Thursday, Dec. 23, 1999 | 9:34 a.m.
As Robin Williams made his way over to our table, a young man had exclaimed to him that he had been a fan of his since the age of 12 and had memorized his first comedy album.
Without missing a beat, Williams acknowledged his appreciation: "God bless you, son."
But it was when I pulled out a vintage toy doll -- wearing a red space suit with an upside-down silver triangle on its chest and featuring facial characteristics with any uncanny resemblance to one of today's most recognized funny men and respected actors -- that he shot out a hardy laugh.
I quickly explained: "And I've been a fan of yours since the days of 'Mork and Mindy.' "
He shook his head in surreal disbelief as he accepted the doll. "I'd like to thank the Toy Academy," he quipped, mocking the days he described as "20 years before drugs, ladies and gentleman."
There is no denying Robin Williams your undivided attention. Whether intentional or not, he practically demands it. His dynamic list of credits has given him the ability to thrive as both an actor and a comedian. Helping him make his break into the mainstream after years of sensational standup comedy was the aforementioned "Mork and Mindy" (ABC, 1978-82).
Soon he found stardom in features, where he accumulated three Academy Award nominations (1987's "Good Morning, Vietnam," 1989's "Dead Poets Society" and 1991's "The Fisher King") before winning Oscar gold in 1997's "Good Will Hunting."
Just in time for the holiday season is Williams' newest film, "Bicentennial Man." In this interview he took the time to reveal his fascination for science fiction literature, reflect upon his friendship with the late comic Andy Kaufman and, surprisingly, revealed his longing to return to his comedic roots as a stand-up artist.
However, as he places the Mork doll in front of him, he humorously confesses: "Jesus, that is a frightening way to begin an interview."
Question: Your latest film "Bicentennial Man," is based on Isaac Asimov's short story. Were you familiar with the sci-fi author's work before production?
Answer: Oh yes. Of "I, Robot" especially. I'm a huge fan of science fiction. In high school we had mandatory readings of, like, Ray Bradbury, (Robert) Heinlein, a lot of (Arthur C.) Clarke, and I didn't read Asimov until then.
Q: So then you must be familiar with Philip K. Dick?
A: Big time! I'm a big, big Dick fan (laughing). Especially, oh God, let's see ... "Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and all the ones that followed that. Because Dick's work was so dark and with Asimov he gives a more positive vision of something so dark. He was the first writer to think of robots in a positive sense, making them more humane and moral. The robot that I play in "Bicentennial Man" is given these internal laws that he can't violate and with these laws he is given a kind of moral directive.
Q: In the first half of the film, your robot character named Andrew Martin is simply a metal machine before you begin to take on your human features. So, was that you in robotic costume or a double?
A: That was me. It had to be me or audiences would have noticed it didn't act or move like me -- you know that bull-legged walk I have. I had to wear this suit of armor costume, they had adjusted all the engineering around my body. Plus, I think I had to be in the suit in order for the film to work, because it was important to do and find all the human behaviors for Andrew. They could have built a totally automaton robot, but I think it was important to have it slightly strange from the moment the Martin family opens the box and activates Andrew, which is why I was inside.
Q: Did you feel a little restricted being encased in a robotic outfit?
A: It was like this class I took at Juilliard. It was like puppeteering. You're inside this suit and saying (muffling his voice), "All right, let's do it again." You could barely see out of the mask because it was like looking out of two (urine) holes in the snow and I'm like, "Oh, I'm sorry, we were suppose to go this way? Don't use that take then" (laughing). Peripherally, I was screwed. You start to learn how a robot will track a room before you move. You stand, scan, and then, boom, you go. Which is what they do when you look at the research for robotic movement. What they're doing is basically mapping the territory, looking for obstacles, doing a 3-D representation, and then moving. Now all they need to do is work on the speed -- which is scary to think because science is not to far off.
Q: (Sarcastically) You're pushing the age of what, 35 right?
A: (Laughing) Oh, God bless you. Actually, 48 and still pushing.
Q: Well, you have a pretty prolific career, so how would you compare your role of Andrew with other characters you have portrayed?
A: I think it is an interesting anomaly. It is not a doctor ... (laughing) for the first time in a while. Second thing is, it is a very layered piece. Extremely restraining to say the least, aside from being in the costume. He is a kind of elegant character, a bit like an English manservant in a droid, you know. But he has that observational quality to him before becoming interactive later on in the movie, which is different than anything I've done. And that is what I like about him.
Q: Was working with director Chris Columbus in the past (the two worked together the first time on 1993's "Mrs. Doubtfire") a factor in taking on "Bicentennial Man"?
A: Oh yeah, because I knew we would have this great collaboration. We work well together. Plus we both live here in San Francisco and we love to work here. The technology allows us to work here and there are great vistas and locations to shoot. Plus, San Francisco is like a character in the movie.
Q: Filmmaker Milos Forman's latest film, "Man on the Moon," depicts Andy Kaufman's life story, which has brought back and even caused some controversial attention. What was your relationship with the late comic?
