Robin Williams Grows Up (Just a Little)

Originally published in April 2006 | Reader's Digest | written by Andy Simmons

He's unscripted. He's uncensored. And you can always expect the unexpected.

Insanity and Hype

Robin Williams likes to work without a net. If you've ever seen a recording of him onstage, you know what we mean: His shows are totally improvised, just the irrepressible Williams and the audience, usually howling with laughter. No canned jokes, no dress rehearsal, no repeating funny lines that worked last time. His movie roles always start with a script, but Hollywood directors and millions of fans have come to count on Williams--and his peculiar genius for improvisation--to make them laugh, or cry, often when they least expect it.

And since his early days on TV as Mork from Ork, Williams, now 54, has seldom disappointed. From a homeless man suffering from dementia in The Fisher King, to a divorced father who dresses up as a nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire, he's tackled characters of every stripe. In full comedy mode, this month he'll play Bob Munro in RV, a movie about a workaholic father who takes his family on a business trip in a motor home.

Over the years, journalists who interview Williams have learned to expect the unexpected. So at Reader's Digest we were prepared to be greeted by Williams reciting the Gettysburg Address as James Brown using a Croatian accent while performing a German slap dance. Instead, we met a subdued, normal guy--who happens to be abnormally funny.

You trained at Juilliard, a very serious acting school. When did you start concentrating on humor?
I left school and couldn't find acting work, so I started going to clubs where you could do stand-up. I've always improvised, and stand-up was this great release. All of a sudden it was just me and the audience.

What's that like, working in front of a live audience?
It's frightening and exhilarating. It's like combat. Look at the metaphors: You kill when it works; you die when it doesn't.

You bomb.
Bombing is bad. Killing is good.

Do you remember your first routine?
Vaguely. It was in San Francisco, in the '70s, at this place called The Committee. I was a football quarterback on acid--kind of a funky Lawrence Welk, like Welk doing Soul Train. It was a pretty wild time.

There are different kinds of humorists--the political type like Jon Stewart, or the more observational like Jerry Seinfeld. How would you define your humor?
It's kind of the lazy Susan effect. It has samples of all--blue, some very personal observations, some political observations, some world observations, some making fun of the celebrity world, and its insanity and hype. It kind of goes everywhere.

Do you work from a script?
No. It's more like headlines. "German Pope." You build off a topic and explore how far you can go.

Do you practice?
No, I don't practice anything. I spend time looking over ideas and then just get out and do it. Even when I did my Broadway show, I did 15 minutes no one had seen before, because that was the night that Michael Jackson protested about Al Sharpton bailing on him. I said, "Wow, if that man bails on you, this must be really a lost cause."

Wouldn't it be safer to script it?
Safer is not a good thing.

Do you ever self-censor?
People would say I never censor. As Billy Crystal says, "I don't have that button."

Is anything not funny to you?
Anything that is not funny at a certain point will be funny.

You've gotten away with stuff others wouldn't. Why?
Maybe it's a likability, that I seem fluffy. Occasionally I will be angry--someone will really push the button. But I always came from the idea that I enjoy this. It's a blast. Maybe that keeps it from being intense.

At this point do you consider yourself a comic first, then an actor, or vice versa?
For me, they're interchangeable. They feed each other nicely. And comedy pays the bills if I can't find a film.

Close to the Heart

Tell us a little bit about your new movie, RV. It's about a white-collar ad executive, right?
He's very technologically savvy. The whole family is using all kinds of devices. And the dad says, "Okay, we'll spend quality time. We'll take an old-style family vacation. I'll rent an RV." He brings it home and they say, "What's that?" It all goes south on him from there.

You grew up outside Detroit, and your father, Robert, worked in the auto industry. What family vacations did you take?
There weren't that many, because Dad was working so much. I remember going to New York once--I'd never been in the city--and the noises at night and looking out the window. You would hear everything [he makes the sounds of a foreign dialect], and those garbage trucks.

Why do you now live in San Francisco as opposed to Hollywood or New York?
My father retired to San Francisco, and I got a chance to know him and be around him. It's always been someplace where everything changed for the better. It's always been a home for me.

Anything else?
Up to that point I'd been at an all-boys private school. All of sudden I was in a coeducational school. There were girls everywhere. They weren't brought in for dances and then taken away. And the first time I saw fog, I didn't know what it was. I thought it was poison gas. "What's that, Dad?"

