It is near midnight at Catch a Rising Star, on First Avenue near 77th Street. The audience laughs uproariously at the surprise guest who has dropped into the club to perform. Who would have expected to luck out with Robin Williams? Here's TV's own Mork -- in person -- honing the manic, off-the-wall creativity that has earned him a reputation for comic brilliance. After a hard day's work trying to prove he can also be a dramatic actor, on the set of The World According to Garp, Williams craves the change of pace. He hungers for the challenge, the thrill, and the tension of living on the edge in the atmosphere he knows best, his mind humming, his nerve endings exposed as he serves up some risky new material. The audience is his fix.
One minute Williams is cavorting in an androgynous black wig with a polka-dot veil, the next he's a United Nations of accented voices. He grabs his crotch and talks to it, contorts his elastic face through an album of caricatures, and fires off a barrage of gags.
"Cocaine is God's way of saying you're making too much money."
"I want to be in a film called 'Altered Suits.' It's about a Jewish man who takes acid and everything fits."
"My cat won't s--- on the National Enquirer -- he just looks at me and says, 'That's redundant.'"
Williams loves to banter with the audience. A young woman calls out, "Did you ever make it with Mindy?"
He feigns exasperation. "Girl, that's not real," he shoots back. "That's television. Do you think Walter Cronkite made it with Dan Rather?"
Sitting unobtrusively at a table is Williams's wife, Valerie Velardi, who is taping his act so that they can analyze it later and learn from the flubs. Fans and buddies besiege Robin as he leaves the stage. Valerie, who seems to be enjoying the hubbub, turns to me and says, "Robin's unique. I like his mind. He always brings a new dimension to every situation, so life is never dull with him. He's so funny it's hard to stay mad at him."
All well and good. So he's a comic genius. But can he play Garp, the hero of John Irving's complicated, witty bestseller, which astutely mixes gallows humor and tragedy? Garp, conceived in a bizarre World War II liaison, grows up to be a writer whose life is entwined with outrageous characters and events. He is both observer and victim, and playing the role calls for real acting. No mere standing on his head as the extraterrestrial visitor of Mork & Mindy. No gibberish like Mork's "Na-no, na-no." No squinting and muttering as Popeye. Three million paperback copies of The World According to Garp are in print, and now director George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Slaughterhouse Five) is trying to parlay the bonanza into a hit movie, the fate of which could hinge on a comedian who talks to his crotch.
Fire Island. A miserable, rainy afternoon. If George Roy Hill is worried about the choice he made for Garp, he doesn't let on when he takes my phone call. "A lot of people thought I was crazy to cast Robin," he says. "But you make these decisions instinctively. I'd seen him as Popeye [in his first film] and didn't understand a word he said. I'd seen him once as Mork and didn't understand him either. I thought he was just a stand-up comic. But on meeting him, I felt he had a sense of decency that was important. Garp is an abrasive man, but his underlying decency is a key part of the character, and I felt Robin was the sort of actor who could provide that. I hope I'm right.
"Robin is an extraordinary talent," Hill continues. "He's an actor, a real actor, not just a comedian who is put into a role requiring acting. He can go the whole distance if he puts his mind to it. I'd say he's one of the brightest men I've ever met. He's got a tremendous mind, and while he's not an intellectual, he could qualify as one eventually. He's quick, instinctive, funny, and warm, and one of the few comedians I've ever met who, while 'on' a lot of the time, is not offensively 'on.'"
Hill finds in Williams the right comic and dramatic blend for the part. "Garp's not a comic character. He's a very serious character, but there is comedy, most of it based on reality. In the film, Robin has to go from 18 years old to 34. In fact, he's 29, but he's always had an old face. I've looked at pictures of him at eighteen or nineteen, and he looks older, so he's believable when he has to play that age."
Hill acknowledges that although his star was "wonderful to work with" and took direction easily, there was a problem. "Robin had a habit we had to overcome. He's inclined to too fast delivery -- it took me a long time to slow him down to a playing speed, since his mind works so fast. I think I've got him slowed down enough, although maybe it's just that I'm getting used to him."
And what does Robin Williams have to say?
