At Home With Robin Williams

Good for a Laugh, Not a Bad Listener

Originally published on December 24, 1992 | The New York Times | written by Bernard Weinraub

It is 7 P.M., and Robin Williams has just returned home from taping "The Arsenio Hall Show." His two younger children are scampering and laughing in the hallway, and Mr. Williams, wearing a black shirt and baggy pleated pants, steps into the living room and sits wearily on a footstool.

His wife, Marsha, brings him a Coke. He tries to stifle a yawn. He has jet lag from a London flight earlier in the day, and he has barely had time to unpack.

"The land is so nice," he says. "Pool's in the back. Tennis court's in front. There's even a tree house. Which is for rent. A sublet." He smiles.

The living room in the elegant and sedate two-story rented home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles is open and spare. There are several pieces of Mexican art and modern art, a ficus plant and a low varnished rattan table. Zelda, Mr. Williams's 3-year-old daughter, wanders in and he embraces her.

Mr. Williams, perhaps the most inventive comedian of his generation, is in the midst of a blizzard of promotion for his new film, "Toys," a fantasy directed by Barry Levinson, which opened on Dec. 18. (He has worked with Mr. Levinson before; the director's 1987 film, "Good Morning, Vietnam," was a breakthrough in Mr. Williams's movie career.)

"'Toys' is a very whimsical, strange feast, almost a nonmusical musical," says Mr. Williams, who plays a childlike heir to a toy factory. "I hope people enjoy the ride."

Many critics haven't. For example, Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times that the film "dazzles the eye even as the mind goes numb attending to the narrative, which is about the apocalyptic battle for control of Zevo Toys."

But Mr. Williams makes it plain that talking about a movie--any movie--or even himself, is odd and less than relevant in today's bizarre world.

Of the "Arsenio Hall" taping, he says quietly: "Going on stage is part catharsis for me, but it's almost trying to work out my own fears. Tonight I was jet-lagged, but I just wanted to explode with all this information.

"You want to talk about the marines in Somalia hitting the beach and meeting the press," he says, dropping his voice into a perfect John Wayne imitation: "All right Colonel, I want you to take out that camera position. Get away son! He's got a flashbulb!"

He continues. "And, like, the royal family. I was in England and Windsor Castle was burning down and, like, it's not insured." He puts on an upper-class English accent. "Oh, damn, I'm sorry. Let the people pay 8 billion crowns. And there's no sprinkler system. Oh rot!"

Marsha Williams watches for a moment, smiles and says she's ordering takeout chicken. Mr. Williams settles back.

Robin Williams, at home, seems like a perfectly friendly 41-year-old actor who is, not surprisingly, highly articulate, somewhat vulnerable and quite serious. If most movie stars (or, for that matter, politicians) are entranced by themselves, Mr. Williams seems an aberration. He engages in conversation, watches and listens intensely and seems intrigued by anyone who crosses his path.

Aside from starring in "Toys," he is also the voice of the genie in the Disney animated hit "Aladdin." He nearly steals the picture with his imitations of, among many others, Jack Nicholson, Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, William F. Buckley Jr., Robert De Niro ("Are you talkin' to me?"), Pinocchio and Señor Wences.

Mr. Williams has upset Disney Studios by not promoting the film, instead focusing his efforts entirely on the Levinson movie. "'Aladdin' doesn't need my promotion," he says. "I did the film because I wanted to do something for my children. Besides, singing the songs was a blast. 'Toys' is an unusual film. It needs people to champion it. I'm basically selling it door to door."

Mr. Williams lives mostly in San Francisco with his wife and their two children, Zelda and Cody, who is 1. His oldest child, Zach, 9, lives in San Francisco with Mr. Williams's first wife, Valerie Velardi. The comedian, who also has a ranch in the Napa Valley, sees Zach frequently.

Mr. Williams is renting the Los Angeles house for a year. "I make raids to L.A., sort of like 'Mosby's Raiders,'" he says. "I love working here, I like the business, but living here is very strange. Surreal. Disneyland staged by Dante.

"You imagine purgatory is something like this, except not such good parking. It's always: 'How am I doing? Where am I on the food chain? Let's make a deal.' I just feel safer in San Francisco. Here, it's like being a hemophiliac in a razor factory."

