In Robin Williams's World, Delight Is a Many-Sided Thing

Originally published on January 25, 1988 | The New York Times | written by Glenn Collins

Suddenly, "Good Morning, Vietnam" is a smash hit, and Robin Williams was coping with this information as might be expected. The star of the film said he was appropriately delighted. He added that he was understandably grateful. And, as he paced his suite in the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, he spoke rather earnestly of America's fascination with the Vietnam experience.

Being Robin Williams, of course, he also used the occasion to lapse effortlessly into a manic impersonation of Elmer Fudd as Mayor Koch ("Weww, evewyone, how'm I doin', you wascals?"); he careered into an impression of a Presidential Crazy Eddie discount-store commercial ("Crazy Eddie! His economy is IN-SANE!"), and he segued into a perfect imitation of Sammy Davis Jr. doing Hamlet ("Oh, you know, what a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, and I really mean that, sincerely").

The 36-year-old Mr. Williams, in town for a round of television appearances, was savoring the surprising news: "Good Morning, Vietnam" was America's most popular movie after its first weekend of national release, grossing $11,752,000 in 785 theaters. Previously, only "Return of the Jedi" and "Rocky IV" did better in their first national weekend.

These are days of vindication for Mr. Williams, who, in seven films, has never had a blockbuster until now. The popularity of "Good Morning, Vietnam" is especially gratifying since "this is the first role that calls upon me to do what I do best -- me," he said.

In the film, directed by Barry Levinson, Mr. Williams demonstrates his improvisational powers as he plays an irreverent Armed Forces Radio disk jockey in the Saigon of 1965. His hilarious monologues boost soldiers' morale even as they provoke his military superiors to behave as if they, too, inhabited a Crazy Eddie commercial.

"Until this role, the acting and the comedy have been pretty much separate on screen," he said. It was the potential to do improvisation that attracted Mr. Williams to the role in the first place, he added.

Curiously, filming them was often a matter of restraint, Mr. Williams said: "Barry would say, 'You don't have to be funny here.' In the past I used to think, 'I'll push it, I'll make it funnier.'"

Mr. Williams has been in psychotherapy for a year -- he terms it "open-heart surgery in installments" -- and he said he thought it had helped his performance. He said: "It allowed me to show more vulnerability, and I think the camera can catch that. I think therapy has helped me to bring out a deeper level of comedy."

In the movie industry, a success like this "moves you up in the food chain," Mr. Williams said, adopting the resonances of a "Nova" narrator. "It's like life in the Precambrian sea. There is a food chain of scripts, and success can give you access to better scripts."

The success of "Good Morning, Vietnam" is all the sweeter, he said, because "it's a hard movie to categorize."

"I mean, how do you describe the funny and the serious elements?"

He answered himself in mock-serious critical tones: "It's a dramedy." He furrowed his brow. "But no! It's a midget comedy! No! It's a tragic farce -- no! It's a black comedy -- no! Well, what is it?"

Whatever it is, the film has also gone over well with Vietnam veterans who have seen it, Mr. Williams said. "No one has said, 'Hey, I was there in '65 and you weren't, and you can't do that movie.'"

He added, "There's still so much ambivalence about the war because we are a country oriented toward victory, toward winning, and we weren't victorious."

In 1965, did he have much of a political consciousness? "I had only a genital consciousness during those years," he answered enthusiastically. "My draft number was 351, and they stopped taking people at 120. I was one lucky little white boy! I mean, with my draft number, it meant that you'd fight the V.C. when they came east on Mulholland Drive."

If he had been drafted, "I probably would have joined up," he added. "My father was in the Navy and my brother was in the Air Force."

Mr. Williams made exuberant appearances on "Saturday Night Live," "Late Night With David Letterman" and "Good Morning America," and he revisited Bloomingdale's. It was the first time Mr. Williams had returned to the store since defecting to America there in his role as a Russian saxophone player in the movie "Moscow on the Hudson."

"It was wild to be back," he said of Bloomingdale's. "People saw me and thought I was doing the sequel." He began imitating a hysterical security guard: "Oh gosh, he's back -- and stealing things!"

In New York, Mr. Williams has also visited Joseph Papp to discuss an appearance in the Public Theater's Shakespeare series.

What about Hamlet? "It's been done," he said.

Mr. Williams added that there was "an 80 percent chance" that he would appear next fall in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." The production -- to be directed by Mike Nichols and also starring Steve Martin, F. Murray Abraham and Bill Irwin -- would be mounted at the Lincoln Center Theater, where the artistic director is his former classmate at the Juilliard School, Gregory Mosher.

As for Mr. Williams's next movie, he said: "There's no need to say 'How can you top this?' You can't try to top it. But you can try to balance comedy and acting in the future. An actor can take roles that --" He stopped and shook his head.

"Can you believe this," he said. "I've started talking about myself in the third person like Jerry Lewis!"

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