West 57th Street. It's evening, three hours before Williams's stint at Catch a Rising Star. I'm in the high-ceilinged, clublike offices of Rollins, Joffe, Morra & Breizner, who manage Williams (and are also associates of Woody Allen, who is sometimes to be found on the premises). I've been watching a tape of Williams's 1978 Home Box Office show, savoring his wide-ranging repertoire -- the old geezer who feeds methadone to pigeons so they'll return (and remembers all 45 seconds of World War III), the ballet depicting a sperm trying to fight its way past a diaphragm, the imitation of Georgie Jessel on acid, and a parody of Shakespeare. "Nay, not Mork, nay speak not of TV or not TV, for it is nobler to do crazy s--- at eight o'clock than to take arms against the god Nielsen, who art there to put down taste, or sweat your ass off in a small club."
Suddenly Williams materializes. The contrast is remarkable. He's mild-mannered and inconspicuously dressed. No rube getups, no rainbow suspenders. He's wearing khaki pants and a blue, horizontally striped sport shirt. He talks softly in an odd, unidentifiable brogue, sometimes little more than a mumble. A psychiatrist once told him he talks like that to force people to lean toward him. "I kind of make people ask, 'What's he saying?'" Once he gets going, he speaks thoughtfully on a variety of topics.
I'm getting the serious side of Williams -- punctuated by comic relief. He launches into bursts of Spanish, Russian, Yiddish, and a language yet unborn. He mentions that his parrot, Cora, has decided it's time she was mated, and screeches his conception of a parrot's cry of ecstasy: "Yhee! I'm coming. Yhee! You're killing me."
The role of Garp preoccupies him. "Performing for an audience is more like gliding or flying," he says. "Playing Garp is a scraping-away process.
"The main problem is in making all the different ages fit together. I have to make all those phases of life and the different relationships believable. I've had to go really deep inside myself, to examine painful and wonderful things. There are lively scenes dealing with children; there's a lot of death and dealing with loss. Scenes with my wife in the film are very personal, no pretense at all. I have to be very direct, very open."
Does he think he has succeeded in the part? He hesitates. "I haven't gone to see the rushes, because I'm afraid they would jar me. I don't think I'll get a view of myself until the final cut. It's like drowning, like running for your life. I have no perspective. It's not like comedy or all-out farce, where I know my instincts. It's all unknown territory. It's like being in combat. I finished one day of shooting and thought, 'God, I died.' Even though it was only a single scene, I had this bizarre feeling, and I wept for a couple of hours after it. When I finally see the film, I'll look back and say, 'I did that.' I'll be proud. I feel proud now, but I just can't say it yet because it's not over. It's a gamble. It's scary, really bizarre, because every time you do something totally new, you suddenly think, 'Oh, no. Now it's over. From now on I'll be selling the National Enquirer door to door.'"
(Williams will have a long wait for public and critical reaction to Garp. Although shooting is over and Hill expects to have his film ready by next spring, Warner Bros. doesn't plan to release it until the fall of 1982.)
Attempting the role of Garp has spurred Williams into thinking about other challenges. Writing fascinates him. "I want to do interview articles on Norman Mailer," he says with mock solemnity. Steve Tesich's script for Garp impressed him. "Steve took something some people found convoluted and gave it a strong spine. I have friends who write, and I want to learn that discipline. To play Garp, who's a writer himself, I had to sit down and try to write and get the feeling for it."
Williams still has two seasons to go on his five-year contract for Mork & Mindy, the show that brought him instant fame and now reportedly earns him more than $50,000 per episode. But there has been a slump in the ratings. "That was kind of depressing at first," Williams admits, "because I took it on myself personally, thinking, 'Oh, God! I'm not funny anymore.' At last I realized that it was a combination of other things. They were screwing around with the schedule, changing the time slot every other night. [This fall it's set for 8 P.M. on Thursdays.] And parents got angry when we started doing all those sexploitation shows -- written specifically to get little girls running around in tight outfits and me dressing in drag. That lost a lot of people who used to watch with their kids. Also, some people thought we were heavy-handed talking about things like euthanasia; we had that one show about the robot being unplugged."
Williams is not about to quit now. "I still love doing the shows," he says. "I'm proud to do them. It hasn't stopped being fun and become a day job yet. Five years is perfect. After that it would be kind of rough. The single hardest thing is to try to keep that same energy and creativity going."
