There is a deceptive air of chaos at the Mork & Mindy rehearsal. Robin Williams grabs his crotch and stomps around the room, mocking himself in a street-kid growl: “I gotcha shazbot, right here, buddy. Yeah, here’s your na-noo na-noo.” Rookie actor Jay Thomas returns the salute, and they play dueling punks for a minute: then Thomas pivots to face the full-length mirror and kisses his image. Tom Poston, who plays a greeting card writer named Bickley, dozes behind a stack of pink scripts, waking up long enough to deliver a sardonic comment or two. Pam Dawber (Mindy) fights the boredom with long phone calls.
This morning’s rehearsal, for obscure reasons, has been shunted from the usual Mork studio to a smoke-poisoned, fluorescent-lit hall in Paramount’s Los Angeles complex. The shift in locale is a hardship, because this episode will introduce a new set and two new characters—Remo DaVinci (Thomas) and his sister Jean (Gena Hecht). The DaVincis are transplanted New Yorkers who open a delicatessen in Boulder, Colorado, where Mork and Mindy live.
Director Howard Storm paces the floor, blocking the first deli scene. As he notices Williams and Thomas sitting together, he becomes a Little Italy restaurateur: “Whatzit, jus’ da two a yiz?” A minute later Robin is crouching outside the make-believe door, wailing pitifully, and Storm’s an old Jewish shopkeeper: “Go avay from here, dis is a place of beeznis, you kids.” Storm, a comedian himself, permits a free play of spontaneity on the set, but he calibrates his voice to stern levels when things begin to unravel. Robin brings out the loon in his coworkers, and a little taste of it can intoxicate some actors to the point where they don’t function well. Having directed most of the Mark episodes. Storm knows where to draw the line.
It’s Monday and the script’s raw; you can almost see the thumbprints of the writers on each page. The first draft contains a few snappy jokes, but mostly lackluster one-liners. The initial run-through is partly designed to pinpoint dialogue problems so that the most glaring ones can be repaired.
Script in hand, the actors begin the rehearsal. In each episode, Mork from the planet Ork discovers some new aspect of human behavior. In this show, he watches Remo fight with his sister. Mork doesn’t understand the purpose of arguments, but envies the warmth of the DaVincis’ reconciliation, so he decides to start a fight with Mindy in hopes of some vague erotic payoff. (Robin is the key ingredient, and without his contributions, all synopses of the show would inevitably sound like TV Guide encapsulations: “Watch the fun when Gilligan mistakes his nose for a nearby island and steers his canoe into his jugular vein!”) But it’s not a bad script premise, and the put-downs written for Williams are funny: “Sorry, kids, we can’t go to the zoo. Mindy ate all the endangered species.” But Pam Dawber is saddled with bad rejoinders. She has trouble hiding her frustration, and finally tucks the script against her hip and announces, “I can’t say these lines!”
“It’s all right, Pam,” the director soothes, “we’ll get them to plug in some zingers.” In television, this promise usually rivals the fabled assurance that “your check is in the mail,” but on the Mork set, there’s an attempt to patch up script holes right on the spot. Rehearsal stops while Robin suggests avenues of insult. “Maybe she could make fun of my hair,” he says, faking a grab at Dawber’s behind, which starts her giggling. It’s a unique work situation. Robin’s not only given a license to improvise that is unheard of in sitcoms, but he also takes partial responsibility for keeping the ensemble stimulated. His lunacy is balanced with theatrical smarts, and with director Storm overseeing it all, the cast gets through another tight squeeze.
(Later that night at dinner, Williams reflects on the rehearsal between forkfulls of zucchini. “We’re fighting through a script that has certain flaws,” he says, “and I want to make sure we don’t restrict ourselves, especially since we’re trying to create two new characters. I want to make sure they’re not just stereotyped New York Italians. The actors can do it—they’re both terrific—and I want to help them expand if I can.” Since he’s only starting the second year of an ironclad five-year contract with Paramount, Williams strives to keep the show fresh. “The first year of any show is mostly shooting in the dark,” he explains.)