Although Mr. Williams is a little wary of interviews--and plainly enjoys hiding behind his humor--he also has bursts of unusual candor. He discusses, quite easily, his stardom in the early 1980s in the television series "Mork & Mindy," when alcohol and drugs threatened to obliterate his career, as well as his continuing rage at the way magazines covered his divorce and subsequent marriage to Marsha, who had been Zach's nanny.

A turning point, he says, was the death in 1982 of his friend John Belushi of a drug overdose. Mr. Williams had been with Mr. Belushi hours before, and his death precipitated Mr. Williams's decision to quit drugs.

If the Belushi death evokes sorrow for Mr. Williams, the publicity about events leading to his second marriage stirs fury. He cites an article in People several years ago that depicted Marsha as the nanny who broke up his first marriage.

"It was an ambush by them," he says tensely. "It's very destructive. It still is. There are still nanny jokes. You want to go out and yell.

"There was an article about men who leave their wives when they become famous," he says. "And I wanted to write to this man and say, 'Listen, you may have your ridiculous theories, but the truth is my wife left me.'

"My marriage had been in a shambles for some time. Marsha just basically started to talk to me and said: 'Listen jerk, what are you having these ridiculous affairs for? What are you yelling and screaming about? Wake up!' Slowly I began realizing I'm a decent person, and everything wonderful that has happened to my life is because of her. It's hideous that she takes the rap as a home wrecker, which is a lie. It's the exact opposite. She has taken me from zero to the sky."

Mr. Williams' personal difficulties in the early 1980s seemed to mirror his career. His first movie, "Popeye," in 1980, was a dud. His next, in 1982, the absurdist "World According to Garp," received some critical applause. But "The Survivors" (1983) and "Club Paradise" (1986) failed.

What jump-started his movie career was "Good Morning, Vietnam," followed by "Dead Poets Society," which established him as a serious actor. His more recent parts--in "Awakenings," "The Fisher King," and "Hook"--have turned him into one of the higher priced stars, earning around $8 million a picture.

Mr. Williams is now completing a film, "Being Human," directed by Bill Forsyth and partly set in London, in which he plays five characters over five historical periods. Then he will prepare for what sounds like the archetypal Williams role in "Mrs. Doubtfire," a comedy. In it, a man loses custody of his children to his former wife, then dresses as a woman and becomes their nanny.

Down the line, he says, he may star in "The Harvey Milk Story," directed by Gus Van Sant Jr., about the man who was the first openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and was assassinated in 1978. Mr. Williams says he also has a yearning to portray Albert Einstein and hopes to play a villain soon for the first time. (The fact that he lost the villainous role of the Joker in "Batman" still rankles him, he says.)

When he is working on a film, Mr. Williams says, his family joins him on location. In fact, Marsha Williams is listed in the credits for "Toys" as his assistant. Occasionally, like an athlete working out at the gym, Mr. Williams develops his comedy in local clubs. He gives some financial support to one in San Francisco, the Holy City Zoo. In Los Angeles, he sometimes phones a small club, Igby's, on Pico Boulevard, to report that he's on the way.

"I call them the last minute," he says, "and there are sometimes only 10 people there and it's great. You feel totally free, and you can talk about something as bleak as you want."

For all his wild, improvisational humor, Mr. Williams has rarely, if ever, smashed political and social boundaries in the manner of one of his idols, Lenny Bruce.

"I've wanted to do certain things, but the desire to please sometimes overcomes that," he says. "But I've got to a point where I can't be politically correct anymore. There are so many things somewhere to annoy people. The vegetarian lesbian alliance will be angry. Even saying that, I'll get hate letters from the zucchini front. Someone, somewhere will be angry. So you have to ask yourself, what do you really believe?"

Mr. Williams, obviously exhausted, stifles another yawn. The doorbell rings, but he barely looks up.

Then Billy Crystal enters and shouts, "Don't I know you from a rooming house in San Francisco?"

Mr. Williams rushes toward him. They laugh and embrace.

"You tired?" Mr. Crystal asks.

"No!"

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