Robin Williams burning brightly: There was just one human being who could do this thing

Searching for the real Robin Williams today? It's not in his films, but in his brilliant, adrenalized comedy

Published August 12, 2014 4:14PM (EDT)

Robin Williams, July 21, 1982, in Los Angeles.         (AP)
Robin Williams, July 21, 1982, in Los Angeles. (AP)

In 1981, “The World According to Garp” was filmed in a series of northeastern locations including Fisher’s Island, which sits out in Long Island Sound, part of New York’s Suffolk County but closer to the Connecticut coastline.

I was on a boatload of press shipped over there for a brief visit during the filming. We were promised nothing, I’m sure, but Robin Williams found his way down to us, glibly answered a few questions about the work (“It’s a fairy tale written on acid”) and then, to my astonishment, began a series of improvisations or half-rehearsed bits. I remember him pretending to be the inventor of Jack Daniel's: “I’ve discovered a formula to make the world stupid.”

People on movie sets are notoriously tired and cranky; one got the feeling that Williams was doing comedy not for us but for himself. Some people are just more comfortable working. They know what to do when they’re working. When they’re not, they’re unsure. Williams later turned out to be absolute rubbish at having time on his hands.

He would deliver some good movie performances, but this – so early – wasn’t one of them. I saw the movie with a first-day crowd. It was an audience more primed for Mork than Garp.  They couldn’t get their minds around a story that was mostly pain and fear, with comic eruptions, rather than the other way around. Even without the burden of those expectations, Williams didn’t know how to anchor that material.

“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Nobody really knows who said that, but what it means is that, if you can do comedy, you can do anything. Think Jerry Lewis in “King of Comedy,” Rickles in “Casino,” Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in a motley pile of serious roles.  Sarah Silverman has a dramatic role right now in “Masters of Sex.”  You get the feeling she’s done far more difficult things.

Acting, Williams stretched himself taut. He did good guys. He did heavies. Now he’s done dying. The ultimate stretch? I loved him but didn’t always buy him. Even in “Good Will Hunting,” where he’s deeply committed to the part, there’s something a tiny bit off, some part of him that’s parked somewhere else, whispering, “This is all I get to be? The same guy for two hours?”

For me the movie gem is “The Fisher King,” because it lets him do what he’s best at: everything at once. He’s funny. He’s crazy. He’s in agony. He’s broken. He’s inspired. He’s in love. He sings “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” to Amanda Plummer, and the sheer, improbable hopefulness of it rips your heart out. Finally, a dramatic role he can throw himself into and still play the fool.

Because the real Williams, in a way, is to be found on a comedy album like “Reality – What a Concept.” He’s adrenalized, battling a raucous club crowd that still wants Mork. He takes improv prompts from the audience (“Harrisburg” and “Studio 54”) and builds a Shakespeare drama on the spot. “It is a strange and vile night! Strange to work the night shift and be so loaded.” He brings in the ghost of Einstein: “I give you E=MC squared and you fuck it up!” And throughout the set, he’s diving in and out of split-second diversions -- “Joan Sutherland sings Rod Stewart!” -- exhibiting so many personalities that 10,000 Maniacs seems not an understatement.

This is a man – we later learned -- with no impulse control, but here he makes that work for him. Near the end, he unleashes a tour de force called “Come Inside My Mind,” in which he simulates his own melting psyche:  a manic control room trying to guide him, the comedian, through an onstage nosedive.  In less than three minutes, he unfurls a blizzard of personalities, tiny child voices and monster sounds from his unconscious. He drags up Rosebud-like childhood traumas, smarmily sings “Send In the Clowns,” berates himself for doing “pee pee ka-ka no substance” all with the pedal jammed to the mat and the comedy car up on two wheels. In a way, there really is nothing about a dramatic role that’s as difficult. There are at least 150 living actors who could do justice to “Hamlet.” There was just one human being who could do this thing.

Who knows what it was like to be that guy?

In the next few days, people will be kicking over piles of his work, looking for clues. I’ll save you some time. There’s a hard-to-love movie called “World’s Greatest Dad.” It involves asphyxiation. It has Williams saying, “Ernest Hemingway once said all he wanted to do was write one true sentence. He also tried to scratch an itch on the back of his head with a shotgun.”

Those are just lines somebody else wrote.  Almost any role, of necessity, had to scale Williams down, chop away the parts that didn’t fit. The full Williams, blazing brightly, was so much more. Imagine Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as a comedy. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

By Colin McEnroe

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