Robin Williams (August, 1999)
Robin Williams is very furry. He once said he was too furry ever to play a proper sexy leading man. OK. So lots of twitching therapists and Mrs. Doubtfire and child men. I suppose they‘re not sexy. And even though it is a dense fuzziness that coats him, it‘s warm. You imagine that children may want to stroke him. It occurs to me that he might be the missing link between primates, from homo erectus to homo sapien. But he is so warm and so touchable. He may not consider himself sexy, but he is actually extremely sexual because being with him is kind of magical. I went to meet him in Paris, where he manages to make a European promotional tour for What Dreams May Come into a thrillingly intimate experience. I had quite dreaded it because I had been warned that he would immediately go into a torrent of funny voices, of Mork speak, accents, personas, man of a thousand voices and a trillion quick fire responses. He would be a vortex, I was told, of other characters and it would be hard to find him, the real him. I was told I‘d be lucky if I got him at the end of the day when he was exhausted, because an exhausted Williams is your best bet of getting a near normal conversation and only if he was massively fatigued would he be at the same energy level as a normal human being. It‘s easy to presume that Robin Williams might think ‘who wants Robin Williams to be a normal human being? It‘s easy to think he might give you a comedy routine because he wants to impress you or he wants to be defensive, throw you off the scent of who he is with a thousand other characters. But actually, Robin Williams just does it. It just comes out of him, whole torrents of other people‘s voices.
It‘s not learned or for show. It just is. And if it comes out of any desire to please, it‘s because it usually does please. He‘s not trying to hide anything though. He‘s far too vulnerable, too empathic, too obvious for any of that. Specifically, I wanted to talk about What Dreams May Come, a metaphysical speculation about what happens when you die. In this case, his character finds that paradise for him means falling into the world of one of his wife‘s paintings. It means custom designing his own heaven. But heaven of course was no good without his love of his life. Love, sex, death; all fertile serious interview ground. But the thing is, I was just ready to laugh the whole time. Perhaps its because I‘m nervous. Why is this, I ask him, unable to get a grip and dig myself out of the quicksand wit. Why was I laughing so much? It‘s a sad reaction to me. The moment you see me, its like cheaper than Prozac. Bring him up. People all of a sudden go ‘I laugh at you.’ It‘s OK as long as we‘re not having sex. Just don‘t laugh a me then.’ Really? You don‘t laugh during sex? ‘I love to laugh during sex. That‘s the best time.’ He goes into a voice ‘Don‘t talk to the puppet. Oh, it spit on me.’ Out of voice. Laughter and sex? Wonderful combinations.’ Of course if you make someone laugh, its usually the quickest route of getting to the sex part and Williams once said he never had a problem with women. He was always intimate with women straight away, but with men, he used to be more aware that he would go to the joke to do the bonding.
I had the impression, that the need to bond was extremely important to him, part of the reason he is who he is and does what he does. He likes to know he can touch you. ‘To bond…It‘s just important to have close friends, which I do. To meet is OK. But to bond is something that takes time.’ Don‘t you believe in an instant soul mate connection? ‘Not with every guy you see, but with a few. Most of my friends I‘ve known for a long time. We‘re connected because we‘ve been through so much.’ You know that the so much is quite a lot. All the cliches about the funniest people being the most deranged because they are the darkest, you sense it from him. That‘s why his humour is maniacal, genius and on the edge. It used to be only edge, drug fuelled and self-destructive. But that was 15 years ago. Just as you can feel yourself reaching out to him, you think you‘re having an instant connection, he‘ll ground you with ‘My really good friendships usually start off rocky. For example, Billy Crystal. Here are two comics and it was like…’ ‘Rivalrous? ‘It was rivalrous. And now, he‘s almost like a brother to me.’ Taking advantage of the film‘s theme, I suggest perhaps a brother in a former life. ‘Siamese twins.’ So you don‘t believe in the not on the film suggests that you could meet someone in this life and you might meet him in another and find out he was your son in the previous one? ‘Or you meet a woman and say you were Catherine the Great and I was the horse.’ He trills like a horse. ‘Sometimes you get a feeling there was some kind of previous connection, but I don‘t go in for any of that reincarnation. Because everyone who was reincarnated always says they were someone extraordinary. You know, Nefertiti’s gynaecologist. There‘s never anyone who says ‘I was Phil. I was an accountant.’ ‘I was Murray. I lived in New Jersey. I died alone.’
