Interview with Robin Williams

Originally published on March 26, 2002 | Movie Habit | written by Heather Wadowski

For almost three decades, Robin Williams has been one of Hollywood's most versatile actors. His wide range of performances, from Good Morning, Vietnam to Mrs. Doubtfire, has made him a household name across the world. And although adults may refer to the comedian as an Academy Award winner while 5-year-olds think of him as Genie from Aladdin, one thing remains the same: whenever people are asked to list Hollywood's top comedians, Robin Williams' name is at the top.

The Return to the Stage

After making moviegoers laugh for 25 years though, Williams is returning to where it all began--the stage. Following in the footsteps of other accomplished comedians like Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld, Williams is returning to stand up comedy to vent about all the things he can't talk about on the big screen--something he hasn't done in over 15 years. While one may wonder why someone who has the ability to make millions of people laugh simultaneously would go back to performing for crowds of 3,000, Williams' reply is quite simple.

"Me going back was after the tribute show to Whoopi Goldberg," Williams recalls. "It was a weird thing 'cause she had gotten all these phone calls from different senators because she didn't want to fly out, she was too afraid after September 11. One was from Ted Kennedy saying, 'I want you to come out but I can't be there--there's a buffet that night.'

"So she came out, we did the show and it was kind of weird 'cause everyone came out and I kept thinking 'well, what can we talk about?' and it turned out anything 'cause people were just so, 'Oh, you're back!' It was like maybe this is good. So I started performing stand up in Washington, New York, the Comedy Cellar--and that's only like a mile away from Ground Zero--and people kept saying, 'hey, it's good you are back doing this 'cause there is a lot to talk about.'

"When you have a president who waves at Stevie Wonder you have a few things to go on. And the fact he almost died from a pretzel... when you have air cover costing a couple million dollars a minute and he's almost going down from a pretzel, it's like there's a lot to do. There's just so much to say."

The Dark Side

With 37 scheduled appearances from Chicago to Las Vegas, Williams is excited to be back out performing for the public. But for those who don't happen to be driving distance from one of the many venues he's appearing at, Williams also has three films due out this year. However, those who are expecting his typical laugh-out-loud fare be prepared--Williams is keeping the comedy strictly on the road.

In Warner Brothers' Death to Smoochy, Williams takes on a much darker role than audiences are used to as Randolph Smiley, the world's most popular children's TV host until he gets caught taking bribes from parents who want their kids on his show. Now unemployed and hated by the public, Smiley decides the only way to become America's most beloved children's TV host again is to sabotage--and even kill--his replacement, the good-natured, makes-Mother-Theresa-look-evil Smoochy the Rhino (Edward Norton). While it may seem hard for someone who is usually so energetic and funny to portray such a deranged character, Williams said he didn't have to go far in preparing for the role.

"I based my character on Liberace and a little bit of Michael Flatley," Williams jokes. "Also just kind of a nasty, standard bitterness that everyone has way in the back. Outside preparing how to sing and dance, just creating a character that's so angry... you know, I've lived in Los Angeles. I once brought my car at a restaurant and the parking attendant said, 'too bad about your opening weekend.' And I realized there was this horrible feeling in me.

"When you are famous and then it goes away, like "Mork & Mindy," you find yourself being angry at other people when really the person you are angry at is you. Then you start to explore that kind of anger and rage, but then it's immediate so you need to make fun of it and be out of control. You get to be like those nasty drunks you see in the bar going, 'you don't know shit about fuck! You don't know! Listen (points to his eyes) to me! Listen to me and hear (points to his nose) me well!'

"You get to think, 'cause you can take an alcoholic or an out of control drunk and go one way and be funny. Then you go one step further and it's pathetic, and you go one step further and you entered psychosis. So it's all about diving in and having great people to play off. It's not just enough to be outrageous."

This Show was Brought to You by the Letter I and Pepsi

Playing the role of a former singing, dancing, ice skating children's show host definitely struck a chord with Williams, who says he first felt like he really made it in Hollywood when he was a guest on "Sesame Street." However, the role also depressed the actor since the movie brings up the issue of how majority of children's television has switched from quality programming to simply being 22-minute long commercials that plug products.

"For me, having three children, I've been there with my children when I saw them see a product and want it. Like making that trip to McDonald's. 'Why are we here?' 'For the toy.' When it's a movie like Saving Private Ryan and there's a toy for it in your Happy Meal you know it's time for a change. Or, 'Is that the Britney shampoo? Does it come with a navel ring?' Yeah, and she's a virgin," Williams says. "It's sad 'cause I've seen children's programming at its best, with things like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, and now there are other shows that are just selling stuff."

Move Over Disney

However, Williams isn't completely pessimistic about children's shows today. Although she recently passed away, Williams' kids are all fans of animator Faith Hubley.

"My kids discovered her when I asked my son if he wanted to go watch a Disney movie and he said, 'no, I don't dad.' So I put in a Faith Hubley movie and he would just watch it like he was seeing Picasso moving. He would watch her movies over and over again, and they were magnificent 'cause they would talk about all these different careers and religions, history--it was like Elmer Fudd doing A Streetcar Named Desire."

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice?

Despite the fact that Death to Smoochy is about children's TV shows, the movie is anything but kiddie friendly. Rated R for language and sexual references, one would think it would be hard to film certain scenes with kids in the room. However, no matter how many times Williams and the rest of the cast were screaming profanities, there were dozens of children on the set. Much to the cast's surprise, though, sometimes the children were more vulgar than the adults.

During one scene in the film, Smoochy unknowingly pulls a giant cookie shaped as a penis out of a bag in front of dozens of children. Although director Danny DeVito forewarned the kids ahead of time what the cookie would look like, one kid was still in such shock over actually seeing it that he disrupted the take.

"He screamed 'look at that shlong! That's a big cock and balls!,'" Williams recalls with a laugh. "They were good little Canadian children, though. We had to give them all gold medals."

It's All an Act

Although Williams may have a dry, dark sense of humor in the film, the cast of Death to Smoochy assures audiences that he is still the same funnyman they have adored for years. In fact, both Norton and DeVito credit Williams' improvisational skills for many of the film's laugh-out-loud lines.

"Robin would mess up a line but then the line he messed up with would be funnier than the original one," Norton states. "Like, 'you're a good man, Shmeldon.'"

"We got a couple of good things the extra times around," DeVito agrees. "Like 'he likes to play with bells' and 'there she blows!' We got a couple of free ones in there."

While his comedic side may still be hard for him to hide, Williams will attempt to stretch even further into dramatic roles with the upcoming thrillers One Hour Photo and Insomnia. In One Hour Photo audiences will see Williams physically transform himself to play the role of a stalker while in Insomnia he takes on the role of a sadistic killer. However, in spite of the fact that Williams is pursuing more dramatic pieces that will earn him critical acclaim, he still remains a comedian at heart. When asked what advice he would give kids and what was the worst advice he's ever received, Williams was fast to reply, "I think you can change the world, but you have to take one step at a time. Like they say, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step. Oh, and you can fly."

Yep, same ol' Robin Williams.

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