Robin Williams: A laughing matter

Originally published on April 6, 2006 | New York Daily News | written by Joe Neumaier

Robin Williams is staring silently out a hotel window on a rainy day. When asked if he's going to jump, he turns, the eyes crinkle with a smile, and the hair-trigger mind leaps into action.

"Ah, it's always difficult to go through a closed window, isn't it?" he says. "You have to go for the running leap, and then..."

And then it's the window that gets you, and not the fall?


The immensely popular actor knows a thing or two about hitting windows. In "RV," opening April 28, Williams does his most physical work in ages: He slams into windshields, scampers atop a speeding motor home, and pedals a bike out of a lake. As Bob Munro, an ad executive who tries to reconnect with his family--and save his job--while driving from L.A. to Colorado in a recreational vehicle, Williams steers the wild horseplay and goofy wordplay. Joanna (JoJo) Levesque and Josh Hutcherson play his 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son; Cheryl Hines ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") takes on the role of his wife.

"RV" also is, amazingly, Williams' first full-blown live-action comedy in almost a decade. The last time he was seen in this mode, in 1997's "Flubber," he was with a magical piece of green goo in a flying car. Since then, he has won a 1997 Best Supporting Actor Oscar (for "Good Will Hunting"), garnered attention for playing quiet psychos in "One Hour Photo" and "Insomnia" (both 2002), and appeared in dramas like "Jakob the Liar" and "House of D."

Not all of those were well-received, but Williams, after hitting career highs with the '90s blockbusters "Mrs. Doubtfire," "The Birdcage" and "Patch Adams," couldn't find any scripts that delivered the wacky package. And so the comic, who had always tried to smash through the comedy window into drama, set his Juilliard-trained jaw for what became an extended run of unfunny guys.

"Yeah, it's been a while since I did a comedy," says Williams. "At one point it was easier to do comedy just because you're coming from there, and you can just kick it out, you know? But it's hard because you need the right project, and you want the right combo of people... And one person's humor is different from another's. Yet if you find something that hits everyone, it's like, 'Ah, there it is!'"

He says finding a good comedy is harder than finding a good drama--in Williams speak, it's "big time" difficult.

"You can tell when you see the trailer and you think, 'Oh, man.' And if they hit you with their best shot there, and you still don't laugh, it's like, 'Ohhh ...'

At this point, Williams' Silly Putty face looks like it might slide off his skull as he imagines a movie trailer devoid of humor. Then he's serious again.

"The quieter, more subtle stuff is often the funniest," he says. "And of course, ­humor changes with generations, and with eras."

In 1978--the year "Mork & Mindy" debuted on ABC--Williams' paddleball-fast patter and physical boing-ing up and down and around the room set him apart; not even a now well-known drug problem at the time could slow him.

His movie debut, 1980's "Popeye," was a flop, but he followed it with the 1982 adaptation of "The World According to Garp," then, between comedies, he did "Moscow on the Hudson" (1984), a cable TV movie of "Seize the Day" (1986), and the DJ-in-Vietnam satire "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987), which brought him his first Oscar nomination.

His second came for 1989's "Dead Poets Society," and suddenly, Williams was tagged as a "clown who cried," something that more nuanced films like "Awakenings" (1990) or "The Fisher King" (1991)--which got him a third Oscar nomination--ought to have erased. His big '90s comedies were still to come, but Williams, an admitted bicycling fanatic, was shifting into a new gear.

"Mrs. Doubtfire" director Chris Columbus says that Williams "treated 'Doubtfire' as a real character piece, working from within. He's quiet and reserved normally, and takes his work that seriously."

Williams says that "to be funny and believable is difficult, and then the issue becomes, how far can you push it?... Today, comedy comes from a dark place. It's a tougher time now."

An exploration of his own shadowy corners resulted in the role of a photo-shop attendant obsessed with a family in "One Hour Photo," and the crime writer who kills in "Insomnia."

"I thought about him in 'Seize the Day' and his cameo in 'Dead Again,' so it wasn't a leap to see him as a guy who's damaged goods," says "One Hour Photo" ­director Mark Romanek. "I think he connected to that guy. I think when someone has the talent Robin has, it makes you a bit of an outsider."

"With dramas, it's the idea of exploring behavior," says Williams. "That's why [projects] stack up; you need to prepare, to do research. Like with 'Fisher King' or 'One Hour Photo,' the more specific you make it, the more arresting it is. You have to get in there and find the tiny details. There's also that moment when you [recognize] it in yourself--it's just a question of whether or not you want to bring it out into the open."

Living in San Francisco with his second wife, Marsha, and their two children, ages 16 and 13, Williams didn't need to dig deep for "RV"--he says his happy home life was research enough. And "RV" director Barry Sonnenfeld saw how his star enjoyed being back to funny business.

"Robin's job here is to be the big-moment guy so that others can react," says Sonnenfeld. "One spot in the script said, 'Robin enters and says funny things.' So he ad-libs, and you say, 'This works, and this works'--that's how you create a scene with him."

For Williams, performing live still provides the big-moment rush: "In standup, when if you find a new idea, there's a jolt. There are times when you go too far and you see an entire audience go like this"--here his face becomes a mask of horror--"and they're like, 'Dude, don't go there! Come back to the edge!'"

The stunts in "RV" were a different kind of high-wire act, and were a reminder that, as always, comedy can be dangerous.

"There's always an element of jeopardy," Williams says. "You have to do your own stunts, as much as you can. That's where the humor is. After all, people need to know it's you taking the hit."

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