But what about the idea that your souls could have been connected in another time in some way? ‘I don‘t know. I know the movie espouses that stuff, but personally, I‘m not sure. Annabelle Sciorra (who plays his wife in the movie) has a great answer. She said ‘I think you die and then there‘s a lot of dirt.’ What do I think? I hope to get to see my father. You do get to talk to those people who have had those out of body experiences. A guy who was a friend of mine had died and said as he was dying he was talking to someone and he wasn’t on drugs. The conversation was like ‘I don‘t want to go. All right. I‘ll go.’ As I someone was trying to convince him to leave. And other people have said they‘ve come back into their bodies during surgery or they‘ve been dead physically, then returned and they‘ve been in a tunnel and it‘s always a light at the end of the tunnel. You think if it isn’t heaven, it‘s one massive shared hallucination. If you think of how many people who have been probed rectally by aliens…’ Then he goes into a voice. ‘They put big thing up my heinie. I remember a light and an almond eyed man screaming like a fax and then my garage door opens every time I take a dump.’
Probably, you had to be there and witness all of this live. And then he turns semi-serious to make the point ‘It‘s also weird, but not many people have said when they had these out of body experience that they went to hell and found a massive smell of shit.’ Did you want to meet your father because there‘s more you would have liked to have said to him before he died? Was it an incomplete relationship? ‘No. I had a great relationship with him. I got to know him very well before he died. When I was growing up, he was working all of the time and I didn’t get a chance to see him, but when I was about 16 he retired, so that‘s when I got to know him well, and that was what saved me years of therapy with all of that where was your father.’
There are stories of Williams growing up with a young vibrant mother, older father no brothers and sisters, moving around the East Coast, mostly a lonely only child. At one time spending time by himself in a 40 room mansion. ‘There was a time we rented a house in Michigan which was a big old house. I had the attic to myself and it was supposed to be haunted. It wasn’t so much scary as strange. But lonely? Being an only child was a little lonely, but that‘s what allowed me to have imagination and that allowed me to perform.’
I have many theories about only children, that they‘re more self- contained, more self-sufficient, that they grow up faster because they mix in adult world with adult emotions more easily than other children. Also, only children have a greater need to bond and a greater knack for empathy. I tell Williams that I also am an only child. ‘Was it rough?’ he says, with all the concern and empathy and warmth that you‘ve seen in some of his best doctor/teacher roles. You remember the teacher from Dead Poet‘s Society, the therapist from Good Will Hunting, the doctor from Awakenings and there‘s another doctor coming up in Patch Adams. I tell him that I didn’t notice being lonely as a child, but probably the way I played was different, often with imaginary characters and stories, and then felt strange to be with other people. His eyes light, as often they do. ‘Yes. They take you to a friend‘s house and there would be other children there. ‘Who are you? You‘re not imaginary.’ You‘d go to parties and all of a sudden they‘re bringing in other children and you would be forced to mingle. That‘s strange, that mixing thing because you‘d be taken out of the world that you‘d made.’ I tell him that later on I was much keener to communicate because I didn’t like the sense of not fitting, of being an outsider. With incredible empathy, he says ‘It was the same thing for me.’ You actually feel his empathy coming over you like a fuzzy blanket. You feel softness and those eyes boring a hole in your soul. There‘s just a tiny fraction of something bordering on hysteria in his eyes. He gets excited, goes off into journeys\ and you know he‘s fast. You know he could be lost forever. You know he could fall somewhere dark or somewhere cruel, but he just comes back and tells you a story about going to a private boys school for three years.
