He's worn a red nose in the cancer ward, played mentor to a tortured genius and made his way through hell to rescue lost love. So what's next for legendary comedian Robin Williams after a slew of heart-wrenching dramas? The logical step, of course: He's playing a manaical children's TV show host bent on destroying a smiling pink rhino by using Nazis and penis-shaped cookies. Williams wasn't always a nice guy, as his early stand-up routines show. Crass and often offensive, the man was once known for his outrageous sense of humor. So has Mister Wholesome gone back to the dark side? That's the way he sees it.
As Williams put it in a recent Hatchet interview, he's tired of "exorcising the demons of kindness."
"It's nice to go the other way just to confuse people. They'll think, 'Is this that nice man?" Williams said.
Williams is, of course, referring to his decision to take up a slew of dark movie roles. In the next year he'll appear in three movies playing increasingly disreputable dissidents. This is a happy departure for Williams.
"Playing a dark character is something I've wanted to explore for awhile," he said. "Studios wouldn't send it because I haven't done it before, so it wasn't a sure bet."
But when Danny DeVito approached Williams about playing a darker role, the rules suddenly changed. Williams is currently featured alongside Ed Norton and Danny DeVito in Death to Smoochy. The film takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the world of children's television. Williams plays Rainbow Randolph, a fallen star in the TV industry who is cast out of his time slot after a bribery scandal.
As Williams puts it, his character is a bit cracked in the head.
"He's someone who's sliding quickly through the doors of the Betty Ford Clinic," Williams said. Randolph disintegrates as the movie progresses, cursing his life and randomly acting out against those he blames for his misfortune, mainly Smoochy the Rhino, played by Norton. Randolph vows to kill, or at least destroy the rhino, which has replaced the Rainbow Randolph TV show. To play this role Williams pushed himself, seeking a masterful portrayal of a complex and disturbed individual.
"I was exploring the out-of control behavior that I have done physically," he said. "And having someone like Danny going 'You can go further.' I was like, 'Are you serious?' It's reverse therapy."
DeVito, who directed and starred in the film, is well known for his twisted brand of comedy.
"There are no boundaries with him, not even little road cones," Williams said, referring to DeVito's directing style. "You can try anything, and he'll pick the best. That, combined with his twisted sense of humor. Basically he's a troll without a bridge."
Williams was given freedom to be outrageous in action and appearance. Death to Smoochy features the star in a number of outlandish get-ups. In regards to his sparkling outfits, Williams admits committing a few fashion faux pas.
"Those clothes are loud, even for a blind person. You wear that figure skating if you're trying to hurt the judges," said Williams.
His clothes in the film may be over the top, but Williams is not beyond all reserve. In working closely with children for the film, he often felt a little uneasy being profane in front of them.
"I didn't want to blindside them," he said. "I always explained what was going on to the parents."
One scene in the movie features Williams showing off a number of penis-shaped cookies to a group of children. Williams proposes that he may have underestimated the maturity of some of the child actors.
"It was the first time we did the scene with the cookie," Williams said.
"There were all these sweet little kids around, and this one little kid, about eight years old, goes 'What the fuck?' ... It was like a cherub saying it."
At work he might be liberal, but at home Williams is not so easy on his kids, at least when it comes to TV.
"We have a no-fly zone for the first week of every month--no electronics. No television, computers or video games," Williams said. "As soon as you do that, they immediately go into imaginative and creative play. They go outside. 'What's that?' The sun."
To entertain himself, Williams has recently returned to the comedy circuit, taking his act on the road for the first time in years. It's a decision he attributes largely to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent military action.
"The one thing I've noticed is that there is a need for a cathartic laugh, a release," Williams said. "There's also a need to deal and heal and work together."
So Williams has returned to his roots, employing gross-out jokes and physical comedy, harkening back to his first years of stand-up. Some would say it's a blast from the past. If he really wants to help people out, though, how about a return to the old days, starring on the '80s comedy show "Mork and Mindy"? Don't hold your breath. "Oh God, no. Not even for "Mork on Ice," he said. "I'm 50 now. It'd be like 'Pork and Mindy.'"