Robin Williams: 75 Rapid Fire Answers

Originally published in May 2009 (interview conducted in 2002) | Autograph Magazine | written by Lawrence Grobel

Here's what first comes to mind when I think about Robin Williams. Not his crazy antics. Not Mork and Mindy. Not him screaming "Good Morning, Vietnam!" or Mrs. Doubtfire, Popeye or Dead Poets Society. Not even him playing with that pink pashmina scarf on Inside the Actor's Studio. When I think of Robin Williams, I remember the first time I interviewed him for Playboy.

It was 1991--18 years ago. He was borrowing director Barry Levinson's house in Brentwood and after we spent an amusing few hours talking he walked me to my car in the driveway. I got in, turned the key, and nothing happened. I tried again, and this time the engine coughed and sputtered but didn't catch. I looked at Robin, shrugged, and said I'd probably have to make a call to get it jump started. "That'll take you half a day," Robin said. "Let's see if I can give you a push down the driveway."

"You want to push me?" I said. My car, a 1975 Fiat Spider convertible, wasn't very big, but I wasn't expecting one of America's most treasured talents to make such a physical offer.

"Sure. I'll push, you turn the key, we'll get you going."

And that's what I think of when I think of Robin Williams. Him in my rearview mirror pushing my green Fiat from behind as I rolled down Barry Levinson's driveway until the engine caught and I waved my hand in the air as I drove away.

I didn't see him again until 11 years later when he was promoting One Hour Photo and his 90 minute HBO special. That time it was for Rolling Stone, and we concentrated on his more serious side. But you couldn't talk to Robin Williams and not ask him off-beat questions, just to get his take on things. Nobody has a sharper, quicker mind. Here's a sample of our outtakes--what's never appeared before, and what most public figures wish they could borrow as answers to questions they're rarely asked.

What rock star has impressed you?
I met Dylan once; he tried to pick my brain. He asked me these random questions...

Whose brain would you like to pick?
For a couple of hours I would love to talk with Stephen Hawking.

Whose brain would you like to have had?

You once told me that the three most cherished mementoes you owned were Einstein's autograph, an English naval cutlass your father gave you, and a carved netsuke. Do you still have them?
Einstein's autograph I had to give back to Van Dyke Parks--he did the musical arrangements for Popeye. The cutlass I still have. And the netsuke.

Have you added other mementoes since then?
My brother gave me a beautiful binocular microscope. And the camera that my step-grandfather used in WW I that came with pictures of him near the front line. As prized possessions, those are cool.

If you could be successful in another profession, which would you choose?
Quantum mechanics.

Now that you're closing in on 60, has your body changed?
Just hairier. I met Koko the gorilla and she hit on me, that was scary. She tried to take me in the back room and the trainer went, 'Koko no.' True. She saw me and went, 'Whoa... who's the little hairy man.' When she signs, it gets very intimate. She starts signing very small signs. She pinched my nipples and that was it.

What writer would you have liked to write your biography?

What film would you like to have directed?
Ran. Or Dr. Strangelove, which is my favorite movie of all time.

What book would you like to turn into a film?
The Foundation, Isaac Asimov.

What film would you like to watch over and over again?
Les Enfants du Paradis.

If you could have produced any TV show?
Something on the Discovery Channel, I'm addicted. I remember watching the crocodile hunter sexing a crocodile by putting his finger in the cloaca. That alone was worth the price of admission.

Change one thing about your first sexual experience?
The length.

Freud said mental health was basically sexual health, think he was right?
I think so. This was a man who did enough blow to kill a small horse.

Repeat one alcohol or drug experience you've had?
Ecstasy with Marsha was quite lovely, I'd do that again.

If you could be the lover of any person other than your wife...?
Susan Sarandon.

Retract one lie you've told?
'No, I'm not married.'

If you could steal one thing other than money without getting caught?
The Magna Carta.

If you could commit one crime without being caught...?
The destruction of all the nuclear secrets.

What can make you cry?
Just the insane violence all over the world; that makes me cry. And it's unrelenting. I was performing in a club in New York and afterward there was a guy sitting down with an Iranian, a Palestinian and an Israeli, and they all acknowledged that they want peace but they don't know how to get to it. How do you create a Palestinian homeland when there's a large amount of Palestinians who want to obliterate Israel? How do you stop this insane cycle that just keeps going on and on?

How do you deal with this as a comedian?
You try and find a way to address it. Some people are better at it than I am. I haven't hit that one yet. I'm trying to find interesting things to talk about with it.

Who would you like to see run for president, so you could riff on them?
Stephen Hawking. And Colin Powell with Gore Vidal as his running mate. That would be wild.

What's your take on the former president, President Bush?
He was the short-attention span president. All the stuff just slid past. 'Enron? Aw, that didn't happen, did it?' He walked away from that one. What frightened me was Bush almost died from choking on a pretzel. At that point the Secret Service was going, 'Game's over, man.' And his own dogs didn't give a sh*!. That's when I was really scared. They were licking him for the salt.

If you could only save one thing from your house...
The Miró painting.

Greatest work of art?
Picasso's Guernica.

If you could be any person in history?
Da Vinci's agent. 'Leonardo what are you doing? You've got a lot of good stuff here.'

If you could invent anything?
What hasn't been invented yet? Cold fusion. That would be the big one.

Be any sports figure?
Pele. He's great, and very, very funny.

Play one instrument?
Piano, in a rat's second.

Composed any music?
Beethoven's Fifth.

What current musical group would you like to join?

What three musicians or groups would you like to see on the same bill?
Sting, the Stones, and Dylan.

If you could have written one song...
"Let it Be."

Eliminate one odor?

What color describes you best?