While the Mork staff retools the script, Williams, having just completed six hours of rehearsal, heads for the Paramount gym, where he’s being drilled in acrobatics and dance for his upcoming title role in the film Popeye. Driving across the lot, he steers his white sports car past an immense oil painting of the sky. “This is where old clouds go to die,” Robin says, embodying the painted clouds as Jewish retirees: “Come on, ve’ll hang in deh sky, maybe float a little bit.”
The gym, hidden behind an old feed-store facade on an abandoned western set, has the gritty aura of a boxer’s hangout—sickly green walls, girlie calendars, air permeated with the sweat of generations of actors. Inside, Robin changes into workout clothes, completes a rapid-fire series of cartwheels, then steadies himself. He blinks twice. His face, the kind for which words like scamp and rapscallion are coined, goes red. After a while the gym stops whirling. “I’m fine,” he says to his trainer, Lou Wills, who grips him by the shoulders. “Let’s keep going.”
He drops into a handstand, and Wills knots a towel around Williams’ waist so he can jerk the young comic back and forth like a puppet. Robin is learning a tough maneuver called the mule kick, and within ten minutes he can do it unaided. Wills unfastens the towel harness and Williams begins kicking upward from a handstand, the way the cartoon Popeye does to vanquish troops of oncoming bad guys.
Since Popeye is a musical (with songs by Harry Nilsson), Williams is also learning to sing. And this, weekend he’ll play two sold-out nights at L. A.’s Universal Amphitheatre. The workload is enormous, but Robin has energy to spare; and as poet-visionary William Blake, another space traveler, once wrote: “Energy is eternal delight.”
Soon after the debut of Mork & Mindy last September, Robin Williams became a national one-man craze. The sitcom is essentially a My Favorite Martian retread in which Robin plays an ingenuous visitor from another planet. But his own lunatic mix of physical humor, showbiz impressions and spur-of-the-moment one-liners made the show an instant hit, and Robin’s Mork displaced Henry Winkler’s Fonz as the comedy hero of American schoolrooms. Like the other alien now inhabiting mass consciousness, Robin can alter his persona at breakneck speed: a street black one moment, George Jessel the next, then an ordinary tourist from Ork.
The mass popularity and critical acclaim have made Williams number one on the Most Wanted List of gossip-mongers and fan magazines. When we meet over health-food salads in his trailer outside the Mork soundstage, the subject of publicity is the first to be raised.
This week’s cover of the National Enquirer features a sleazy non-story about his marriage, sandwiched between articles on how pickled herring can make you talk more and how millions of Americans are descended from space colonists (you can tell which ones by the extra vertebra). It’s run-of-the-mill Enquirer stuff, but it clearly disturbs him, because his marriage to dancer Valerie Velardi is a prime stabilizing force in his life. He also keeps bringing up the rag’s name all week in his routines.
“I fantasize about destroying the yellow journals with satire,” Williams says in his soft, precise, almost British-inflected voice. “They write the most amazing stuff, using quotes from supposed friends about your personal life. Of course, the people I love and care about don’t believe it; most people know it’s nonsense. But my wife’s grandparents, for example, don’t realize right away that it’s fiction. They call up and ask her, ‘Are you living in the Bahamas with another boy?’ or whatever. That’s disturbing.”
But cheap shots from scandal tabloids only represent one facet of his newfound fame. As Mork, he’s a paperback book, a talking doll, a teenybopper’s dream; as Robin, he’s mobbed by photographers and fans. How does the constant attention and the paparazzi buzz affect his nervous system?
“At the beginning, I’d stop to give a few pictures; but then I realized they don’t ever give up. It fucks with your eyes; there’s one camera that shoots at ten frames a second, which almost generates epilepsy. They don’t even have to stop to reload; they’re draped in cameras and they carry a battery power pack. The funny thing is when they backpedal and start falling down. They’re like backward lemmings with flashcubes, stomping over each other.”