A: I knew Andy, but I couldn't say that "I knew" Andy. I only had one conversation with him where I actually think I talked to "him." Most of the time it was like (in his voice of Kaufman's best-known character Latka from the television show "Taxi"), "hello, it is very nice to see you. Are things OK with you?" I played his grandmother on stage in Carnegie Hall. I sat there for an hour and a half and watched him kill an old lady and bring her back to life. I sat there and watched him do his greatest hits. At the end I peeled off the make-up and he said, "my grandmother, Robin Williams!" Then he said, "and the Easter Bunny, now the Mormon Tabernacle Choir!" (smiling oddly). Then he took everybody for milk and cookies at Staten Island.
And I went and visited him in the hospital when he was having kemo and I brought him these tapes of Laurel & Hardy and stuff. Yet everyone kept saying (his cancer) was a sham, he's a fake, he's just doing another thing because months before he said he was a Born-Again Christian and was going to marry this girl. So when I went to see him in the hospital I knew he wasn't faking. I could see it was real. The kemo alone had him pretty drawn.
Q: The film leaves the idea that he is still alive and that his death was another gag.
A: Everyone still thinks that. There are even articles I was reading recently that talk about his nervous breakdown. Andy should have worked for the CIA because he was a master at disinformation. He had this whole thing about putting things out there and then going another way. My favorite moment was the first time I met him with Elaine Boosler. We went to see professional wrestling, which I had never been to, and it was amazing. Half the people who watch pro wrestling know it's a joke, while the rest are going (as Williams jumps out of his seat, acting like a fanatic), "Kill him!" And I think that was a kind of metaphor for Andy's unusual style of humor.
Q: What kind of effect do you believe the comic revolution that you and other comedians like Kaufman -- who certainly contributed to the scene -- has had on today's brand of comedy?
A: The face of comedy has changed more times than "Sybil" (laughing). It has come and gone with being very political, being not political, too sarcastic, cynical, and now it has many different faces. It's Eddie Izzard, it's Chris Rock, its all these amazingly different people doing this extraordinary wild stuff. I look at Eddie Izzard and I kind of think, "gee, that's like me." And I don't know if anybody is doing anything like Andy had done. I don't think anyone can, really. He was one of a kind.
Q: There has been talk that you may be returning to stand up comedy. Are those plans true?
A: (In a devious voice) It is not a plan, it is in motion. I'm going back to find a theater or a club and going out for three or four months to build an act up. You know I've done guest appearances and little things for benefits, which allows you about five minutes or so. But to go the distance, an hour or hour-and-a-half, or like Billy Connolly who I saw in London do two-and-a-half hours of comedy, that's what I'm looking to do.
Q: Are these going to be announced shows?
A: Oh yeah, you have to tour because that's where you really find out what works. Once you take it outside the city and start playing in other parts of the country, you really get an interesting feedback that changes your perceptions. It's been 12 years since I did my last stand-up, which was "Live at the Met," and that was just, wow ... a wild night. It is one thing to get your little fixes here and there at clubs that I've gone to with friends and simply improvised, but I miss that full-length amount of time you're given. And it'll be interesting for me to go back ... literally like going back and running a marathon. When you go out and do a longer show, you find out what you have after 30 minutes, which is kind of the marking point if you've got the staying power for another hour or so.
The people I admire are like (George) Carlin. He's so good and has got such a point of view that is honed to an edge. And like Chris Rock who goes out to Miami and finds a club where he works for three or four weeks and then takes it out around the country. That's what you got to do.
Q: You know, Carlin plays in Las Vegas all the time. Do you think you'd pass through fabulous Las Vegas?
A: Oh God, I hope not. I mean I'd try, but the big showrooms scare me. When I see the ladies in the bicycle pants I just want to go (jumping to the ground and looking up) "Mirror!"
Q: This must mean you're taking a break from film projects?
A: Yeah, I have to take at least three months off just working the clubs, and that'll take the time in getting the pieces together. And then go out and just do it and you know, see what happens. That's the next step for me.
Q: Your colleagues and friends Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg have hosted nearly every Academy Award ceremony in the past 10 years. Are they scared to give you the Oscar telecast?
A: Scared? I'm scared. I wouldn't want that. I don't want Gregory Peck going (easily slipping into Peck's somber voice), "You touched your penis in front of the world."
Q: Speaking of the Academy Awards, where do you keep your Oscar?
A: It's on my wife's desk. It's very humbling because it's got bills and things like that underneath it like a paperweight (laughing). The Oscar is saying, "I'm an award, why do I have to do this?"
Post-script: As the interview came to a conclusion, Williams' 7-year-old co-star Hallie Kate Eisenberg (best known as the little girl in the recent commercial campaign for Pepsi) rushed up and asked, "What is that?"
Referring to the Mork doll sitting in front of Williams, he begins to laugh. "That's a doll," he explains, "that's me. Whatever you do, don't ask because I can't get you one."
She then takes his hand and leads him off to a group nearby, where she asks him to reenact a dance they had done on the set of "Bicentennial Man." After the brief, yet entertaining hula song-and-sway routine by the two, the room applauds: Another well received performance from the man who has made entertaining an audience his second nature.