HOLLYWOOD--Silly or serious on screen, Robin Williams can get your undivided attention.
"Yes," says Williams seizing the moment, "I go both ways."
Off screen, of course, a conversation with him is more like a private lesson in stand-up comedy.
Upon hearing this, Williams jumps from his chair in a non-padded room at the Four Seasons Hotel.
"Stand back," the 46-year-old says maniacally. "I've got a loaded punchline."
Always and forever, but Williams also has proof positive that his dramatic abilities might be catching up with his undeniable comedy talents.
The release of Flubber--he was the absent-minded professor--certainly re-affirmed that he's good at goofing. There was a co-starring turn in Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry. But his psychiatrist role in Good Will Hunting elevated Williams to loftier dramatic heights.
Indeed, his '98 film schedule mostly confirms that the Juilliard-trained actor seems to be amalgamating his sad and funny parts into a whole.
Williams just completed shooting the bitter-sweet Jacob The Liar in Hungary, which deals with Polish Jews during WWII. In Patch [Adams], out later this year, he portrays Patch Adams, a renowned doctor who dressed as a clown to treat severely dysfunctional patients.
Recognition in the past--Oscar nominations for Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King--established his credibility.
He'll likely get another Academy nomination for his pensive, emotionally crippled shrink in Good Will Hunting. He barely missed out on a Golden Globe Sunday.
Certainly, fans and friends sense his movement toward more sombre portrayals.
"A lot of people are coming to me, thanking me for Good Will Hunting, because it touched them so much," says Williams, briefly reverting to his gentle demeanor.
"That's just as meaningful to me as someone saying"--he's now an obnoxiously loud New Yawker--"'I laughed my ass off, cuz, y'know, you're one funny bastard'."
Obviously, quiet time is over. When I ask about psychiatric research, he becomes a raving lunatic.
"I was sent to my therapist," he says, wide-eyed. "I use him as a consultant both personally and professionally. And he handles me wide and on a platform basis."
All right, then. So is this episodic lapse into comedy routines an irresistible impulse?
"I think it's a release," reports Williams, pretending to be concerned. "After I'd do the Tonight Show, I'd say, 'I need a stage, I have to keep doing this'."
I see. Was Woody Allen okay with the neurotic flights of funny on his Deconstructing movie set?
As an answer, Williams slides into an almost perfect Woody Allen impersonation. "Okay, Robin you should go this way, and then that way. You'll be out of focus, and from what I've heard, I think you've had experience."
Which prompts me to ask him if he ever gets a vacation from Robin Williams' comedy central.
"I just got back from Australia," he says, trying to be restrained. "I was scuba diving along the Great Barrier Reef."
He anticipates. "I know, lots of sharks, and they're usually moody.
"I wasn't worried. This one guy put me straight on divers and sharks.
"'Why would they eat you?'" says Williams, doing a high-pitched Aussie dialect. "'It would be like chewin' on a piece of meat in a condom.'"