At first glance he seems an unlikely candidate for such media hysterics. His face is attractive in a kindly, elfin way, but hardly a macho emblem like those of friends Christopher Reeve, Bruce Springsteen and John Travolta. He favors the twill pants and baggy, floral-print shirts of Marin County bartenders, and it’s only when he breaks into bits of comic madness that you remember he’s a star. This morning he’s keeping his characters—the crazy old man who gives methadone to pigeons, the Hollywood agent—under wraps. He’s more concerned with fame.
“The hard part is keeping your own instincts alive. Walking onstage now, because of the hype, is confusing. Before you had to fight for every laugh you got; you knew that what you created was valid. Your internal detector, your shit detector, has to switch into a higher gear. That’s why I keep working out, testing myself. You can start to feel stagnant—just sit back and go. ‘Damn, ah’m funny.’ You can walk out now and say hello, and people say, ‘That’s him! Fuckin’ kid is great!’ I don’t know—I’d like to change my name and put on different faces. ‘Hi, ah’m Orlando Gisher. Two Jews walk into a bar …. ‘ ”
Williams does savor the relative freedom his fame has brought—the chance to go further out in his work—and he’s not exactly whining about his reported $30,000-per-episode contract for Mark & Mindy. But big money, like beauty, is commonplace in Hollywood, while sanity is as rare as fresh water. To keep the madness in check, he does yoga, cross-country running and reads as much as he can.
“I’m reading The Annotated Sherlock Holmes now, and that’s real strange, because you realize, hey, he really did do all that cocaine.” He does an ingenious Dr. Watson-Holmes dialogue:
“Holmes, no more!”
“Shut up, Watson! Is this shit cut with speed?”
But the most soothing moments for Williams are spent in total darkness and silence, floating like a waterlily in a solution of warm brine. After meetings with Dr. John Lilly—a pioneer in human-dolphin communication and brain research—Robin bought a sensory-deprivation tank. Now he can lie in his coffin-sized tank, buoyed by ninety-degree salt water, and screen out the world.
“The sensory-deprivation tank helps you get way beyond ‘out.’ It’s completely relaxing. After about an hour of lying there you go, ‘Oooooh … ’ You hear your heartbeat and your blood moving through your veins, and after a while, as Lilly explains, it forces your mind to turn upon itself, makes it switch off for a while. At first the mind goes a mile a minute, then it admits defeat and you go into the subconscious. Sometimes you hallucinate.” He lapses into a Vincent-Price-as-mad-scientist voice. “Ha, ha, ha, chapter two! You see little mice in leather underwear and Frederick’s of Hollywood looms before you … ” Returning to a normal voice, he adds, “It’s not a be-all end-all, but it’s good for me, given what I do.”
Sometimes, while in the tank, he’s distracted by a pawing at the door—it’s Sam, his Alaskan malamute. Robin imagines that Sam comes yearning for a taste of canine nirvana, and in describing the scene he does a quick impression of a meditating dog. I picture a horde of Enquirer staffers crashing through the door, photographing the blissed-our comic in his tank and splashing the pictures under headlines like Nab Mork in bizarre cult baptism.
As if on cue, someone knocks on the trailer door. “Robin? Time for rehearsal.”
“The danger of television,” Williams says as he finishes his salad, “is repetition.” As someone who made na-noo, na-noo and shazbot into preteen mantras and built a character from a stick figure, he’s wary of trading on past success. “You can na-noo your heart out,” he says wearily. “It would be very easy to do that. So I try to work on several levels at once, to slip in tiny innuendoes. It’s a game I play with the censors called ‘Getting Shit through the Radar.’ Yiddish is good, because the censor is Spanish. She knows what putz means, though.” (It means penis.)
