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Robin Williams: Fears of a Clown

From the archives, a probing interview with Williams from 1991

From the archives, a probing interview with Williams from 1991

On the eve of Awakenings, the comedian and actor reflects on his dark days and finding his “off” switch

This story was originally published in the February 21st, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.

Mr. and Mrs. Robin Williams are slow dancing. The time: a winter afternoon. The place: a photographer’s studio in the Chelsea section of New York. The music: high-decibel funk. Everybody else in the studio is abuzz — adjusting lights, fussing with props, running back and forth from the kitchen with sushi. Still, Williams and his wife, Marsha, keep coming together in these quick, sweet tableaux. It’s strange to see the thirty-nine-year-old actor and comedian with his guard down — he has been famous for twelve years and people are still trying to figure out whether he’s a bird or a plane.

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“When I met Robin in the Seventies, he was always on,” says Penny Marshall, who directed Williams’s new film Awakenings. “It was always, ‘Hey, big mama. Hey, baby.’ He was very funny, but it was hard for him to just say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ Now he does that very well.”

These days, meeting Robin Williams is positively ordinary — it is a nonevent. He does not somersault into the room. He does not play with your hair. He does not do John Wayne as Macbeth or Jack Nicholson as Hamlet. He does not pretend he’s a dog smoking pot, a cat on Valium or a cow on acid. Instead, he is suddenly there, shaking your hand and asking you about yourself. He seems almost timid. He’s doing okay. How are you?

Williams still speaks in tongues, but nowadays you always know who you’re talking to. Over the course of the weekend, he’ll have some reverent things to say about Dr. Oliver Sacks, upon whom Williams’s timorous, inward character in Awakenings is loosely based. He’ll have some angry things to say about the fact that not long ago he was hanged in effigy as stand-up comedy’s master thief. He’ll have some bitter things to say about certain press accounts that have depicted Marsha, who is his second wife, as a nanny-on-wheels who busted up his first marriage. And, of course, he’ll goof around some. He’ll do Stallone as a hooker. He’ll do Prince as Peter Pan.

Just now, though, Williams has said his hellos, and he and Marsha are dancing close. Funk is shaking the room, but the Williamses don’t hear it.

“It’s been a sequence,” Williams says at his hotel later. “With Good Morning, Vietnam, people said, ‘Ah, at last he’s found a way to be funny and still be a little restrained.’ With Dead Poets Society, they went, ‘Oh, this is interesting — he’s even more restrained.’ And with Awakenings, it’ll be ‘Look! He’s medicated! He’s gone even further. What’s he playing next? He’s playing a door. And after that? A black hole.’ “

In Awakenings, which is adapted from Oliver Sacks’s book of the same name, Williams plays the neurologist Dr. Malcolm Sayer. At the outset of the film, Sayer arrives at a chronic-care hospital in the Bronx. He finds a ward of patients who once suffered from encephalitis and who for decades have been frozen in their wheelchairs. Despite the naysaying of his fellow doctors, who regard the patients as effectively brain dead, Sayer administers a controversial drug named L-dopa and the ward springs dramatically, but briefly, to life.

There are some frustrating things about Awakenings — chiefly that it’s a devastating story dressed up in a feel-good movie’s clothes. Still, at the core of the film there are two exceptional performances: Robert De Niro’s as Leonard Lowe, the first patient to “awaken,” and Williams’s. “Restrained” as it is, the part of Sayer is perfect for Williams because the character’s main components are sadness and wonder. These same components can be found in much of his best film work (Dead Poets Society, Moscow on the Hudson, The World According to Garp). They can be found beneath the outward trappings of his stand-up comedy — the neo-Hawaiian shirts, the goofy ballet moves, the who’s-on-first routines done solo. And they can be found, in great supply, in Williams himself.

