I have two vivid memories of Robin Williams – one funny, one less so.
The funny one: Very early in my TV junketing, back when I did segments for The Ron Stone Show in Houston, I got to do a sit-down with Williams. It was the typical set-up – I walked into the suite where he was already seated, eased into a chair opposite him, and started chatting while one videographer focused on him, and the other focused on me.
Except that it was anything but typical when he started riffing – manically, hilariously – as soon as I asked my first question. I managed to ask, oh, I dunno, maybe three or four other questions, but it didn’t really matter – he was in inspired free-form mode, and maybe he felt even less inhibited than usual by my willingness to just go with his flow. (At one point, he encouraged one of the videographers to zoom in my embroidered sweater vest – “Look! It’s a test pattern!”) I kept getting all sorts of signals from the off-camera personnel – finger-twirling, palms swiped across necks, etc. – to cut it short.
But, really, it wasn’t my fault that a 6-minute interview expanded to a quarter-hour. Indeed, it might have gone on even longer had I not simply looked into the camera and, in my most serious Walter Cronkite-type voice, asked: “At what point did I lose all control of this interview?” While Williams paused to laugh, the videographers grabbed their chance to stop taping.
The not-so-funny memory: At the San Francisco junket for Good Morning, Vietnam, I had the opportunity to do a one-on-one interview with Williams in his hotel suite. He was appreciably more serious – maybe he got the vibe that I wasn’t expecting him to perform for me? – and we veered off to a discussion of parental responsibility.
Specifically: I told him that I had recently read an article that detailed how some new fathers – including guys who had never before cared much about firearms – felt the need to buy a handgun to “protect their families” after the arrival of a first child. (My son wasn’t yet two years old at the time.) And then I told him about a guy in Texas who had gunned down a martial arts instructor who had molested the guy’s naïve son.
“And you know what?” I told Williams, speaking as one dad to another. “That motherfucker isn’t going to prison! That motherfucker is gonna walk!” (Which, as it turned out, is pretty much what happened.) Williams replied: “Damn right!” He wasn’t joking. He was approving. So both of us bleeding-heart liberals slapped palms – and then continued talking.
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Robin Williams reportedly took his own life Monday, after years of struggling with depression and knowing the true color of darkness. During the coming days, weeks and years, we likely will be offered various and sundry “explanations” for his suicide. But, really, will anyone who hasn’t ever plumbed the depths he did – who hasn’t, say, pressed the barrel of a gun to his forehead while fingering the trigger, or gazed at an oncoming subway train and considered tossing herself onto the tracks – ever know why he did what he did?
I feel wholly ill-equipped to offer easy explanations. Instead, I offer these snippets from a 1991 piece I wrote after interviewing Williams for Awakenings.
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Some mornings, Robin Williams would walk into the Brooklyn mental hospital where he filmed Awakenings, take a long look and an even longer listen as he observed the patients on the first two floors, and think, ''Yeah, there but for the grace of God . . . ''
Williams has spoken freely of the alcohol and drugs he once abused and which he uses no more. He is only slightly less forthcoming when he speaks of a darkness that needs no chemical stimuli, of a rage that fueled so many of his stand-up comedy routines before, during and after his first mainstream success on television's Mork and Mindy.
When I spoke with him in 1988 during a junket for Good Morning, Vietnam, he admitted to a certain pride in ''my darker side,'' the aggressiveness that enabled him to deal with unruly crowds when the comedy wasn't working. Or even when it was. ''Performing stand-up,'' he said, ''is like being in the Roman arena. And the lion has had two beers.
''Sometimes, the audience is hostile. And I respond to that...''
But things are calmer, less frenetic, these days. Comparatively speaking.
Even now, Williams remains the Salvador Dali of stand-up comics when he takes over a stage. And his amazing gift for free-association comic riffs is every bit as impressive, even awe-inspiring, as ever. Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and best-selling author whose experiments inspired Awakenings, served as the movie's technical adviser, and had ample opportunity to witness Williams' free-wheeling routines between takes. As Sacks describes it: ''There are things that other people might think, deep down in their subconscious, that they would never say. But with
Robin, there's all these wild things. They suddenly explode in him, these fantastic associations . . .
''There's something like these strange, surreal explosions in some people with Tourette's syndrome. There's an aspect of creativity in Robin that, in a strange way, is very much like the compulsiveness in people with Tourette's.''
But there's a big difference: These days, at least, Williams can turn off the compulsiveness when he wants to. If it's Tourette's, he and Sacks agree, then it's a self-willed Tourette's.
''Yes,'' Williams said during a recent Manhattan interview, ''when I met Shane, one of Sacks' patients, who really has Tourette's -- I felt a certain kinship. Sometimes, I, too, have the ability to kind of override the gland, or whatever it is, that would normally censor you. I drop that, the way Tourette's people do. I understand that. And I understand the same exhilaration they sometimes do.
''It's kind of like -- hah! -- like a comic savant. You know, all of a sudden, flashes of idiocy flash through me, and I don't censor it.
''But I can hold back sometimes. Shane can't.''