Tell us more about your father.
He worked for Lincoln-Mercury when they made great cars. His job was to troubleshoot, to travel around to different dealerships, and eventually he saw the company's quality go downhill. They offered him loads of cash to stay, and he said no thanks. For me he's always been this very ethical guy.

How does that show up in your life now?
I have like a no-fly zone with doing commercial endorsements and product placements. That's a residual from Dad. I just want to do movies, and I want to sell them. I don't want to link up with some product.

Lots of actors won't endorse products here, but will do commercials in Japan. What do you think of that?
No. 1, financially, I don't have to do it. No. 2, the people who do it, God bless them, but you think, Why does he need to do that? He's got hundreds of millions of dollars. Unless it's like Paul Newman with salad dressing, where the money goes to charity. If I could do something like that with a product, I would.

I heard that you own a vineyard and produce wine in Napa Valley.
I've owned the ranch for about 26 years, but I've only been growing grapes for the last 15.

But you no longer drink, so how do you know if the wine is any good?
The people running the ranch and my wife are all really knowledgeable.

Why did you stop drinking?
Because my first son was about to be born and I thought, I can't continue this way.

Do you think you had a problem?
The drinking was tied into cocaine. You needed to drink, especially hard liquor, to take the edge off the coke. So that would usually be this kind of hook for me.

How crazy did you get?
Not too crazy, but it was enough to go, Uh-uh. Especially with work. Hangovers don't make you a nice person.

Was it easy for you to quit?
It was kind of a decompression--from straight alcohol to mixed drinks to wine to spritzers--and then you're out.

You've been married to your wife, Marsha, since 1989. Has she been a stabilizing force?
Oh, more than stabilizing. Nurturing, everything, the whole nine yards. She and my family.

Tell us about your friendship with Christopher Reeve.
At Juilliard he lived nearby, and he literally fed me for a while. I'd go to his house and, as I say, borrow food. "Tuna, thank you." We were totally opposite--me coming from the West Coast and a junior college, and him from the hard-core Ivy League. He used to be the studly studly of all studlies, and I was the little fool ferret boy. It was astonishing to see that women just responded to him like [makes whooshing noises].

After his accident, I was amazed at how strong he was.
Yeah. I don't know how many times he had near-death experiences. When your spinal cord freezes up, you're vulnerable to everything. But he was tough as nails. And he kept a great, kind of dark sense of humor about it, but also was able to accomplish amazing things. Now, with the war, we have more and more people coming in with spinal injuries. What he got going--especially with stem cells--there's amazing potential there.

Humor's Magic

You were involved with Comic Relief. Are there any other causes that are close to your heart?
There's Chris [Reeve]'s paralysis foundation, and there's Lance [Armstrong]'s foundation connected with cancer survivorship.

I understand you've cycled with Armstrong. What was that like?
It's like lap-dancing with Angelina Jolie. The first five minutes are amazing, and then she takes off. It's like, "Bye-bye. Bye-bye."

You've done several USO shows. Did you go to Iraq?
I was in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Bahrain. The first year I went pretty much by myself. Then I went with General [Richard] Myers, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The shows and audiences were amazing. You'll never get a better group of people.

Was it dangerous?
Yeah, we were doing open-air shows in a place where we could get mortared. I did a show and said, "You're all wearing flak vests. I didn't get that memo." And leaving is kind of scary. They do combat takeoffs. It's like a really intense roller coaster--straight up, at night, no lights. Everybody in the cockpit's wearing night-vision goggles, and you're in the back in the dark. Then they level off at 15,000 [feet] because that's outside the range of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

Then you try to find your stomach.
Yeah, it's like, "Oh, there's my corn." "Excuse me, sir, would you hand me my sphincter?"

You did some stand-up specials after 9/11.
I did an event in Washington, and it was like we lifted a sea. If you remember immediately after [9/11], there was a stunned shock--kind of this feeling of "What do we do now?" I started performing, and there was a catharsis in the laughing. People started to be able to laugh again. Laughter can be many things--sometimes a medicine, sometimes a weapon, depending on who's administering it.

Do you ever use humor as a weapon?
Oh, big time. It's a great defense, and an offense too. Usually the recipient isn't too happy about it, but the people around are laughing.

But in this case the laughter really did have a healing power?
Healing isn't the word. Therapeutic maybe, or cathartic. After being in extreme situations, it kind of brings you back to life.

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