Williams may have found a perfect role in Awakenings, but where does that leave Oliver Sacks? The last time Williams played a role based on someone’s life — the disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam — it was a scorched-earth campaign. Williams’s Cronauer was so wild that one felt sorry for the real-life Cronauer, who had done a relatively tame tour of duty and was soon forced to make admissions in the press like “Robin was the me I would have liked to have been. . . . I did not take a Vietnamese girl and eleven members of her family to see Beach Blanket Bingo.”

“He’s a quiet, gentle man,” Williams says. “After the movie, people said, ‘Well, maybe we should have changed the name to protect him,’ because they trotted him out all over the place. The real Adrian went back to Manhattan and played FM music on some quiet classical station: ‘Ah, bonjour Manhattan and now . . . Vomitaeus Sacred Bowel Movement in C Minor.’ To make him this sort of folk hero — that’s a rough thing to do to somebody. That’s why, for Awakenings, we changed Oliver’s name. I respect the man very deeply, and I want him to have a certain anonymity about who and what he is.”

Early on in the filming of Awakenings, Williams did play Oliver Sacks straight up. Sacks, however, was on the set each day as a technical advisor, and the atmosphere became decidedly strange. “I think when Oliver first met Robin, he was amazed at Robin’s ability to imitate,” Penny Marshall says. “Robin could do all of Oliver’s moves, and I think it made Oliver a little nervous.”

Williams agrees, saying it must be difficult for people to watch someone copying mannerisms that they didn’t even know they had. “At a certain point,” he says, “you have to go, ‘Okay, fuck off. Eat shit and die.’ That’s why people hit mimes.”

Of the ultimate relationship between Sayer and Sacks, Williams says: “Oliver isn’t that withdrawn. He’s pretty comfortable with people — he just stutters sometimes. I mean, here’s a man who was a resident physician for the Hell’s Angels for two years. If you’re hanging out with guys named Tiny, you’re not a shy man.”

Sacks, who is also the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, is at a press “round robin” the next day. The event is held in a Park Avenue hotel’s peach-and-green ballroom. Here’s how it works: Six journalists sit at each table, and every twenty minutes they collectively interview a different member of the Awakenings team. The interviews rarely unearth much. The questions generally run along the lines of “Do you find that having done Awakenings, you appreciate the ‘little things’ more?” and the answers are on the order of “I really do.”

After a few minutes with Oliver Sacks, it is clear that he is, as Williams is fond of describing him, “part Schweitzer and part Schwarzenegger.” He is a giant man with a Saint Nicholas beard and an astonishingly gentle manner. Table 5 likes him right away. Sacks admits to not being much of a film buff and, as if to prove it, makes a reference to Goodbye, Vietnam. He also admits to having had reservations about being portrayed in the film, but he’s clearly taken with Williams and De Niro.

“I’m awed in different ways by both actors,” Sacks says, his stammer drifting in and out. “Robin was obviously reined in somewhat, but between scenes there would be wild things. Things which other people keep deep down in their preconscious suddenly explode in him. There’s an absolute — I don’t know what to call it — phantasmagoric genius.”

Time’s up. Dr. Sacks says goodbye. A little later, producers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes are winding down their own twenty-minute tenure at Table 5. Unfortunately, there is so much laughter and commotion at Table 6 that it’s difficult to make out what they’re saying.

Lasker turns to check out the renegade table, then shakes his head. “I hate having to follow Robin,” he says.

At his own press conference the next day, the famously shy Robert De Niro has such a pained look on his face that one would think he were being sold at auction. There have been rumors that Williams might crash this conference. One desperately wishes that he would — that he’d come to the aid of De Niro, whose obvious discomfort reminds one of the Awakenings ad in which he stands on a small rock while water comes up on all sides. Alas, Williams does not drop in and save the day. Instead, Penny Marshall, who’s here to do a little handholding, sits beside De Niro at a table strewn with tape recorders. While De Niro spends most of the session clearing his throat, Marshall tells some jokes, teases reporters and intercepts a question or two.

At one point, De Niro is asked what it was like to work with an actor as spontaneous as Williams. Everyone in the room knows that during filming in the mental hospital, Williams could be counted on for some much-needed clowning and that De Niro would often tell him: “Do something. Do some Mork stuff and I’ll watch.”

