Hooked on Flubber

Originally published on November 23, 1997

NEW YORK--There's a good-natured joke among moviemakers, says Flubber director Les Mayfield, that goes like this:

Q: "How do you direct Robin Williams?"

A: "You get out of the way!"

The same is true of interviewing him.

Arms flying and body contorting, Williams enters the room mid Mork-meets-Marlon-Brando impression, taking charge of his own impending interrogation with a technical question of his making:

"So tell me..." he asks himself gleefully, as he assumes a prone position to demonstrate his point, "what was it like having that flubber thing flying out of your butt?"

Much of what flies out of Williams' mouth, and his imagination, isn't fit to print in a family newspaper. But despite the raunchy humor that comes naturally to the actor, Flubber, opening Wednesday, is most definitely a family film. A remake of the 1961 Disney classic The Absent-Minded Professor, starring Fred MacMurray, Flubber's got '50s charm and innocence with some updated '90s scientific sophistication.

"But it still has that curiosity," says director Mayfield, "that idea that the friendly application of science is okay."

As the still absent-minded science professor Phillip Brainard, Williams swirls and swishes bubbling stuff around in test tubes while forgetting his own wedding for the third time.

It's all in the name of science.

Busy inventing "flubber," a Jello-green, flying rubber compound that resembles Ghostbuster slime--"but it's got personality," notes Mayfield--the professor is more like an absent-minded genius.

Yet Williams, a mere actor, admits to being a slouch in the scientific genius department.

"I was good in biology, but mediocre in chemistry and physics," he recalls of his student years.

So to help Williams sort his amino acids from his alkalines, producers brought in technical adviser Jeff Cruzan, a post-doctoral graduate from UC Berkeley's Chemistry Dept., for coaching.

"He explained the feasibilities of what super polymers were and 'polymer envy,' to give me some scientific base so it's not just techno-babble. He had to walk me through it, saying: 'This-is-a-for-mu-la,"' mimics Williams in a didactic, professorial tone, "'...if you add an h here, it's lethal...!'"

An ideal vehicle for the comic actor to show his well-known physical agilities, the film is filled with the slapstick (including the aforementioned butt flubber) that Williams delights in.

"Maybe it's the tight pants, I dunno," he chuckles, "but I loved the flying stuff."

Scenes where the actor was rigged to bounce 30 feet in the air over a basketball court, after brushing liquid flubber on his sneakers, had the child within him hankering for more.

"I kept saying, 'Can I go again? Can I bounce higher?'" he whines.

"They can have you go up and down like a yo-yo. I've got more flying time now than Amelia Earhart."

He was a little too gung-ho, perhaps, for the likes of crew members who had to repeatedly get him up there, though.

"We had six or seven guys hauling me up, groaning, 'Oh, no! Don't go again! We're not hauling your ass up there again!'"

Getting hooked on heights during the making of Hook, Williams says his strong stomach came in handy for shooting flying T-Bird scenes in Flubber, where he was strapped to a rotating chair in front of a blue screen and turned upside down.

"You get used to it" he says. "Take four, lunch!... Bing! Oh, try not to have something greasy!"

One of the funniest scenes in the film--a dueling basketball game where flubber comes to the rescue of the professor's failing home team--is owed indirectly to Bruce Springsteen.

The scene was in the 1961 version, but was on its way to the cutting room floor, until, "Robin came to set one day and said, I was just talking to Bruce," says Mayfield, "and he remembers the basketball game from the original. We gotta put it back in!"

But what good are the opinions of two middle-aged, balding guys like Springsteen and Williams?

"So I watched the original with my son and he laughed his ass off," says Williams. "And I said, 'please, please, put it back in. I swear it works. We'll have a test screening and I'll have my kid fill out a card.'"

Surprisingly, the least difficult task of the shoot for Williams was emoting scenes with "actors" who weren't really there.

The professor's Girl Friday robot, WEEBO, and the energetic, lime-tinted flubber were often added in later using computerized special effects.

Not difficult for Williams, observes Industrial Light and Magic visual effects supervisor Tom Bertino, who also points out: "Robin is brilliant acting against nothing. He spends so much time seeing things that aren't there anyway."

Having just finished two "serious" films--What Dreams May Come, about "a guy who dies and goes to hell to try to see his wife," and Jakob The Liar, about "a Polish Jew in the ghetto in 1944," Williams is due for some fun and Flubber frolic. As we should be, too, he says.

"The Goo Needs You!" he declares. "Hey, that sounds like a good recruiting poster."

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