A Peter Pan for Yuppies

Originally published on June 24, 1991 | Time Magazine | written by Kurt Andersen

He's ubiquitous: every month or so lately, there's been a new Robin Williams movie. First came a bit part in Dead Again, in which he plays a ruined yuppie wretch who advises the movie's hero during the latter's supernatural quest for redemption. Then The Fisher King -- as a ruined yuppie wretch whose wife's murder propels him and the movie's hero on a supernatural quest for redemption. Now it's Hook, in which he plays a wretched yuppie whose children's kidnapping propels him on a supernatural quest for redemption.

In the highly improbable protagonist's role -- Peter Pan grown up? Peter Pan, a Type A investment banker? -- it is hard to imagine anyone other than Robin Williams. After all, the arc of Hook's Peter Pan -- an impish, Dionysian youngster, after a painful struggle with worldly temptation, finds his family to be the source of true happiness -- is a pretty fair summary of Robin Williams' life at 40.

During most of the time America was falling in love with Williams -- charmed by his TV character Mork, thrilled by his semi-improvisational comedy on cable-TV specials, charmed again by his early movie roles (in Moscow on the Hudson, in Garp) -- his life was pretty much a mess. "I think I had my mid-life crisis at around 27," says Williams, who was 26 when Mork & Mindy went on the air. In addition to too much trivial sex, there was too much vodka and bourbon and way too much cocaine. "It was like symbiotic abuse. It was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Williams. The bloated fish," he calls his early-'80s self. "The Michelin poster child."

He quit both booze (gradually, all by himself) and coke (cold turkey, all by himself), but unlike many of today's celebrity recoverers, Williams has not succumbed to just-say-no zealotry. While he knows cocaine is "a totally selfish drug" and a dead end, he's also unafraid to recall the fun. "It was always around. 'Robin, want to do some blow? Want to do some blow in a back room with some very famous people?' 'Oh, yeah!'"

But sobriety by no means fixed his life. He and his first wife separated when their son Zachary was four, and he eventually took up with Marsha Garces, the woman who had once been Zachary's baby sitter. A PEOPLE magazine cover story, he says, badly distorted the facts ("I had been separated from my wife for a year and a half -- my wife was living with another man") and inaccurately cast Garces as a home-wrecking nanny. After almost four years (and marriage to Marsha; and two babies, Zelda, 2, and Cody, two weeks), Williams still gets apoplectic on the subject.

The story came at a high-stress moment. In addition to the marital disarray, his father had just died and his last three movies had bombed. "It was starting to look like" -- the voice assumed is a prissy superego -- "'Uh- oh. Have we made several wrong choices? Have we just batted out at the bottom of the third?' It was a pivotal time."

Because Williams' comic persona is supercharged and allusive, and because he was a sex-and-drugs wild man, people assume that he has always been a hellion. In fact, he was a quiet, dutiful, good son -- a not very religious Episcopal acolyte, a student-body president, and in 1969, in Marin County, Calif., a quiet, dutiful, unrebellious teenager. The blowout hedonism of his 20s and 30s was the aberration, because now, at 40, he is quiet, dutiful and good once again.

Williams' great charm and his great weakness are, in the words of director Paul Mazursky, a desperate desire to be wonderful. These days the actor is still effervescent, bubbling with notions and takes. During two brief spells in one afternoon, he is, at each moment in context, Nastassja Kinski, a disco sleaze, a fashion model, Mick Jagger, Ronald Reagan, James Brown, George Bush, David Duke, Margaret Thatcher and Harold Pinter's answering machine ("Hi, this is Harold" -- a long pause -- "Pinter").

Although he still scribbles as many as a dozen comedy premises a week -- "Pope from the Deep South," for instance -- his only stand-up performances these days are unannounced late-night appearances at big-city comedy clubs. Aside from the intrinsic pleasures of stand-up -- making people laugh, being adored by strangers -- what Williams misses about it is the sense it used to give him of middle America's mood. "As you go outside the major cities and get into other places, you go 'Oh'" -- here his voice turns Southern, smirky, menacing -- "'maybe thangs are a little different than they seem, Mister Smart-Ass Liberal.' You cross the Manson-Nixon Line and 'It ain't that funny, Audi Driver, Mister BMW, Jewish Management.'"