De Niro speaks: “Well, Robin’s . . . it was just like with any other actor. It wasn’t any . . . it wasn’t any . . . He’s — as we all know — a wonderful comedian, a brilliant comedian. And spontaneous, as you say. But in this situation, it wasn’t so much like that. I can’t explain it. It wasn’t like he went off into wild improvs or something.” De Niro shrugs and winces.

Later one of the tape recorders on the table suddenly snaps off. Everybody laughs.

“Should I flip the tape over for the person?” De Niro asks Marshall.

“Yeah, flip it over,” Marshall says in her familiar Bronx deadpan. “What a guy.”

De Niro flips the tape, sets the recorder on the table, and sits back. Marshall leans over. “Press RECORD and PLAY,” she says.

Williams, who jokingly refers to himself and De Niro as “Mr. Wonderful and Mr. Deep,” is back at his hotel. He’s wearing a T-shirt and baggy black pants. He looks frazzled — tired around the eyes — but, as always, one feels comfortable with him immediately. There are a few interruptions before today’s conversation can get going. Room service interrupts to deliver some diet Cokes (Williams was “clean” before Drew Barrymore was even dirty). Someone else interrupts to ask if Williams requested a table, which he didn’t. Someone else interrupts to apologise for the previous interruption.

Are these people for real? They seem to be. Williams answers the door each time and speaks in a kind, hushed voice — it’s as if he felt sorry for being famous, for making people nervous. When the door is closed for the last time, he sits down on a couch, leans forward attentively and fields some questions about his stand-up comedy. In recent years, Williams has been the subject of never-ending hosannas and, ironically, the target of some pointed accusations.

“His reputation for taking jokes and quickly making them his own is unequaled, dating back to his sudden emergence in the sitcom Mork & Mindy,” GQ magazine reported in the summer of 1989. That reputation — though almost everyone agrees it’s a specious one — continues to haunt Williams. “When he walks into a room,” says the artistic coordinator of a prominent comedy club, “a lot of comedians don’t want to take the stage. I think Williams has got a huge cloud over his head, and I believe he’s held at arm’s length from the comedy community.”

Whoopi Goldberg, who thinks Williams is “the cat’s pajamas,” says in her friend’s defense: “They made it sound as if Robin were taking their livelihood away. Comics do this all the time. Someone says a great line, and it stays with you, and you use it. We had ‘Make my day.’ Everybody was saying it, is that theft?”

All this is a sensitive subject, but Williams talks about it frankly. “I’m not gonna sit here and plead not guilty,” he says. “If you watch comedy eight hours a day, something will register, and it’ll come out. And if it happened, I said, ‘I apologise. I’ll pay you for this.’ But I wasn’t going out of my way to go fucking grave robbing. ‘Cause if you’re on top, they’re gonna look for your ass.

“Then I started getting tired of just paying, just being the chump,” he continues. “I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. It’s not true.’ People were accusing me of stealing stuff that basically was from my own life. And then I went, ‘Wait, this is fucking nuts. I didn’t take that. That’s about my mother.’ ” Williams was even accused of stealing a joke from a comic he hadn’t seen perform in two years. “So now I’m psychically stealing?” he asks. “What am I, Uri Geller? ‘Psychic thief. This week in the Enquirer.'” Williams slowly loses some composure, but he is still funny. “A lot of comedy clubs are like Appalachian encounter groups,” he says. “Everybody’s doing everybody else. You can go into a club and see fifteen different people, and they’re all chewing each other apart. ‘You say, “Hello,” you prick. That’s mine. I wrote Hello.’ “

These days, during Williams’s famous unannounced appearances at comedy clubs, he waits outside until it’s his turn to take the stage. “It’s something I do now as a conscious effort, so no one can fucking accuse me. I’m not into necrophilia. I don’t need to go back and take ‘Oh, God, don’t you just hate it about those medic-alert badges.’ Yeah, thanks. I’m taking that. That’ll really work. And there’s lots of people who took entire mannerisms from me. It’s not something I can get mad about. It’s flattery. It’s great. When it happens the other way around, you’re just supposed to smile.”

