Robin Williams once was as ubiquitous as that Oscar whipping boy Jude Law, wallowing in a stream of sentimental mush like Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man.
Then he lowered his profile and cleansed his artistic soul by playing creeps (One Hour Photo) and killers (Insomnia).
"I get different fan mail now," he says via phone while nursing a cold at home in San Francisco.
This year, the madcap comic's new goal seems to be breaking the attendance record at awards shows.
First, he accepted a lifetime achievement honor at the not-exactly elderly age of 53 at the Golden Globes. Then he cracked Sideways jokes at the Independent Spirit Awards. He topped that by stealing host Chris Rock's thunder of controversy at the Oscars, protesting the censorship of a SpongeBob-inspired tune with duct tape over his mouth.
"We were thinking of a shock collar, but I couldn't get one in time," says Williams, who was to gospel-wail such lyrics as "Olive Oyl is really anorexic, and Casper is in the Ku Klux Klan." Instead, he rattled off a few safe zingers because "when you have a network worrying about a half-million-dollar fine, you know... 'I saw a breast!' I saw a doorknocker."
Where you won't see Williams is in his latest film, Robots, opening Friday. Instead, you'll get a cheerful earful of his trademark Tourettesian riffing--from a Castilian party crasher to a gender-bending Britney Spears--as he brings Fender to vocal life.
"He's a skid robot," Williams says of his walking junkyard of discarded parts who shows the big-city ropes to naive hero Rodney (Ewan McGregor). They band together with other misfits to fight a corporate plot to make their kind obsolete. "It's the haves and the have-bots."
The computer-animated comedy from the makers of Ice Age marks the actor's first cartoon feature since 1992, when he rubbed the box office the right way as the shape-shifting Genie in Disney's Aladdin.
For director Chris Wedge, the ad-lib-erated Williams was a perfect fit. "You bring a script to him, put it on a podium and then gingerly step out of the room to see what he does."
Why has it taken 13 years for the actor to return to the genre? "No one asked. They were worried I might be uppity," Williams says, referring to his feud with Disney after the studio broke a promise not to use his voice to promote Aladdin tie-ins. With Robots, "when it comes to products, they have to use other characters. Upfront, we say, 'This is the drill.'"
Williams has another voice job lined up, as a trio of penguins and a sea lion in Happy Feet, out in 2006. He wouldn't mind speaking for others full time. "I could be Mel Blanc. I could be up here and ride bikes and occasionally show up at Pixar."