For all his heartfelt leftism -- he performs at a dozen benefits a year, including the annual Comic Relief telethon for the homeless -- Williams is not blind to the particular self-satisfactions of Beverly Hills limousine liberals. "There can be an ain't-we-swell smugness about it that can be oppressive." Although he didn't attend the recent Hollywood benefit for Oxfam America, at which 15% of the beautiful people had a posh dinner, 25% ate only rice and beans, and 60% had rice and water, the very thought of it made him giddy: "And then 20% actually get electrodes attached to their testicles and interrogated. And then at the very end, 7% draw straws and get shot. What effect will it have? For two weeks they'll go, 'Hola, Margarita? No hablos se tacos. Thank you.'"

Williams is equally clear-eyed about his own work in films and his earlier tendency toward shtick. His director on Garp, George Roy Hill, "basically would say, 'Don't improvise. Try something much simpler.' And that was a good thing." After the great success of Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and Dead Poets Society (1989), Williams' Hollywood ascendancy seems inevitable. But before those breakthroughs, Williams was just another mortified, covetous, B-list actor. He auditioned for the Charles Grodin role in Midnight Run. And he talked to the producers of Batman about playing the Joker: "I think I was used for bait to get Nicholson."

But Good Morning, Vietnam's success gave him the confidence and clout to star in the riskier Dead Poets Society, and without that film, he says, he wouldn't have been cast in Awakenings: bankability and a reputation for range in three easy steps. But it was serendipity, not five-year-plan calculation. "I haven't orchestrated it. It doesn't seem like I have to do one serious, one comedy, one serious, one comedy. I'm more like a child -- 'That'd be neat!'"

And now Hook, a very high-stakes, special-effects-laden megapicture. For Williams, who is in nearly every scene, making the movie was a grueling six months on the set. He was obliged to shave his arms and upper body every other day. And the acting wasn't easy, either: in a 40-year-old man, Mary Martin feyness -- "Come on, Lost Boys!" -- could be awful. Williams says Bob Hoskins, who plays Hook's first mate, Smee, gave him a key piece of advice: make Pan ever so slightly insane.

At the end of Hook, the Williams character, swearing off both youthful recklessness and play-it-safe overmaturity, declares himself ready for adult adventures. And so does the actor seem to be plunging headlong toward intriguing, invigorating professional risk. Williams reads several scripts a week, and of the half a dozen he is considering, only one, Mazursky's proposed sequel to Moscow on the Hudson, seems surefire commercially. Williams' next movie, Toys, a surreal comedy about a general who takes over a toy company, is to be directed by Barry Levinson, who directed Good Morning, Vietnam. Williams is also talking with director Bill Forsyth about starring in Becoming Human, a series of sketches about evolution; and with Oliver Stone about playing assassinated gay politician Harvey Milk in Mayor of Castro Street. Some comedies, some full-bore dramas, some possible box-office hits, some certainly not. But Williams doesn't think of himself as a latter-day Woody Allen. He has no auteurist ambitions. "It takes a lot of discipline and vision, and I am too lazy for that. I have never been able to really write." The only thing of which he's professionally certain is his feeling about network TV: never again. "This one [ABC executive] came up one day and said, 'I used to think Jack Carter was funny. Now it's you.'"

So he doesn't obsess about bigger paychecks. He feels he has enough power to get the movie roles he wants. He's no ascetic (there's a 500-acre ranch in Napa and a glorious new house overlooking San Francisco Bay), but the movie-star pampering is minimal: he drives himself everywhere and schlepps his own wardrobe -- actually, a bunch of old shirts -- to a photo session. He's happy with the way things have worked out but not, he wants you to know, complacent.

"It isn't a question of doing more work," he says of his goals. "It's more of your own internal critic that goes, 'You could do better than that. Take the higher road, and not the easy route.'" Having thrown off his desperate need to be wonderful, Robin Williams can now start being wonderful.

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