Despite being a purebred WASP, Williams, 27, uses more Yiddish than a kosher butcher. He must have picked it up in recent years, because it wasn’t common in the suburb of Detroit where he grew up. His father was a vice-president of the Ford Motor Company, his family prosperous. “My life was very disciplined,” Robin says, “heavily academic and bordering on the boring.” (He attended military school for a while.) Although he has two half-brothers—they’re four and thirteen years older—Robin felt like an only child and had a lonely boy’s urge to create a repertory company in his bedroom; he would position hundreds of toy soldiers on the bed and play ventriloquist, giving voices to the rubber men.
“Inspiration is like drilling for oil. Sometimes I can think for hours and come up with nothing, and then in a few minutes it all comes, in waves, Maybe you have to go through those hours of dead time, like a drill bit piercing the shale and old sediment to get to it, the new stuff.”
When he reached high-school age, his family moved to Tiburon, California, an exclusive suburb of San Francisco. Thrust into the forefront of late-Sixties youth culture, he began to entertain his stoned classmates with routines, although he still planned a career in political science.
He attended Claremont Men’s College for a year, then went to the College of Marin and later studied theater at Julliard. He feels those years— during which he worked with the eminent actor John Houseman—paid off in crucial ways: “It gave me the grounding and allowed me to feel comfortable onstage.”
Eventually he drifted to Los Angeles and began to do his “full-tilt bozo” act in showcase clubs—often under the name Robin McLaurim Williams. He did a stint on The Richard Pryor Show, followed by the revived (and short-lived) Laugh-In. Then Larry Brezner, an associate with Joffe, Rollins, Morra & Brezner, the firm that manages Woody Allen, Robert Klein, Martin Mull and many other top comics, saw Robin work. Since it was less than two years ago, Brezner can recall the moment well.
“Harvey Lembeck [remembered by a few as Eric Von Zipper in the film Beach Blanket Bingo] was running an improvisational comedy workshop. He would throw out situations and the students would react. I watched this one kid get up, and no matter what situation was thrown at him, he never got lost. In an improv, right before the blackout, you’ve either won or lost; you either hit the big line or it lays there. I watched two hours of this kid never losing, reacting off the top of his head, working off nerve impulses—not intellect at all. Incredible. He wasn’t much different onstage then; the attitudes were the same. He’s like Holden Caulfield, a guy walking around with all his nerve endings completely exposed.”
Shortly afterward, Garry Marshall, executive producer of Happy Days, sat down with his nine-year-old son. The boy, enraptured by Star Wars, suggested a program about an outer-space visitor on the Fonzie’s turf. Marshall thought enough of his son’s idea to set the first Mork episode in motion. When Robin arrived for the audition, he was told to sit down and promptly sat on his head. Williams got the role—“He was the only Martian who applied,” says one source connected with the show—and audience response virtually dictated a spinoff. Mork & Mindy, watched by as many as 57 million viewers, became the hit sitcom of last season.
During his years as a struggling comic, Williams and his friends had a code wherein each vowed to help the others if one of them ever managed to achieve fame. Robin’s old cronies say that he has kept his promise “a hundred percent.” Indeed, they seem in awe of his talent and his good nature.
Lorenzo Matawaran, a young San Francisco comic, first met Robin in 1974. “At that time,” he recalls, “the only place for beginners to do stand-up was a club called the Intersection in the basement of an old church. Robin got up and blew everyone away, but he was meek, the way he still is, He’d do a monster set and then come sit down and ask us in that little voice: ‘Did I go over?’
“We used to have an Indian name for him: Squirrel-Boy-Who-Turns-into-Golden-Eagle-Onstage. When that seemed too long, we just shortened it to Eagle. Robin was the first local comic to work at the Boarding House, a very prestigious gig around here; he opened it up for others.”
As David Allen, owner of the Boarding House and a longtime friend of Robin’s, remembers, “Robin first auditioned for us about five years ago, and I thought he was very inventive, so I immediately booked him. Back then he was doing a version of his old man character and also a Shakespearean takeoff.