‘I had this thing of desperately trying to fit in. I was desperately into sports and I was studying like crazy because it was a competitive school and you had to find some way to excel. But it was this truly desperate thing and I thought this is what I‘ll do. But there was still a sense of isolation and it drives you. It drives you to find some way through. Then I went to this public high school and that‘s when comedy started to come in because it wasn’t competitive. It wasn’t intellectual. It was like ‘Dude. What are you doing?’ So you try to connect on whatever level. You find a way. It started because you had to create characters. It was all part of inhabiting someone else because there was no one else. It‘s this ability that drives me in acting. I‘d rather be a character than be myself. It‘s easier.’
Certainly there seems like there was a period of non -recognition of self, of not being able to find out who he was for all his abilities to do his funny voices and mimic accents and draw people off into tangents. Recently he says he‘s had to find recharge time. Certainly in the characters he‘s chosen to portray, he‘s found a level of seriousness. In What Dreams May Come as the confrontation with death. OK, it‘s not super intellectual. It‘s Hollywood and one gets the impression that it was once perhaps more complex a script than it ended up. Certainly his character in Good Will Hunting for which he won the Oscar was extremely complex and multi-faceted. ‘I can‘t dance for everyone. They want you to be on and I can‘t. You have to have moments where you sit and walk.’ He also likes to ride his bike, up to 40 miles a day. Bike riding in San Francisco up and down those hills sounds more exhausting than relaxing, but he finds it gorgeous. He likes to read, currently he‘s reading the essays of Oliver Sachs. Sachs reflects on the nature of the mind. He likes to read science and science fiction and likes to go online, visit websites of bizarre and new agey things.
Out of this more self-sufficient and quiet phase, yet to come, is the film Jacob the Liar. Set in a Polish ghetto in 1945, Jacob is a radio broadcaster and starts making up all sorts of things to give the Polish people hope. Providing hope where there is none is a Williams speciality. Is this broadcaster a more haunted version of the DJ in Good Morning Vietnam? The next new movie, Patch Adams is about a doctor who clowns around to emotionally bond with the patients. It‘s another one of these where he‘s trying unorthodox methods of curing and helping people. Is this doctor related to Oliver in Awakenings? Williams says ‘I‘ve had too many doctors now.’ Is it that he wants to swap the funny for the serious? Having made the transition from one of American‘s most popular stand-up comics successfully, skilfully and not painlessly, to the man who can get movies made, is he now looking for something else? ‘No. The bottom line is laughter. It connects you to people immediately.’ But where does it all come from really, the need to be funny? ‘It comes from my mother. She is funny, and I realized how that works. She lives just outside of San Francisco and she‘s an outrageous character. A lot of people know my mother as well as me. She‘s very vivid. Especially in the town she lives in.’ Another San Francisco comedian confirmed to me yes, everyone does know his mother, and the unusual thing about comedians is that they are usually driven by a desire to copy their father. That‘s where their humour comes from. The fact that he was more influenced by his mother is interesting. Perhaps it‘s what adds the magic. Perhaps it‘s what helped him do The Birdcage and helped him create Mrs. Doubtfire. Certainly at the premiere of the Birdcage, Williams says ‘All the drag queens were going ‘Ooh. I love your mother. She‘s fabulous.’ My mother always did outrageous stuff, like pulling rubber bands out of her nose and my father, he must be the side that drives me into the dramatic roles. He was very intense and very ethical and very dry in terms of humour.’
