The Doctor of Comedy is in

Originally published on December 16, 1998 | Toronto Sun | written by Bob Thompson

NEW YORK--As I walk onto a mid-Manhattan hotel elevator, I am distracted by the vision of a bemused Robin Williams.

I hesitate before I select my floor. I hear Williams behind me, distracting me even more, by quietly calling out random floor numbers, "42, 31, 26, 54."

Finally, I remember. I hit 35, and turn to Williams. "That's my IQ," I admit.

"Oh, reporter boy," says Williams, pointing to a notebook in my back pocket.

Doors open, I exit. Williams says, grinning: "Are you sure?"

No, not really. Nobody's sure when they enter the crazy world of Robin Williams.

He's here to promote his movie, Patch Adams, which opens Christmas Day.

I'm here to speak with him. But mostly, it seems, I am here to act as his straight man, which usually requires not much. Just my presence.

For instance, a few hours after our elevator sketch, Williams enters an interview room where I am sitting with a few other writers.

Williams faces me as he sits near. "I've got your number," he says, chuckling.

Okay, but the others want to get down to business.

Let's talk about Patch Adams, where Williams plays a real-life medical student who battled a university's medical establishment in the '70s by suggesting that laughter would be a good medicine, too.

The role is tailor-made for the Oscar-winning 47-year-old. It requires him to be clownish and caring at well-timed intervals. The comedy-drama, based on a Patch Adams autobiography, also stars Monica Potter, who plays Patch's sweetheart.

"So," I say, trying to set the tone, "you worked with a woman named Monica."

Williams gets hyper as his eyes brighten: "A different one. No stains on her dress. That White House.

"Don't ya think it would be very difficult to have a smoke there?"

Williams becomes the southern-sounding American President, "May I offer you one of these here Cubans."

He reverts to his nerdy guy: "No. No, thank you. It gets in my mouth."

The other reporters are laughing big time. They have surrendered themselves to Williams. I have to. But we still want to know about this Patch Adams physician, who sometimes dresses as a clown to treat the sick and the dying.

The movie deals with Adams during his turbulent 1970s Virginia Medical School days--he was nearly expelled for "excessive happiness." Although in the '90s, Adams is a practising doctor, who was on the University of North Carolina set often.

Williams reins himself in to outline the Tom Shadyac film. "We do Patch's time in medical school," he says, behaving briefly. "It's kind of like the beginning of this outrageous character.

"Patch was very uplifting. We try to show that. But we also show that he could be irritating, too, with his desire to always challenge the system."

So what do Patch Adams and Robin Williams have in common? "A comedic spirit presented on a compassionate level."

The 5-foot-7 Williams gets bashful. "But Patch is about six-two. He looks like maybe Salvador Dali and Emmett Kelly had a kid."

Williams is on a roll again. Now he's manically explaining what Patch Adams challenged. "Clinical distance. Physicians hide behind it," says Williams, who suddenly fakes hysteria.

"I'm a doctor but I can't cut it. I can't cut it." Then Williams becomes a nurse in the operating room: "But doctor, you're a heart surgeon."

The wave of laughter washes over Williams, and he is at peace. And he is bemused.

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