What a difference a few years can make.
Take the last time I met Robin Williams, for instance. It was 2004, in Berlin, and the Oscar-winning comedy icon was a happily married family man celebrating 21 years of sobriety. If there were any cracks, they weren’t visible. His life seemed enviably blissful.
Like many people, then, I was surprised when Williams checked himself into an alcohol abuse clinic two years later – as, his publicist stated, a “proactive measure” to deal with a drink problem. It was his first time in such a place. When he kicked a cocaine and alcohol habit more than two decades earlier, he did it alone – “easy as that”, he’d said in Berlin. Back then, two factors had compelled his turnaround: the death of his friend John Belushi from an overdose (Williams was one of the last people to see the actor alive; “He was like a bull and the fact that he died scared me,” he said) and the imminent birth of his first son, Zachary.
Fast forward to 2010 and I’m sitting with Williams in a dimly lit room in a London hotel to discuss his new movie, World’s Greatest Dad. Stocky and dressed entirely in black, he looks much as he did in Berlin. His mood, though, is more subdued and reflective. He says he is jet-lagged; I suspect there is more to it than that.
Indeed, the past four or so years must have felt like he was living his own version of the Book of Job. First, there was the drinking. Then, in March 2008, his (second) wife of nearly 19 years, Marsha Garces Williams, filed for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. And, as if all this wasn’t bad enough, 30 dates into his first stand-up tour in six years – ominously titled Weapons of Self Destruction – he started experiencing breathing difficulties, accompanied by a persistent cough. An angiogram revealed the need for heart surgery. When he hit the road again last September, for a gruelling final 50 dates, it was with a new bovine heart valve, a stack of fresh material – and a heightened appreciation for life and the people around him.
Having worked his problems into his act, up to a point – “It’s an open book with edited areas” – Williams doesn’t flinch when asked how he fell off the wagon. He was working in Alaska, he says, away from his family and friends, and was unable to do the things he enjoys back home, such as taking long bike rides. “All of a sudden I thought, ‘I’ve been 20 years sober, I can drink a little,’” he says.
He gives what is more of a grimace than a smile. “It’s like, ‘I can be somewhat circumcised,’” he says. “It’s that idea that you can have one drink – and no, you can’t. Within a week I was drinking heavily. It was so quick that even I was like, ‘Wow!’”
He found ways of covering it up. “I was at a bar and I bought a drink, and the bartender said, ‘I thought you were sober.’ I went, ‘Yeah, this is for a friend.’ And I went behind a pole and …” He mimes slugging a drink. “So you just go and you go and you go, and you lie and you tell yourself all these things, and you think, ‘I can deal with this.’”
Although he was convinced he could battle the bottle again on his own, it became increasingly apparent to people around him that he was in trouble. His family eventually issued an ultimatum that led to his checking into rehab. “And thank God they did,” he says. Zachary has said he believes his father would be dead if he’d continued drinking.
“I would do this thing of drinking for a week and going, ‘Ah, I can stop,’” Williams explains. “So you stop for a week, and then a week later you drink more.” He now realises that, in quitting on his own in the 1980s, he had not addressed the underlying causes. “Finally you have to literally surrender and go, ‘I can’t do this alone’. And that’s where you have to really admit: ‘I’m an alcoholic. I can’t drink.’”
Williams has been married twice. Speaking on a chat show recently, he said that living with a comedian was like “owning a pet cobra”. What exactly did he mean?
“Basically, there’s a certain amount of novelty, and the novelty is showing the cobra to your friends – but comics can be nasty,” he says. “Along with our desperate insecurity, sometimes we’re equipped to be vicious.”
Unsurprisingly, the events of the past few years have made Williams look at his life and work from a new perspective – and anyway, after rehab there weren’t scripts waiting for him. So he did what all stand-ups do when they need money, and went gigging. Yet Weapons of Self Destruction also turned into a way for him to process “all the s**t that had gone on in my life – and then after the heart surgery it became even more kind of, ‘Yeah, baby! You’re alive! You’re alive!”
If his first movie after rehab, Old Dogs, was panned by the critics, World’s Greatest Dad has seen many searching for superlatives. Made on a shoestring budget, and written and directed by Williams’s friend of 30 years, Bobcat Goldthwait, it tells the story of a teacher with an obnoxious son, who realises his dream of connecting with people through his writing in the wake of a family tragedy. To reveal much more would weaken the film’s impact; suffice it to say that, despite the warm and fuzzy title, World’s Greatest Dad is no queasy schmaltz-fest but rather a pitch-black adult comedy in which Williams does his best work since the acclaimed One Hour Photo in 2002.
Some commentators regard the new film as a risk that paid off. Williams, on the other hand, says he never felt safer making a movie, thanks to Goldthwait, who would not move on until they were satisfied with a scene. “This was perfect timing,” he says with enthusiasm. “I needed to do a film like this. I needed to reaffirm that this is what it’s about.”
In the past, his choices have often seemed erratic and wayward, with films such as Jack threatening to obscure the wonderful work he did early in his career, in movies such as The World According to Garp; Good Morning, Vietnam; Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, for which he won the 1998 Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
With luck, World’s Greatest Dad will mark the beginning of a new phase in his career, while his stint in rehab will hopefully have put him on the road to conquering his addiction once and for all. Like all recovering alcoholics, he knows sobriety is a daily struggle. But he also knows that one need not be ruled by their demons for ever.
Billy Connolly experienced a whole litany of horrors as a child, yet being around him today, Williams laughs, “is the closest thing to walking pot you’ll ever get. If you’re around Billy for more than five minutes you’ll start to feel giddy. He gives me a hope of going, ‘Yeah, there’s a whole other life waiting for you’.”
World’s Greatest Dad is released on September 24.