TORONTO--Robin Williams lied to me 22 years ago. Now he's sorry.
The irascible comedian, in Toronto at the film festival for the premiere of his Polish Holocaust film Jakob The Liar, plays the liar in the film, which played as a gala last night.
In interviews earlier in the day, Williams is asked if he could remember telling any whoppers himself in real life.
"The biggest lie?" he blurts out. "I did tell a fairly large lie. It was years ago. It was one of my first interviews."
The lie? "That I was born in Scotland! I said I was born in Edinburgh. For years later it came back to bite me in the ass."
Where was he? Toronto. The original interviewer? It was me, when I worked at The Toronto Star. I tell Williams that. He's astonished. "It was you? Aye! You Scottish bastard!"
Williams admits he was likely under the influence of dope during the interview, which took place at Mark Breslin's Yuk Yuk's at 3 a.m. after an impromptu stand-up comedy show in the original Toronto club downtown--22 years ago. This was before Williams was famous, just before Mork & Mindy.
"If you're talking those days, I was still enjoying the herbal essence," Williams says now with a sheepish grin.
He got the idea to lie from Marlon Brando. "I'd read an article that Brando used to make up this incredible biography, saying that he's been born in Manchuria or he'd been raised by Jews in Shanghai. It was just this very strange thing that he kept building on and I thought I'd try it."
Meanwhile, Williams, the son of an auto company executive, actually is American-born. "I'm so sorry," he says, doing a big-eyed puppy-dog routine as he fixes his gaze on mine. "I was born in Chicago in 1951--that's true!"
In the new film, which opens commercially next week, Williams plays a Jewish pancake vendor imprisoned in a Polish ghetto. He overhears a Nazi radio broadcast that implies there is good news, that the Germans are in retreat late in World War II. As he spreads the news, making people happy, Williams starts to make up more news to keep them happy.
"This thing is basically a drama with moments of humour, not even comedy," Williams says. "If it is comedy, it is ironic."
The humour was the fuel these people used to keep themselves alive, says Williams. But he was careful with the project, until Jewish advisers told him to go for it.
"People said do it, don't be afraid, create the reality and then you honour the memory."
Williams, who has always mixed serious and comedic roles, says Jakob The Liar is not a big statement about the actor himself. "I wasn't trying to prove anything with it. It was just a fascinating character in a complex story. And no one knew about Life Is Beautiful. We were making our movie at the same time, if not a little before. I thought, why not try this?"
Williams served as the executive producer. His wife, Marsha Garces Williams, is the co-producer. This is his second-last movie for at least a year. The last, which Williams has already finished shooting, is his sci-fi robot movie Bicentennial Man, due in December. Then he'll quit--for a while.
"I'm going to go back and do standup," says the 48-year-old Williams, who knows he has been accused of losing his edge.
"If I'm not funny then, then I have to give up. Because there's no one to blame: 'Oh, it's the director, it's the script.' No!"
Williams plans to start workshopping his material this fall, probably in some small San Francisco comedy club. Then he'll take it on the road. He hopes to develop more mature material than before.
"The one thing I do want to get away from, for the sake of my own growth, is the number of dick jokes per square inch. I want to raise my consciousness and step up and talk about many other things."
Not that he's going to be tame. "I'm not saying that I'll be like a Ken doll. Sexuality--it is something wonderful to talk about, especially when you get to 48."
He gives a for-instance: "It's amazing that they've developed a pill to give you a hard-on for a day but they don't have one to increase your thought processes. A guy goes: 'I'd rather have a stiff dick than a big mind!' Amazing."
Williams decided to return to standup a month ago. "It's time. It's just time when you want to make a total break in your life and just get back that kind of fearlessness.
"People say: 'You've lost your edge!' Okay, smartass, go back to that one place where you have to have it or you're dead!
"Jesus, man, standup had a great purpose for me. It was very therapeutic for me when I started. Now it's fun to try to get back out and see what I've got to say, try to get back to that same mindset where it really had a purpose."
Back to the days when he lied to me--for the fun of it.