Robin Williams' New Role in Film - and Life

Originally published on August 23, 2009 | SF Chronicle | written by Ruthe Stein

A calmer Robin Williams is among us. He survived open-heart surgery in March, walking away with one valve replaced and another repaired. Like everything else in his life, the operation became fodder for jokes.
"I don't think they gave me a new valve but a tiny vagina. I don't know. I'm just so emotional these days," Williams said wiping away mock tears in Sausalito the other day.

But the gravity of his situation caused the 58-year-old comic to become unusually reflective for him. "It's like this weird thing to know you have been opened up but you are alive - big time. It really makes you appreciate little things, like your breath.

"I realize life can be short. It is a little longer now with the new parts. You go, 'This is your window. What do you want to do with it?'"

Mellowing out

Part of his answer is to mellow out and feel less driven to work so hard. With his strength restored, Williams takes renewed pleasure in riding his bicycles - he owns 50 - up and down the hills near his Napa Valley ranch.

Something else is rejuvenating him as well. Williams is quietly dating. "It's a secret someone," he whispers. A minute later Williams, dressed completely in black like a latter-day Beat, ambles over. "Her name is Susan, just like in the 'Monsters vs Aliens' movie," he confides.

Recently Williams had his close pals Eric Idle and Bobcat Goldthwait over to the ranch. A bird flew overhead and the three comedians just sat there and stared at it for the longest time. Then of course they had to make a joke of their lethargy. Idle pronounced the ranch "The Old Jokes Home." Goldthwait dubbed them "Old Guys Gone Mild."

The latter is far from the case. Goldthwait has just directed Williams in an edgy and dark independent film, "World's Greatest Dad." Williams plays a high school poetry teacher raising a teenage son by himself. The boy, played by Daryl Sabara (virtually unrecognizable from his "Spy Kids" role), is hateful, consumed by an overripe sexuality that leads him down a dangerous path. He dies while attempting autoeroticism with a noose around his neck to heighten the pleasure.

Goldthwait, who joined Williams at the Casa Madrona in Sausalito to talk about working together, admitted it was with dread that he heard the news in June that David Carradine had died apparently by the same means. "I would be lying if I didn't tell you I went 'Oh, s-.' But then I thought the way it is treated in this movie is that it is not a punch line. It happens so people would lie about it just like bestiality in my other movie," Goldthwait said.

Bizarre subjects

Drawn to bizarre subjects, he last made a feature, "Sleeping Dogs Lie," about a woman who commits a sexual act with her dog and understandably hides the fact. In "World's Greatest Dad," Williams tries to make his son's death look like a suicide and writes a poetic suicide note questioning the meaning of life. More tortured missives follow, allegedly from the boy's journal but really penned by his father. His son becomes the school hero, a symbol of teen alienation.

Williams and Goldthwait have been friends for decades. They played a double bill on the San Francisco comedy club circuit in the 1980s under the pseudonyms Jack Cheese and Marty Fromage. Williams, who went by Marty, opened for Jack, although he was by far more famous.

"That was because Robin's material was more life affirming," Goldthwait said. "Then I would come on as the counterpoint."

"We were like yin and yang," Williams recalls. "Audiences were kind of shell shocked by it."

Goldthwait's knowledge of film and movie history is belied by a resume that shows him playing a variation of his stand-up comedy character in three "Police Academy" movies. His secret ambition was to be a filmmaker and with Williams' encouragement he wrote and directed his first film, "Shakes the Clown," a downer about an alcoholic children's entertainer, in 1992. Billed as Marty Fromage, Williams appeared in it as a mime instructor.

Sharing lives

Goldthwait sent the "Greatest Dad" script to his pal just to solicit his opinion. "We always share our lives. I really wasn't sitting there at dinner thinking Robin was going to be in the movie.

"If I was going to write a movie for Robin Williams, it wouldn't be a poetry teacher that faces some tragedy. I think he did that pretty well in 'Dead Poets Society.'" Williams found much to relate to in Goldthwait's screenplay, which he immediately dubbed "Dead Penis Society."

"Bobcat has a great sense of character. But I wasn't going to do it just to help my friend. I did it cause it is a very interesting piece.

"I see my character as the other end of the guy I played in 'Dead Poets,' who is not successful as a poetry teacher. Students take his class to get out of another class."

A catharsis

The teacher goes through a catharsis, culminating in his stripping off his clothes and jumping off the school diving board. Far from having to be talked into doing a nude scene, Williams said it was his idea.

"I thought, 'If he is really going to have a catharsis, why wouldn't he just kind of shed everything?' When he gets to the top of the ladder and turns around, it was, 'Yeah I'm free.' "

In solidarity, his director also stripped and jumped into the pool. "At that point it was like enough naked fat boys," Williams joked.

His body was shaved for the scene. "Otherwise they wouldn't have known he was nude. They would think he is wearing a sweater," Goldthwait said of his star, who is known for being hairy.

Williams has a small uncredited role in "Shrink" as an alcoholic famous actor in which he seems to be mocking himself. People keep asking this actor why he doesn't make any good movies anymore.

"People do say to me, 'Why do you keep making these kind of sappy movies or these kind of man-child movies?' I usually say, 'I have done other movies, you just haven't seen them.'"

Oscar winner

Although best known for blockbusters like "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "The Birdcage," Williams has a longtime association with independent cinema. He won an Oscar for 1997's "Good Will Hunting," an indie that crossed over.

While not turning his back on major studio productions - he co-stars with John Travolta in the forthcoming "Old Dogs" - Williams is drawn more and more to independents, where there is no expectation that a film will have a big opening weekend.

"It takes the pressure off. You are really under the radar. The idea is to find and work with people you enjoy and because it's fun and let go of the outcome. If it makes money, God bless it, and if it doesn't, good luck," Williams said.

"I like not feeling that I am responsible. It is a heavy pressure. When they would put me in these things they call a 'vehicle,' that is a frightening thing."

Although far from their Cheese and Fromage days, Williams and Goldthwait are both back on the road doing standup. Williams is resuming the tour interrupted by his surgery. Recently they were in Austin, Texas, at the same time, Williams playing a 5,000-seat house, his buddy booked into one with 80 people.

"I'm like, 'Don't even show up to your show tonight cause I'm going to crush you,'" Goldthwait said, laughing.

No reality shows

Like Williams, he is doing just what pleases him. "I am not the biggest star in the world, but I really do say 'no' to reality shows and game shows on a regular basis. I would rather go do stand-up and movies that are really personal."

Williams recently saw "World's Greatest Dad" for the first time since it screened at Sundance in January.
"He started welling up and grabbed me and thanked me for putting him in my movie," Goldthwait recalled. "We were a couple of weepy bastards."

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