Here’s what first comes to mind when I think about Robin Williams. No, not any of his crazy antics. Not the riff he did with that pink pashmina scarf on Inside the Actor’s Studio. Not his unbelievably hysterical take on the invention of golf on one of his HBO specials. Not his television alien Mork. Not his screaming greeting in Good Morning, Vietnam, nor his spirited voice-over for Aladdin, nor his brilliant appearance in drag in Mrs. Doubtfire, his turning Popeye three-dimensional, nor his sincere straight men in The Birdcage, Awakening, Good Will Hunting or Dead Poets Society. Not his chilling bad men in Insomnia or One-Hour Photo. Or his half-mad man in The Fisher King. And definitely not his most forgettable character, the washed up children’s TV host in Death to Smoochy. When I think of Robin Williams, I remember the first time I interviewed him for Playboy in 1991—eighteen years ago. He was borrowing director Barry Levinson’s house in Brentwood and after we spent an amusing few hours talking he walked me to my car in the driveway. I got in, turned the key, and nothing happened. I tried again, and this time the engine coughed and sputtered but didn’t catch. I looked at Robin, shrugged, and said I’d probably have to make a call to get it jump started. “That’ll take you half a day,” Robin said. “Let’s see if I can give you a push down the driveway.”
“You want to push me?” I said. My car, a 1975 Fiat Spider convertible, wasn’t very big, but I wasn’t expecting one of America’s most treasured talents to make such a physical offer.
“Sure. I’ll push, you turn the key, we’ll get you going.”
And that’s what I think of when I think of Robin Williams. Him in my rearview mirror pushing my green fiat from behind as I rolled down Barry Levinson’s driveway until the engine caught and I waved my hand in the air as I drove away.
I didn’t see him again until eleven years later when he was promoting One-Hour Photo and his 90 minute HBO special. That time it was for Rolling Stone, and we concentrated on his more serious side. After all, he had also appeared that year with Al Pacino in Insomnia. But you couldn’t talk to Robin Williams and not ask him off-beat questions, just to get his take on things. Nobody has a sharper, quicker mind. Here’s a sample of our outtakes.
You’ve hung out with some pretty impressive people—actors like De Niro and Pacino, athletes like Pele and Lance Armstrong, thinkers like Oliver Sacks…
WILLIAMS: Who looks at my comedy as voluntary Tourettes…
Well, De Niro wasn’t looking at your comedy in Awakenings. There is that other side of you, the serious side, which we’ve seen a lot of on screen in the last decade. Did you learn from De Niro’s power of silence to help give you the strength to downplay these serious characters?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, he is amazingly powerful. Brando gave you that dangerous feeling, his unpredictability. Sy in One-Hour Photo was kind of an homage to the big man himself. When you’re playing someone contained, it’s like, what could the fucker do? That’s good to keep in mind with any character. The postman: he could go at any moment. Peter Weir taught me that years ago with Dead Poets Society: that you don’t have to say anything to be fascinating. Telling that to a comic is a bit like, you don’t have to move to actually make a point. Like, what? It’s a very Buddhist thing to know, but it’s very powerful.
Did you see any resemblance to De Niro’s Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver in Sy? A softer, gentler Bickle?
WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. Town Car Driver. Travis finds a purpose at the very end, but this guy was as lonely as Travis.
Sy was someone who could hardly function with other people. He had no capacity to socialize or make friends. Not exactly the Robin Williams we’ve grown to know and love.
WILLIAMS: People expect one thing from me, being out there and outrageous. And then I came in so laid back, people were waiting…and that kept the focus in an external way. People were seeing me and going, ‘Wait a minute, this is the crazy guy, the wild one, and he’s not doing anything. When’s he gonna do something?’ That worked subliminally on people.
Well, let’s get to the off-beat questions. What rock star has impressed you?
WILLIAMS: I met Dylan once; he tried to pick my brain. He asked me these random questions….
Whose brain would you like to pick?
WILLIAMS: For a couple of hours I would love to talk with Stephen Hawking.
Whose brain would you like to have had?
You once told me that the three most cherished mementoes you owned Einstein’s autograph, an English naval cutlass your father gave you, and a carved netsuke. Do you still have them?
WILLIAMS: Einstein’s autograph I had to give back to Van Dyke Park. The cutlass I still have. And the netsuke.
Have you added other mementos since then?
WILLIAMS: My brother gave me a beautiful binocular microscope. And the camera that my step-grandfather used in WWI that came with pictures of him near the front line. As prized possessions, those are cool.
If you could be successful in another profession, which would you choose?
WILLIAMS: Quantum mechanics.
Now that you’re closing in on 60, has your body changed?
WILLIAMS: Just hairier. I met Koko the gorilla and she hit on me, that was scary. She tried to take me in the back room and the trainer went, ‘Koko no.’ True. She saw me and went, ‘Whoa…who’s the little hairy man.’ When she signs, it gets very intimate. She starts signing very small signs. She pinched my nipples and that was it.