One gets a rather pathetic mental image of Williams standing outside some comedy club, asking the doorman, “Can I come in it yet?”

Williams nods. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s a little like that.”

This is not to say that Robin Williams has gone sour on stand-up comedy and stand-up comedians. If you ask him who he thinks is as funny as he is, he’ll light up and start rattling off names: Richard Lewis, Charlie Fleischer, Jay Leno, Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Billy Crystal. . . . Eventually, Williams shuts up. “That’s enough,” he says. “I feel like a comedy pimp. ‘What do you need, baby? You want jokes? You want premises? You want props?’ “

“Robin’s at his freest when he’s onstage,” Marsha Williams says in New York. “He can protect himself more than he can when he walks down the street. People think they know him because of his humor, but it actually serves as a door they can’t pass. As long as Robin keeps them laughing, they can’t delve deeper.”

Marsha, who is of Finnish and Filipino extraction and looks like Meg Tilly, is riding back to her hotel in a limo. Friends of Robin’s often speak of this woman as the force that uprighted the actor’s life after a disastrous first marriage and some heavily publicized dos-a-dos with cocaine and vodka-and-lime-juice. At first, Marsha seems somewhat guarded and standoffish — the result, no doubt, of her bumpy treatment by the media — but soon she opens up. One gets the sense that she keeps her husband on an even keel. That she looks out for him. That she warns him not to be all things to everybody, which is clearly Mr. Wonderful’s inclination.

As the limo passes through Central Park, Marsha is asked if it’s true she saved her husband’s life. She laughs, having heard this one before. “I’m not a believer that people save each other,” she says, “any more than I’m a believer that one person can steal a person from someone else. He needed stability. I think most people need one person in their life that they know they can rely upon. I’m Robin’s safety net. He knows I’m strong.”

Williams, she says, also knows one other thing: “He knows I’m not interested in a relationship where he can do whatever he wants and I’m there for him. Everybody needs boundaries. They need to know what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.”

“There were things about the first marriage that I don’t even want to bring up,” a subdued Williams says later. “There were things that were done that two people should never do to each other. I’d go off and run around because I didn’t know what the fuck I wanted. I’d be a schmuck, and she’d respond in kind. And then we’d try to stop and deal with it, and it wouldn’t work. Finally, I had to say, ‘I can’t do this to myself anymore. I can’t do this to my first wife. I’m tired of living out this passive-aggressive shit.’

“I moved out of the house, and I was like goo. I was a babbling idiot. And then I became involved with Marsha. All of a sudden I started to calm down. I stopped running around with all this madness. I started to go, ‘Wait, I can live a life. I don’t have to live and die in my own sweat.’ I slowly pulled myself up. I started to create and to work — kind of like the phoenix that rises out its own ass. Marsha is not somebody who dragged somebody away. She’s somebody who offered something, who said, ‘This is a way to live,’ and I went for it.

“Am I going to run around now? No. I’m at peace with myself. It’s not something like ‘I . . . am . . . very . . . happy.’ Like I’ve got a dart in the back of my neck. But it’s something like ‘God, I don’t want to blow this. This is wonderful stuff.’ “

Williams admits that, in the past, he has defended himself with his humor. “The wall was put up sometimes, yeah,” he says. “I didn’t want to talk personally about anything — especially during those transition times. So I’d tap dance like a chicken on a hot plate. Even in therapy, they said, ‘You’re not ready to talk about some of this shit. If you do, you’d better be prepared to call a paramedic and put your brain on a platter afterwards.’ “

The actor is at ease during today’s conversation partly because his wife agreed to be interviewed for this article — it’s clear that if Marsha trusts someone, Williams trusts him, too. And in general, Williams’s personal life has been chronicled so fastidiously that it’d be pointless for him to deflect questions. “What can be said that hasn’t been said?” he says, laughing for the first time in an hour or so. “I’m going to tell you some intimate secret? Okay: I have a wart on my ass. That’s the one thing I’ve never told anybody. I’ve got a big boil in the shape of Iowa, and I’d like to show it to you now.”