Williams lives in a big house in San Francisco, devoted to his children, and these days going to bed at an hour where he used to be just going out. His two younger children, Cody, 6, and Zelda, 9, live with him full time. Perhaps because his own childhood was so dislocated, he overcompensates and it always up there driving his children crazy. Apparently, Zelda is forced to say ‘Daddy, don‘t use that voice. Just be Daddy.’ Williams however, is completely effervescent with love for his children, preferring always to do movies as near to home as possible, more because he needs to be with them. ‘I spend a lot of time with them, but I also know they need their space. They will literally tell me ‘This is my time. I‘m just doing this on my own now. Zelda especially. There are times they want to play and times that they are very happy being alone.’ He has another son, Zachary from his first marriage to Valeri Velardi, who is 15 and lives with him part time. He says ‘He has a very good soul. There‘s incredible kindness in the way he treats people.’ Zachary likes to mix records.
It was when Zachary was born that a huge personal revolution occurred, or actually, just before. At this time, Williams was calling himself the snow king and pounding around on Columbian marching powder. Cocaine addict big time and swilling it down with a bottle of Jack Daniels, his friend John Belushi died of an overdose. That shocked him. Then he felt he didn‘t want to miss what could be the most important part of his life. The primeval protective urge got the better of him. He wanted to be sober for his son. ‘It was an evolution basically because I realized I wanted not to miss it. It was a conscious choice to end an unconscious period. I don‘t want to be gone for this. I want to be there. I want to notice. I want to be part of it. So I just stopped. I didn‘t go through twelve steps. It was just one step. No AA, Assholes Anonymous, no therapy, although I do go to therapy now. This was a definite boundary. You have this other person. You have to stop. For the first year, you talk about it. Sometimes I miss wine or I might look at someone having a really nice cocktail and I remember the smell of Jack Daniels and that warm feeling when it would go down your throat and the next thing you wake up in a field. So I traded that off. Rational conversations that I can have now versus the irrational places I‘d end up in.’
I tell him that I‘m incredulous that he could just stop, especially as I spent the last three days drinking hugely. He shoots me one of those worried for me looks, piercing me with the eyes. ‘Did you have a night where you drank so much that you don‘t remember anything?’ he says, with a mixture of empathy and panic, as he must have had many of those nights. And then lightens up with ‘Did you wake up in the morning going who are you?’ No. Did you? ‘I‘m not going to deny that there weren‘t some fun times. But the bad side of alcohol and drugs is the hangover, vicious and awful. It was ugly.’ Soon after his druggy time ended, marriage to Valeri ended too. I tell him that I‘ve known many people who were in one relationship when they were not sober and when they got sober, the whole dynamic of that relationship altered. Is that what happened with you and your first wife? ‘No. It just altered. Everything changed over a long period of time.’ And then he looked right at me, knowing that he could have left it at that. ‘She found somebody else and eventually I went ‘Oh. OK.’ It was very painful and it wasn‘t really OK. It was Oh no. And then finally, I found someone else.’
Much has been made of the someone else. Her name is Marcia and she used to be Zachary‘s nanny. Stories that say the affair started at this time anger him. It‘s interesting to me that it ‘s always assumed it‘s the man who ‘s going to play around first. In fact, this was not the case. Even though Marsha, after her stint as nanny came back to be his personal assistant, their relationship was a slow burn. ‘She was very much not involved. She was my assistant during a really brutal time. She was amazing. I would be getting furious, saying Valeri‘s off with someone else, and she‘d say So are you. Get real. Get a life. And slowly I did. That ‘s when I did start to get therapy. I got anxious that finally Valeri was happy and it wasn’t with me. I would talk to Marsha who would talk to me as a friend, saying stop this. Eventually I realized how to get a life, how to get stronger. Comedy was my kind of salvation, although there were times when I thought I could never be funny again. Slowly but surely, I thought wait a minute Marsha is extraordinary and we started to get involved. It is amazing when you find someone who compliments everything you do in such a wonderful way, a gift, a joy. It ‘s weird. It just keeps getting better.’ It seems like it was Marsha that was his salvation. He says she took him down from his hyper highs and brought him up from his lonely lows and kept him from turning into a human exocet missile. It seems like she grounded him and lifted him. Now, she will help him to say no, stop his need to try to say yes to do everything. She has been a producer on Jacob and on Patch Adams and she ‘s found him several other projects that are in development. She reads the piles of scripts os that he doesn ‘t have to. Are you in tune with eachother ‘s taste? ‘No. I try to be in tune with her taste. Her taste is quite extraordinary, the opposite of mine. I’m very sentimental. She ‘s much tougher. She stops me from being a parody of myself. She ‘ll push me to go and perform again on stage to remember that I really love to do this.’