“You see,” Allen emphasizes, “Robin has a tremendously inquiring mind. He was a street performer back in New York, so he knows how to look into people’s lives, but he’s got a number of other outside interests. He roller-skates, has a very serious concern about environmental issues, has a deep and abiding interest in the theater and he gets a kick out of sports cars. Everything he does for fun seems to end up in his act somehow, because he’s a fantastic observer.”
But sometimes even Robin Williams misses a trick.
“Up until about six months ago, Robin was really into this Austin-Healey he had,” says Allen, laughing. “But then somebody stole it while it was parked in front of his house. Robin, in his quiet, serious way, said to his landlord, ‘You know, it’s funny that they got away with the car without anyone seeing them.’
“The landlord said, ‘Oh I saw them taking it.’ Robin said, ‘Why didn’t you stop them?’ And his landlord said, ‘Well, I saw them pushing the car down the street and thought it was your comedian friends just borrowing it.’”
Williams was not the only one of his crazy crowd who was headed for sitcom glory. While in Harvey Lembeck’s Los Angeles troupe, he met John Ritter, now of Three’s Company.
“I saw the way this dude was dressed,” Ritter says, “in baggy pants, suspenders, a beaten-up tux over high-topped sneakers, a straw hat with the brim falling off, John Lennon glasses with no glass in the frames, and I thought, ‘Well, this guy is definitely going for the sight gag.’ I was almost a bit suspicious. So I watched carefully, and he turned out to be the funniest guy I’ve ever seen.”
Ritter and Williams, without knowing they’d soon command awe in ABC board rooms, started hanging out together. “We’d do intelligent things like squirt each other with water pistols and fire dart guns, acting like we were fifteen. And we’d do improvisations together: he took care of me onstage, because I’d never try to top him, I headed right for the straight-man role.
“The first bit I ever saw him do,” Ritter recalls with a giggle, “was a kiddie-show host, and it was the most demented thing you can imagine. He brought these puppets onstage and did those weird voices, and wound up doing an S&M routine with the puppets that’s indescribable.”
Sexuality figures in the Williams appeal. Not only does he get a huge volume of perfumed come-ons and childishly scrawled invitations in the mail, but he also gets away with more naughty jokes and gestures on the set than anyone I’ve ever seen. At first I thought this was the old showbiz gambit called Indulge the Star, until I saw how much fun his coworkers were having. Like Mork, Robin seems to defuse sexuality of its threatening aspects, until lust appears merely to be cuddling raised to the second power. There’s a warmth to his sex humor that keeps it from turning smutty.
“Hey, this feels like therapy,” he says as we discuss sex one day in his Paramount trailer. He lies down on the couch. “Sometimes, doctor, I have this tendency to touch myself in public. I’ve done it at two awards ceremonies. It was in the national papers … I don’t know why. Because it’s there, that’s why.”
“But you must understand that it will still be there when you get home,” he says, now playing the doctor.
“Hopefully, except for the rented one.”
Soon Williams is conducting a spirited dialogue with his penis, which answers in a Señor Wences falsetto.
“Is it good for you?” his right hand asks in a deep bass.
“Yes,” his penis responds.
“You like what I do?”
“You want to touch?”
“Will you forever be my friend?”
“Oh,” says the right hand, “here comes the other hand. You like me?”
“You want more left hand?”
Robin’s like the kid to whom a teacher says: “We’ve had just about enough of your shenanigans for today!” But, of course, we never really get enough. Williams’ debut album, Reality … What a Concept, was released in June by Casablanca Records. The record was taped live at the Copacabana in New York before euphoric audiences (so euphoric, in fact, that at one point Robin gets howls for a straight line and says, “You’re laughing at nothing”), and it’s a fine showcase for his cast-of-thousands consciousness.
Examples: Two elderly Jews snort cocaine and leave a line for Elijah; a Hollywood producer interviews a “stunt bug” for a role in Kafka’s Metamorphosis; and in Williams’ most stunning piece to date, the audience enters the mind of a comic bathed in flop sweat, immured in “comedy hell.” As the comedian dies, Williams stages a titanic struggle between his ego, subconscious and rational mind, which in the space of two minutes and thirty-six seconds sheds more light on the phenomenon of bombing onstage than anything I’ve ever heard.