What object best represents your personality?
A bicycle. It's always on the move.

You have a passion for biking: how many bikes do you own?
Around 55.

These bikes are not cheap, are they?
Some of them are; most of them aren't. I like the way you say that: 'These bikes are not cheap!'

I saw a Porsche model that was like eight grand.
That's to pay for the Porsche sticker on it. There's also a Ferrari road bike--they hang an extra $2,000 for the sticker. I've got one of those, which I don't ride, but it looks great.

So what do your expensive bikes cost?
You can get them for six or $7,000. They're cheaper than Maseratis and easier to store. They're all hanging in the garage. I love riding them. A lot of them are hand-made sculptures really. Most of them are made by craftsmen.

You went to the Tour de France to cheer on your buddy Lance Armstrong when he was competing. How did you and he become friends?
I went on a ride with him some years ago and then started to hang with him. I went to see him when he won the second Tour de France. I just love watching him.

When you ride with Armstrong, can you keep up?
Oh yeah, baby. I keep up with The Man.

How often would you say you are happy?
A lot. The majority of the time.

What gives you pleasure?
Hanging out with the kids, seeing the amazing things that they say. And also looking around and realizing that God, I know a lot of amazing people. Like Al Pacino. Being up in Alaska and these weird ass places with him. And being back on the road again.
I remember seeing Pacino's eyes light up when he said this line, which they didn't use in the film [Insomnia]. He said, 'What were you doing with her?' And I said, 'I was a mentor.' And he said, 'Yeah, you meant ta f*!k her.' It got a huge laugh. And I thought, 'Ah, you've been bitten, haven't you Al?' That's a great thing. Just meeting people like Al. Not because he's famous, but he's an extraordinary guy.

What period of history most fascinates you?
The Renaissance. And the 20th century. A double bill. It's amazing to think that man landed on the moon in 1969 and that's it, stop. The push was to get there. But wait a minute.

Writer Paul Theroux observed that if you were not able to move people to laughter, you would be very nearly defenseless. Agree?
Very much. Most animals have a defense mechanism. That's mine. That's my offense and defense.

Theroux sees the roots of your eagerness to please as being tangled in your childhood dislocations and obscure and unmemorable misery. Any truth to that?
I think so. Moving around you learn to adapt. You find a mechanism that allows you to adapt to the isolation, and then try to overcome that as quickly as possible.

If you could take revenge on anyone...?
I wouldn't. The best revenge is not to take revenge.

Dumbest purchase?
Bell bottom pants suit. I gave it to a guy outside my apartment in Hollywood who had been attacked. He had no clothing. He had to deal with it.

Inhabit the body of someone you know personally while keeping your own mind?
Gary Shandling.

What magazine would you like to edit?
Scientific American or New Scientist.

Perform in a circus?
I'd be the last clown out of that little car.

Worst work experience?
I was on a road crew that cleared up poison oak. I got it all over me. It was a summer job, I was 16.

Have you ever experienced absolute terror?
Once, when I was about to do The Birdcage. It was on a plane coming into Miami, dropping 500 feet in the last 1,000 feet. You get really quiet. As you drop you see the ground. And it's very intimate, at that moment you feel very connected to everyone on that plane.

Change one thing about your childhood?
Having a brother, not a half brother.

Saddest thing that happened to you?
A double bill: the death of my father and the death of my mother.

Are you superstitious?
Yeah, I got that from my mom. Not ladders or cats, but carrying around little objects.

Do you believe in magic?
I've seen people pull flowers out of their ass, of course that's magic. My favorites are Penn and Teller--it's punk magic. They will deconstruct the trick, but do a better trick. It's layered. They f*!k with you while they're doing the trick. Magic is just applied technology. People think Moses opened the waters--no, he knew about low tide.

What fictional character would you like to have been?
Bilbo Baggins, from Lord of the Rings.

What would you like to be known for?
The benevolent fool.

Worst fear?
Losing your mind, your memory, your ability to think.

Sell your soul for one thing?
I can't.

What about to save the life of a child?
Then I probably would. Damn it man, work for the devil.

If you could have witnessed one event in history?
The birth of Christ. Just to know what is myrrh.

If God exists, can She be trusted?
Or is God the devil when he's drunk? Or is the devil just God when he's drunk?

If you could ask God one question?
What are you doing?

How might God change the priesthood?
Oh, God, there's so much to go with. The Divine Witness Protection Program. The automated confessional now at the Vatican. Shock collars for different problems. Did you touch a child? Press column three. If your hand goes anywhere near a pubescent boy, hit that shock collar button.

What would you say in a commencement address to graduating students?
Stock up. What did Kurt Vonnegut say? Wear sun block. Get canned goods, ladies and gentleman. Be prepared. A small survival rifle. And knowledge. Learn as much as you can about skinning, drying, and desiccating beef. When it hits the fan, and it may not, it may just hit the air conditioner, as we realize, as Ronald Reagan once said, that global warming's a myth, but he was in the early phases of Alzheimer's... but now we know. You're walking into, as the Chinese say, interesting times. They're mapping the human genome, 'You want a boy with gills, you got him'--'My son Joe, he's on the swim team. How did he win? He stayed underwater for four hours.' The potential is huge.

Single most valuable thing you've learned?
The value of silence.

The five most important things in life?
Love. Security. Laughter. Home. And a nice bowel movement.

Choose the way you'll die.
Shot by a jealous husband at the age of 90.

Pick your pallbearers.
The Supreme Court.

If you could be reincarnated as someone you know?
Oliver Sacks.

Reincarnated as an animal?
A wolf or a porpoise.

The most difficult question you could be asked?
If you were in prison, would you be the bitch?

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