This self-control, Williams admits, is only recently acquired. ''I do feel better about myself, more comfortable about who I am and what am I. Why? Well, I didn't go through heavy psychoanalysis, but, yeah, therapy, I talked to someone.
''And I have a good relationship,'' with his second wife, Marsha, a painter and sculptor with an academic background. (They have an infant daughter, Zelda.) ''It's a wonderful relationship, where I have freedom. And when you have that as a baseline, you're all right.
''Especially,'' Williams added with a grin as he raised his thick, hairy arms, ''if you have someone who doesn't mind that you have Quest for Fire gloves on all the time.''
That's when you feel safe, Williams said -- safe enough to not be on all the time. Now, his cartwheeling comedy ''is not an aggressive thing anymore. Now, it's like a playful thing.
''There's much less of a mandatory feeling about it. It's not like it's a necessity -- I don't have to keep doing it to keep the world at bay. I can do it when I want, and then pull back, and talk about intimate things.''
Moviegoers got their first glimpse at the new and improved (and more self-controlled) Robin Williams last year in Dead Poets Society. Despite a few moments of inspired mimicry -- like, when he offered us John Wayne as Macbeth -- he played it mostly straight, and earned an Oscar nomination, as an iconoclastic teacher at a straight-laced prep school.
Actor-turned-director Penny Marshall was greatly impressed by Williams' performance. So much so, in fact, that she began to think of Williams for the role of Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a character based on Sacks, in a film based on Sacks' best-selling book, Awakenings.
''Someone sent me a clue,'' Williams said. ''They said, 'You'll be getting something very special in the mail.' And I said, 'Like what? Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes?'''
What it was, was the script for Awakenings, which offers a fictionalized gloss on Sacks' real-life attempts to ''reawaken'' patients who can neither move nor communicate by giving them an experimental drug. (Robert De Niro co-stars in the film as the most prominent of the patients.) Williams read the script during a long airplane trip. The second time he found himself weeping out loud, he knew he wanted to do the film.
And, better still, he knew Marshall wanted him to do it, to bring a warmly human dimension to the story.
''It's like, when she directed Big, she worked against the comedy,'' Williams said. ''With this, she played against the drama. There's something pretty instinctual about that, when you know that from the beginning, in order to make something as potentially depressing as this, you're going to have to, if possible, make it somewhat funny. In order to capture those moments in the hospital. In order to bring you into this world -- and then hit you with this world.
''I don't mean using me as a comedian, riffing on patients, like, 'Hi, there, welcome to Club Medicaid.' No. But to slowly unveil this world to people, and suck them into the story.''
Williams often is extremely funny in Awakenings. But the humor grows out of his character, a painfully shy, often absent-minded fellow who, when his patients are concerned, has a will of tempered steel. It's a beautifully restrained yet full-bodied performance, the work of an actor who has learned that, yes, sometimes, less really is more.
Surprisingly -- or, come to think of it, maybe not so surprisingly -- Williams did not find it at all difficult to convey the tongue-tied, introverted side of his role.
''Basically,'' he said, ''I was able to tap into the fact that, for the first 18 years of my life, I was like that. All the way up to my junior year of high school, I was pretty isolated. So I know that.
''People ask me, 'How did you get into this?' Well, I just remembered what it was like from 16 onward, being an only child, growing up in a huge house, all that stuff. With all that, you get a little shy, you get a little awkward about dealing with people.''
As a stand-up comic, of course, Williams discovered how to compensate for that childhood shyness. It took him a lot longer to discover how to stop compensating.
And when he talks about that, he recalls once again the days in the hospital where Awakenings was shot.
''And I knew, looking around me there, that there have been times in my life when I've been near that edge,'' Williams said. ''That point where, if you went a little bit more, just a tad, just slightly more unglued -- yeah, I'd be here.''
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Postscript: One year later, during the junket for Toys – a film that I evidently liked much more than most of my critical brethren – Williams shared with me his concern about violent video games.
''What frightens me about video games, and television and computer games -- and, yes, I'm addicted to computers, I have a floppy disc and a hard drive -- but sometimes, I think they steal your dreams. If you play video games long enough, when you go to bed at night, you replay the game rather than dream. It denies you the access to something that's quite wonderful, and quite primal, the ability to dream.''
Worse, Williams says, some of the video games seem like high-tech nightmares.
''Have you seen some of these things? Especially the shoot-'em-up ones? There's one in the arcades that's called Hostage, where you have to pick off people in doorways. There's a lot of them like that, where, literally, the gun is there, and you learn to shoot it.
''I know you get negative points if you hit, like, a woman with a baby in her arms by mistake. But after a while, I'm sure there must be a temptation to just turn the gun and go wham!
''So I try to filter what games my kids play. Or at least make them more aware of what shooting and blowing up things really means. Like my father did with me. See, I used to collect toy soldiers as a kid. And at a certain point, my father sat me down and explained the horror of it to me, having been in the Navy on a carrier. He told me there's nothing glorious about war, there's nothing fun about it, nothing exciting about it.
''I disarmed after that day.''