Robin Williams: doing it for the money

Originally published on August 19, 2010 | NZ Herald | written by Russell Baillie

The actor-comedian's "Weapons" tour returns him to his roots on the stand-up stage

Talking to Robin Williams isn't difficult. You introduce yourself and away he goes. Writing about the experience afterwards, that's the hard bit.

In the 20-minute phone conversation TimeOut has with the man - in honour of him bringing his Weapons of Self-Destruction stand-up comedy show to New Zealand - Williams invokes a multitude of voices as he spins off on one spontaneous tangent after another.

Sometimes he's a porn version of Mrs Doubtfire or an equally blue remake of The Lord of the Rings. Sometimes he's any US president in office during since the beginnings of his comedy career 30-plus years ago. Sometimes he's the potty-mouthed 11-year-old kid who just whipped his arse in an online videogame.

And sometimes he's in his own thought bubble, pondering the off-camera, off-stage Robin Williams, a man whose personal life and health hasn't always been easy to reconcile with the motormouth clown and star of so many Disney films.

Last year, during the early stages of the tour in the United States, he underwent heart surgery to repair an aortic valve with a bovine replacement: "As they say, cow valves rock."

The cardiac problems came as a surprise, says the 59-year-old, who now has had cycling as his longest-running addiction - he did a stint in rehab in 2006 for alcoholism and had a cocaine problem in the early 80s, the subject of which helped inspire many of his early routines.

Biking, though isn't as funny. Especially when the engine starts backfiring.

"I was riding 20 to 30 miles a day, doing a lot of hills on my bike and all of a sudden I was going 'the hills aren't my friend any more. Something is wrong' and I started to get really rundown. Then I did a stress test. 'Man, you've got a blown valve'. It was crazy."

The early leg of the tour added extra strain. "I would finish shows and all of sudden I would be going 'wow, I am really kind of rundown'. It wasn't like normal, where I was tired but feeling great. So I was in Miami, about to do some shows, and it was 'no, no, you have to get this looked at. You have two weeks to decide where you want to have your surgery'. That was like 'beep! Put the brakes on and do the valve grind', which I think sounds like a great sexual dance. The tour really kind of pointed out 'you have got to do something about this, pal'."

And so now, he's feeling fine and back on the road, all the way to New Zealand. And he's back on his roadbike, though he's given up on mountain-biking. "I couldn't take the risk of being on a trail and having a vulture going 'oh how sad for you - you fell over'."

But why tour at all? Surely a movie or two a year would keep him in all the carbon fibre frames a man could want?

"I have been doing small movies. Small movies are great to do but they don't pay the bills. Literally. You do them and they are great to do and I am very proud of them but it doesn't pay the overheads. Even the guy I did the last movie with, Bobcat Goldthwait, the director, he's a comic too. He has to go out and play clubs. I'm playing auditoriums. We are both making money the old-fashioned way."

Williams hasn't had a box office hit, other than those in which he was a supporting player or an animated voice, for quite some time. As much as he's remembered for his successes - often for the straight roles he's played in Awakenings, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society or Moscow on the Hudson - does he rue the failures?

"You don't rue them. There are some you go 'maybe you shouldn't have made that', but you did. There are some that are wonderful, some that are not so good and some that you go 'woah ..'.

"And usually the ones that didn't work were the ones where someone said 'this is going to be a hit'. That is the most frightening one - where you went into it for the wrong motivation - to make shitloads of cash."

But if he's gone back on tour to replenish his bank balance, it appears Williams also has something to say. A just-released live DVD from early in the tour shows his routine is often remarkably and hilariously filthy.

"Most of it I don't think is that intense, " he shrugs before going off on that aforementioned and dubious Mrs Doubtfire tangent after it's suggested that anyone who knows him only from his sappier family films might be in for a shock.

The same DVD features extras from past live sets dating back to 1978. He sure sweated more then. He didn't do as much political material as he does now either.

"The political stuff came once I had my [first] son, Zachary. All of a sudden you participate in life a little harder. 'Wait a minute, I want to talk about this because it's his world'.

"In America, especially right now where things are so interesting, you get a chance to talk about stuff that can be kind of frightening or disconcerting for people. Get to ease people through it. Not even ease them through it, just talk about it. We are living in really interesting times with what is going on politically, economically, ecologically - wow, who knew that birds were that absorbent?"

In his downtime, Williams has other distractions. He's a mad keen player of online videogames, such as The Lord of the Rings-like World of Warcraft and the military series Call of Duty. "It's the closest thing to cocaine without having to talk to a dealer. You do get the same kind of flight or fight response and especially if you are playing online against real opponents. It's exhilarating and at the same time totally aggravating. Like coke, literally - you're awake, you're paranoid: 'Come to bed'. 'I can't, I'm at level 14'.

You have to ask: does playing World of Warcraft mean he can be an Orc from Mork?

"Oh my God. Bless you sir," he laughs.

"It would be wonderful to sign on as that and go, 'Who is this?' 'Wouldn't you want to know?' 'Morkus Maximus!'."

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