There’s also a revealing bit of fan-star psychodrama: kicking off an improvisation, Williams asks for the name of someone in the news.
“Robin Williams!” the audience answers, short-circuiting the bit. Williams begs the crowd for another name.
“No, no my child!” He sounds like a vampire cowering before a crucifix.
“I’m free from that now, massa Bob! Don’t have to na-noo fo’ a while!” But a chorus of Bronx voices begins a rhythmic chant: “Mawk! Mawk! Mawk!” Robin finally hollers, “Time out!” It’s the only time he does an impression of the real Robin Williams. “I have to explain one thing. I ain’t doing the Mork because this is why I perform here, to do something different.“
Robin’s hunger for the “different” is never satiated; that’s why he still performs, unannounced and unpaid, at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Here, the audience is hip enough to give him free rein, and he can do what he does best: unlock his imagination, with its Hall of Many Zanies, and let the inhabitants scamper freely onstage.
“That helps me,” he admits. “Otherwise I think I’d implode with the energy.” Williams’ live act, with its multiplicity of voices and wild gymnastics, is a kind of dance on the edge of sanity. “Sometimes it gets a little scary. Like one night my wife, Valerie, said, ‘Ooooh, that was like a little breakdown there!’ It can be very intense. When you’re really out there, releasing the tension and generating energy, it’s like a sponge bath, a whole cleaning process. Not to the point of doing a primal scream, puking on the audience and going, ‘Fuck you, I don’t know anything.’ It’s the struggle to turn frenzy into humor, and the audience, hopefully, gets off on that.”
The Comedy Store, on Sunset Boulevard, is a huge complex with three showcase rooms, teeming with comics, would-be comics, agents and humor groupies. In any given week, more than 200 comedians get their shot: it’s a Darwinian island of comedy where you can watch the process of natural selection at work. Virtually all of these Tonight Show aspirants are under thirty, or claim to be: “Don’t believe ages,” says a veteran observer. “In this town, nobody’s funny over twenty-eight.” Wandering from room to room, you can hear mumbled refrains, dimly familiar: “My high school was so tough that … ” or “Gave the dog a tab of acid and he …. ” Recurring motifs: coke, Fred Silverman, grass, diaphragms, L.A. weirdness, vibrators, New York weirdness. Yet despite the repetition, what’s truly stunning is the abundance of raw talent. It seems that every former schoolroom cutup in America is here, and most of them possess a few killer one-liners, though some have less comic flair than, say, Cyrus Vance. To the gifted hopefuls who throng in the stairwells and gossip backstage, Robin’s history is legend: in a mere two years he’s gone from an unknown working this club to a national obsession. In moments of despair, he makes their dreams seem possible.
In the main showcase room, a comedy-with-music troupe begins a slow blues jam. A weird little dude stands on a riser behind them, in shades and baseball cap, blowing harp in between throaty chuckles. As the crowd realizes who he is, the applause and shouts of “Robin!” begin.
He blows a pretty amateurish blues, but he’s only been playing a few months. (Later, when I tease him about his funk deficiencies, he blushes and says, “Yeah, white people, what a concept.”) The crowd eats it up anyhow, and when the Comedy Store Players join him onstage for a series of improvisations, the room simmers.
Working on the verge of complete exhaustion, he’s called upon to do Nixon as Richard III (“Aye, ’tis the apparition of Magruder!”). In a Civil War improv he plays Robert E. Lee as Georgie Jessel, making the surrender at Appomattox into a testimonial dinner.
His performance shows both his brilliance and self-indulgence. The first thing that strikes you is his genius for voices—he’s got the ear of a fine impressionist (as in Rich Little, not Monet), coupled with a kind of comedic empathy that helps him to create fleshed-out characters. Among recent American comics, only Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin and Jonathan Winters—favorites of his—possess the ability to breathe life into oddballs and make you care about them.