Four years ago Williams was just one of the hopefuls who turned up to audition for a visitor-from-outer-space episode on Happy Days. Producer-director Jerry Paris spotted "this boy with rainbow suspenders" and asked him to sit down the way someone from another planet might do it. Williams promptly "sat" on his head. That clinched it. Subsequently, the segment was spun off into the Mork & Mindy series, which premiered on ABC in September 1978. The response to Williams was instantaneous and phenomenal -- recognition everywhere, his loony catchwords on the lips of kids across the country. Interviews, magazine covers, the celebrity syndrome. This led in turn to his 1979 comedy album, Reality ... What a Concept.
"I'm amazed and in shock sometimes," he says of his celebrity, even though he's had time to grow accustomed to it. Like many stars, he suffers from insecurity. "Sometimes I feel like I could be back to ground zero again. I go through these phases of getting terrified. I can't really cope with them because they're debilitating. I have to try new things -- like Garp -- push myself out. You know -- the next chance. Because my greatest fear is of becoming mediocre, just falling back into the old rut and turning out the same old stuff without really finding anything new. That's also true for life -- just trying not to get stuck, this fear of falling back, sinking back into myself."
His relationship with his wife has been a stabilizer. They met when Valerie, a modern-dance teacher from New Haven, was working as a cocktail waitress while studying for her master's at Mills College and he was performing in the same club and kidding around as a bartender between performances. "She's taking dance classes but isn't teaching at the moment," Williams says. "She should really go back and teach. She has a very strong pride about not wanting to be known as Mrs. Robin Williams." He recognizes the input she has had on his career by helping him organize his work and giving him candid criticism.
"In the beginning there were no managers, no press people, just the two of us. She was important just being there, going to clubs with me, hanging out with me. Now we've gone beyond that into another phase. It's sheer emotional. It's nice to come home to somebody who knows you. I can sit down and not say anything. Sometimes I pass out. The other day I was wrestling for thirteen hours. I couldn't say anything when I got back. I don't have to entertain or do anything. She understands. I love her so much. I look at her sometimes and feel very peaceful. We've been through crazy things, the wild and wooly times. Now it's like, 'Look -- land!'
"Garp has kicked off something in me. The really simple things please me now. I like taking long walks, being outside, just doing things with friends more than I did before. It's wonderful. Before, I had to go out and party, perform, and always be 'on.' Now I'm content to listen and sit back."
The newfound sense of well-being he describes is in sharp contrast to the loneliness Williams felt growing up as a roly-poly kid. The other kids picked on him and occasionally beat him up. But he began to find companions of his own -- imaginary characters and voices that became his special outlet. "I think comedy is a defense more than an offense. If you can make people like you, they're not going to hurt you. But I felt really lonely and was very, very shy. Wrestling in high school helped me to get myself together by giving me a point of reference that forced me to get in there and make that push. The discipline got me out of the blue funk I was in."
Williams was born in 1952 in Chicago to upper-middle-class parents who had each been married before. (He has two half-brothers.) The family moved to a Detroit suburb when his father became a Ford Motor Company executive, and, when he retired, to Tiburon, an affluent San Francisco suburb, where Robin completed high school. He attended Claremont Men's College and the College of Marin, then received a scholarship to study acting with John Houseman at Juilliard, in New York, for three years. In those days he'd earn money performing in the streets as a mime; the sidewalk in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a lucrative stage.
Williams lived on the West Side during those days. "My old area is totally different now," he observes. "Six years ago, when I was going to Juilliard, you'd walk down Columbus Avenue and..." He breaks into a stream of contorted Spanish. "Then there were delicatessens and hardware stores. Now there are designer shops. The transition has been incredible. It's sad. People are driven out by high rents. There was one little man I used to see -- he had a magazine shop -- now he's gone."
After Juilliard, Williams moved back to the West Coast and began the stand-up comedy appearances that led to his TV career. In Los Angeles, his haunts were the Comedy Store and Improvisation. People in the business began to talk about his talent, and he was signed for a spot on Richard Pryor's show and another on the briefly revived Laugh-In.
Today he and Valerie have an apartment in Los Angeles and a house in Topanga Canyon. Their menagerie includes "Sam, a malamute -- a big husky -- three goats, and six Polish chickens." What's a Polish chicken? "It looks like Harpo Marx," he replies. "Then there's Cora, the parrot. She says, 'Birds can't talk.' One woman from the neighborhood came up and said, 'What a lovely bird -- what does it say?' And Cora says, 'F--- off.'"
