by the film. And then Disney, Williams says, violated the agreement and used his voice in its product advertising.

"It wasn't as if we hadn't set it out," Williams says. "I don't want to sell stuff. It's the one thing I don't do. In Mork & Mindy, they did Mork dolls -- I didn't mind the dolls; the image is theirs. But the voice, that's me; I gave them my self. When it happened, I said, 'You know I don't do that.' And they apologized; they said it was done by other people."

He smiles wickedly. "Do you know the story of Erich von Stroheim getting a blow job on the set? Suddenly he notices that all the crew members are watching. He looks down and goes, 'What are you doing, you nasty girl!' The Disney thing was like that: 'I swear I didn't know what my right hand was doing.'"

Disney didn't help its cause by sending Williams a late Picasso said to have cost more than $1 million. The painting is from a series of Picasso self-portraits in which he imagines himself as other artists; here he's a one-eared Van Gogh. In the Williams living room, the painting has all the charm of a fright wig, clashing with the animal cages, the children's furniture, and the mood of the owners.

"I've never seen Robin like this," says Eric Idle. "When Mork & Mindy was canceled, I was directing him in a short film of The Frog Prince. The end of that show wasn't unexpected, but you don't think you'll find out by having someone hand you a newspaper when you're on a set. Robin gathered the technicians around him and did a routine about TV executives. Everyone was on the floor, and it was behind him. I thought that was the most useful example of comedy I've ever seen."

Remembering that incident, Idle had a suggestion for his friend: "If you're pissed off, go on TV, say it, and torch the Picasso -- everybody's wanted to see that." Williams modified that idea. "He said, 'No, I'll have it copied, and burn the copy.'" Other friends, other jokes. One of Michael Ovitz's children was about to celebrate his bar mitzvah; it was suggested that Williams make the Picasso his present. "Tell Jeffrey [Katzenberg], 'I'll take Euro Disney,'" another said.

Disney executives won't talk about the subject, but in their silence, it's not hard to hear the following argument: We put Robin in three films that saved, then enhanced, his film career; we created the character of Genie, and at the end of the day, we're more or less even.

Williams doesn't know if he really wants to fight with Disney over money. "Hey, the mouse has only four fingers -- can't pick up a check," he says, shrugging.

But the mouse can pick up a check. When Disney was minting money from Pretty Woman, the studio sent Julia Roberts -- who, like Williams, had no profit-participation clause in her contract -- a bonus of $750,000. Why? Because studio executives believed it was the right thing to do.

Pretty Woman grossed around $300 million worldwide and spawned no sequel; Julia Roberts is only now making another film for Disney. After Aladdin's profits, merchandise revenues, and video sales are totaled, the film may earn as much as $750 million for Disney -- but its value to the studio is even greater than that number would indicate. Aladdin is no longer a film, it's an icon, one certain to extend to Disney's other films and theme parks. This fall, for example, Disney released the Aladdin video. Not only did it sell 15 million copies in the first month alone, it encouraged families to stock up on other Disney videos as well; over the first weekend of Aladdin's video release, sales of Pinocchio rose by 156 percent. "If Aladdin keeps its momentum," Daily Variety noted, "it will likely give Buena Vista [Disney] the top five video titles in history."

Considering the ripple effect of Aladdin's success, what would be an appropriate bonus for Williams? "From $10- to $15 million," one industry powerhouse said when asked to come up with a number consistent with what Disney had given Julia Roberts. "Way too low -- Robin is that movie," another said. "I'd give him $20- to $25 million, and I'd thank him, too." Penny Marshall sighed. "I'd give him whatever he wants," she said. "Because he doesn't want that much."

One thing is clear: Williams doesn't want to make more movies for Disney. Joe Roth, the former chairman of Fox, recently sent him a script that Disney will finance. Williams sent it back, unread, with a note explaining that he had a problem with the studio -- and that he knew Roth was a very nice man.

"Part of the reason Robin and I wanted to make Mrs. Doubtfire was that we both feel guilty leaving our families to go to work," says Chris Columbus. "In our hearts, we'd love to be Robin's character in the movie -- to be the ultimate father twelve hours a day, to stay home and play with the kids."

What would be a fantasy for most men, however, is very close to reality for Robin Williams. According to Forbes, he earned $29 million in the past two years, a figure he finds about $20 million high -- "unless they just found the Popeye profits." Why should he leave his new San Francisco house, with the obligatory exercise room and media den? What's more fun than his kids, his friends, and his daily six-mile run? What incentive does he have to embark on what Marsha thinks should be the logical follow-up to Mrs. Doubtfire, his first concert tour in almost a decade?

After fifteen years of nonstop performing, the temptation for Williams to kick back is strong. "Comedy is like any other market -- it got glutted, and now it's like Joke-in-the-Box," he says. "Sometimes the most pleasure I have performing now is among friends. Something happens that's like a possession. A character or idea comes, and it just flies -- it feels like it's just passing through. Take the compulsion out, and there's still a joy."

He seemed to prove that over lunch the next day, when friends were telling show-biz stories about rampant egomania. When they paused, I mentioned Henry Miller's line "To Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, Hamlet was a minor player." With that, Williams was off, a mile-a-minute Bard: "Neither a borrower or lender be, unless you own a bank. ... Kill my mother? Just because she won't do you? ... A pound of flesh: love to lose it. Call Oprah." At other tables, diners leaned in. Even Marsha, his resident critic, was giggling, a sure sign that he was on a roll.

That night, after the kids were tucked in, Robin Williams turned on an entertainment-news show and, with the sound off, improvised raunchy voice-overs for Michael Ritchie, Dianne Wiest, and Richard Gere. Later, in lieu of the eleven o'clock news, he did a blitz review of the Bush years -- "Just a recession. Going away. Just a bump, not a tumor. Not an aneurysm, just a bruise" -- before launching into a preview of the commercials we might see if the Clinton health plan becomes law: "You know, not everyone can afford this organ, but if you order now .... "

On the couch, as friends fed him straight lines, Marsha listened for the buffalo. But they were still on the prairie. Robin Williams, it would appear, has completed his change of life.

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