But Williams still has a weakness for the easy joke. There’s a way to predict which references will make a crowd go crazy: if you’re performing for fourth graders, “underpants” is sure-fire material. To an earlier generation, “mother-in-law” worked comic wonders. Robin, like any observant person born around the middle of the century, knows that dope and Tupperware are funny, but so do the other 300 comedians who play the Comedy Store. It’s just drug-era Henny Youngman, like: “Take my ’ludes—please.” When he works at that level, you suddenly remember he’s still in the process of defining himself.
“Robin is a neophyte,” says manager Charles Joffe. “When I made the Popeye deal with Paramount, Robin didn’t ask me the terms for three months. He just didn’t care. I don’t think he knows yet how we handled the renegotiations on his television contract. That doesn’t interest him. What interests him is his work. That’s what gives me great hope for his growth. What interests me is that twenty years from now people still care about Robin Williams.”
As of now, they’re caring noisily at the Comedy Store. The musicians are back onstage and, led by Robin, launch into a twenty-minute version of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Rastaman Vibration.” This quickly grows boring for anyone except die-hard groupies. A would-be comic sits next to me. He runs a uniquely L.A. kind of service while awaiting his break: he leads guided tours of celebrity graves. “My thirst for knowledge about certain stars,” he says, “naturally led me to the cemetery.”
I look for irony, but find none in his face. “You’d be surprised at the satisfaction a sixty-year-old woman gets from placing a rose on Clark Gable’s crypt,” he says earnestly. I ask if he’s running a tour the next night. “No,” he says, “the boneyards close at five.”
I wander around: in the kitchen, people whisper about network pilots; at the bar, they murmur about possible gigs.
After the show I say good night to Robin. He looks weary, like a one-man band after dozens of encores. “Think I’ll get some rest,” he says, and I want to say: “Please do.”
While the country looks forward to another year of Mork, Robin Williams plots his future. Popeye, directed by Robert Altman, will be a healthy challenge; Robin’s been conferring with Chris Reeve about how to make a cartoon hero into a human one. After that: “I’d like to be writing, working in films as a director and actor; I’d like to keep expanding, trying different things. To be funny in print is a real hard thing for me to do. I can do it in performing, because it’s straight out, ka-boom. But when I sit down at the typewriter, I feel like an autistic child. But you confront barriers and go beyond them. When you break through your fears—that’s an incredible feeling. That’s why I love improvisation. Whether it means shit to a fly, that’s another matter, but you’ve gotten through. It’s a journey into the unknown. So I get mad at myself when I go on power-glide.
“Inspiration is like drilling for oil. Sometimes I can think for hours and come up with nothing, and then in a few minutes it all comes, in waves, Maybe you have to go through those hours of dead time, like a drill bit piercing the shale and old sediment to get to it, the new stuff.”
The oil metaphor, in conjunction with several glasses of Chablis, leads to a discussion of America’s mood. “We’re on the verge of an election and no major political figures are emerging; people find no points of reference. That’s why everyone’s going to escapist movies. At the same time, I don’t want to go to extremes to pamper people, to go [he does a letter-perfect Mickey Mouse voice], ‘It’s okay, laugh! Don’t worry, we’ll tumble into the sea, let’s go!’ I don’t want to play clown to the lemmings.”
Hearing the chirpy voice, it dawns on me; Robin is, among other things, the Mickey Mouse for today’s kids, the gentle and playful friend who outwits the adults with his innocence. In a world that’s wondrous and banal—a kind of melancholy Disneyland with a multitude of Goofys—Robin is a welcome companion. America desperately needs an elf. He couldn’t have come at a better time.
I say goodbye to Robin Williams on a twilit boulevard. “Go, young man, and write your story,” he says. “In a thousand years, roaches will crawl over your words, their little feelers waving, and say: ‘Come on, let’s keep crawling.’ ”