Williams also owns a sensory-deprivation tank, into which he periodically submerges for an hour at a time. "Jesus! I'd hate to look at it now after all this time without a filter or daylight. There's going to be some bacteria growing in there -- big pieces saying [he adopts his bacteria voice], 'Hey, come in here. Go put in the filter.' All I do in the tank is sleep [snores loudly]. You know, bag up and take a cheap nap." He used to roller-skate, but gave it up, especially in New York, where he finds it dangerous. "Fifteen people all wearing headsets pass you. Just gotta move, just gotta move."
Dinner time. Williams, a vegetarian who does eat fish, suggests a Japanese restaurant a few doors away. We enter, only to find it has no liquor license. "No sake?" he asks, making a polite but hasty exit. "The whole point of this is the sake." We try another place. Success. At the sushi bar, over sake and sashimi, our conversation resumes, this time focusing on issues beyond acting and career.
"I recently signed a petition to ban handguns," Williams says. "I'm also afraid of cutting programs that benefit people in order to beef up the defense budget. In San Francisco alone, in some of the neighborhoods where I used to do benefit shows, they're not going to have a lot of programs that they desperately need, and I think there's going to be a lot of street violence."
Williams recoils at the Moral Majority. "The potential scares me," he says. "That's why I like to take the wind out of their sails as much as possible. If you look back in history, there were other Moral Majorities. One was called the Inquisition. The Crusades were another. I believe in religion and faith, but not in inflicting it on somebody else."
What disturbs Williams most is the weapons buildup. "The capacity to destroy us all is already there," he says. "And the other things -- the chemical warfare, the germ warfare -- those are more insidious because they'll be used even before the bombs. The Russians are stockpiling. We stockpile. They stockpile. Also, there's the proliferation of terrorism. That's terrifying."
The actor recalls that he used to do even more benefits but started to feel like "a real sap" because everyone was using him. "I'd say, 'Sure, I'll do that benefit to save the mosquito.' I'd do a worm wrestle if they wanted me to. One day I booked myself into six benefits, all worthy causes. But in one day?"
Williams checks the time and notes he'll soon have to head for Catch a Rising Star. "Come along," he says. During his shooting schedule in and around New York (about ten weeks), he has periodically dropped into the clubs where up-and-coming (and sometimes down-and-going) comics perform.
"But for a while I had to bag it. When we were doing the really intense scenes of Garp, I had to give up all that stuff, because if you do both, you go crazy from the transition between that total freedom and the discipline of the film."
I ask him about those fleeting moments during his HBO show when he seemed to me to be wondering what to do next. He replies, "That's a moment of fear, a study in fear. Yeah, I see those moments when I watch a tape. I'm wondering what's going to happen next, whether something's going to work, whether it will connect. You're up to the last moment before you go off the diving board, and you realize, 'Now gravity works.' And you have the choice of going on with it or chucking it. I love to just play and put things together. The thing I love is to improvise -- when something just forms in front of me. That's great. It must be like a sculptor when he gets that first shape. I worked with Jonathan Winters on one of the Mork & Mindy shows, and when you see him you realize he does that kind of improvising just to keep himself going."
Outside the restaurant, as we look for a cab, we spot Dom DeLuise and his family. He and Williams exchange hearty hellos, and when DeLuise hears Robin is en route to Catch a Rising Star, he says he may drop in. (He doesn't.) All the while, one of DeLuise's sons is staring at Williams. So what if his father's a star. This is Mork! Williams senses his excitement and regales him with a few words of Orkanese.
Outside the club, Williams immediately spots a few of his comedian friends. Someone tells him a joke, and his laugh is loud enough to be heard down the block. Rodney Dangerfield is there too. "Robin," he says, "I hear you did something very crazy at a benefit in Woodstock. You dressed up like a moth."
"Are you going on, Rodney?"
"Yeah, I'm going to read a few jokes. Why should I try them out in my own club?"
Inside, several performers get reasonably good responses. When Dangerfield is introduced, the applause explodes. Big-time stuff. A star. But he only does so-so. About half the gags click. "My wife has figured a way to stop me from biting my nails. She hides my teeth. ... I'm so ugly my dog shuts its eyes when it humps my leg."
The audience is still unaware that Williams is present. After another act, he is announced. Jubilation. A young woman near me can't believe it and keeps repeating his name to her boyfriend. Williams saunters to the stage and is soon off and running, ecstatically living on the edge once again.
But can he play Garp?