Williams is thinking about his ass a lot these days. In February the actor will begin work on Steven Spielberg’s Hook, in which Dustin Hoffman plays Captain Hook, Julia Roberts plays Tinker Bell, and Williams plays a modern incarnation of Peter Pan. “Let’s just say the tights are full,” Williams says. “I have to drop twenty-five pounds. People’s image of Peter Pan is not, you know, Porky Pan. This is a scary choice. This is something that could be either wonderful or horrendous — there’s that risk.”

Shortly after Hook, Williams will turn his attention to Barry Levinson’s Toys, a movie about a sleepy novelty-toy company that gets taken over by a retired general with a penchant for war games. Then, in May, he’ll be making the rounds promoting Terry Gilliam’s Fisher King. Williams plays a medieval-history professor whose life falls apart when his wife is killed.

What all this means is that, for a while at least, Robin Williams will not have what Robin Williams wants most: time. Time to slow dance with the Missus. Time to spend at home in San Francisco with his children, Zachary and Zelda. (“Marsha says if we have another child, it’s no more Zs. We’re going to another letter.”) The simple truth is that Williams can’t be all things to everybody — he can’t be expected to save the day every time De Niro meets the press, for instance — but he’s determined to be all things to his wife and kids.

“You have to pull back and recharge,” Williams says. “You have to meet people outside the movies — there’s a whole other world. Not everybody is promoting a script. Not everybody is worrying about grosses and points. That’s why it’s great to be outside Hollywood, where you’re confronted by your career every five minutes. Instead, you’re confronted by other things — like no heating. The furnace breaks, and I become Father Man, the man who goes down and changes the fuse, and it still fucks up.”

Asked if he and Marsha plan to have another child soon — Zachary is the product of his first marriage — Father Man nods and begins talking animatedly to a part of his body that he usually refers to as either Mr. Happy or Lumpy. “We have a few left, yes?” he says. “Those ninja sperms! Those ones that blow a hole in the diaphragm! Those ones that get through, no matter what!”

For the next few minutes, Williams is “on.” Occasionally, when the actor lapses into his celebrated shtick, the routine seems forced and perfunctory. He seems to be clowning around simply because he knows he’s famous for clowning around. Other times — like now — his short-circuited patter is literally breathtaking. Williams is not tap dancing on a hot plate; he’s just having fun.

Eventually, Williams skids to a stop, looking wild-eyed and a little winded. “Fuck, it’s great to play,” he says. “Who wants to be deeply serious all the time? That would suck, I think. But I’m just now getting to the point where you realize, ‘Wait, you don’t have to play all the time.’ It’s exhausting, and you have to save something for when you come home. Marsha gets asked that all the time: ‘He must be really wild at home!’ The truth is that if I were, she wouldn’t be alive. That type of freneticism is insane.”

Hence the Robin Williams who walks into a room like everybody else does. Who talks for hours without once doing his mad-scientist laugh or standing on his head. It’s true that Williams still can’t go ten minutes without telling a joke about how hairy he is — these jokes always involve either Darwin or the film Quest for Fire — but for the most part he’s “on” when he feels like being “on,” and he’s “off” when he feels like being “off.”

“I used to hate that,” Williams says. “People would say, ‘You’re on now. Do you always have to be on?’ ” He gets another glint in his eye, and — in a voice that’s part Robin Williams and part Groucho Marx — he turns to address an imaginary accuser: “Yeah, sometimes I do. Around pricks like you — around raving assholes like you — I really like being on. It makes it easier. ‘Cause being off would be pretty fucking boring.”

Here, revving his engines again, Williams drops the Groucho inflection and picks up a little street sass. “Just ’cause you don’t have a switch, don’t get angry at me, baby,” he says. “Just ’cause you don’t have the batteries, don’t call up and tell me to turn out my light.”