In What Dreams May come, he falls into a Monet like painting, and that ‘s his idea of heaven. ‘Our heaven would probably be a Miro because being with her is really so extraordinary. You think it ‘s going to level out, but it doesn ‘t. It just gets more wonderful.’ For some of the jokes and some of the voices, you best appreciate them in person. Same goes for his tributes to his wife. Perhaps they appear schmaltzy. But they come delivered with a genuine incredulity of someone who just can ‘t believe his luck, someone truly in heartfelt love delirium. So has he completely mellowed now? ‘I enjoy things differently’ he says with the kind of tact that you know dark forces can still intrude. So does he ever get depressed still? ‘Deeply depressed. Things still bother me. When I read stories about sad things that have happened in different parts of the world, insane politics and stories of abused children I get deeply sad.’ Does he get depressed about anything in his own life? ‘I? Can get disappointed. Its like you thin you‘ve made a right choice and then it doesn’t turn out like that. You get bummed out. But you made that choice and you have to go with it and you feel you have wasted your time. It ‘s been four months. You expect a movie to work and you work really hard to promote the hell out of it and it will tank. I ‘m not going to say that that doesn’t hit you. But your ego had gone into overdrive and when you worried this may not work it said you can do this. So one part will always say well, you knew all along. You can ‘t get too upset. I suppose you have to get to the point where you ‘re honest with yourself upfront.’ Was he sated by winning the Oscar? Does he feel that whatever drove him stopped driving? ‘No. The Oscar was a interesting thing. Once you have it, you think what now? Your ego worries. Another one? There ‘s a brief relief and then you think you ‘ll have to do it again. You feel like Rainman.’ He goes int perfect Dustin. ‘Gotta do it again . Yeah. Jack has three. Keep going. Tom has two. Maybe three this year. Real good.’ Despite his warm furriness, his insecurity is his focus. His ambition still drives him. Playing all those therapists, doctors, he must have cured so many parts of himself. Now he thinks perhaps he doesn ‘t want to resolve someone ‘s pain, but cause it, play someone really evil. ‘I ‘d like to break the mould of warm and happy. I ‘ve done enough lonely guys, enough mentally damaged, enough children.’ Remember Jack, boy trapped in body of 40 year old? ‘No more children. You ‘re 47. No more arrested development poster child. No more damaged but interesting. A real villain. Interesting, but not damaged’ he says with a maniacal flash that is completely unconvincing. The PR comes in to stop the interview, but he ‘s far too nice to stop it until he thinks I ‘m finished. On the other side of the door, Marsha is waiting for him. They leap at each other like they ‘ve been separated for centuries. They are all over each other, even though it can ‘t be more than a couple of hours since they were last together. He ‘s almost giving her a piggy back out of the smart hotel and into the rain for lunch. He kind of shines. I don‘t know if he could ever find in himself a truly evil energy. I don ‘t know that he ‘d know where to look. Sometimes after interviews you feel exhausted. Sometimes even humiliated. Often bored. And you wish you ‘d never been there. Robin Williams just made you feel warm and energized. You want to protect him and he wants to protect you. You think all that emoting that he does so expertly on film is a brilliant act. When you see the act live, you go away feeling that he ‘s probably one of the cosiest, furriest human beings you could ever have met, the kind of person who provides hope when there is none, the kind of person who is able to do this for other people because he had to find it for himself.