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Robin Williams: my most frustrating star interview, personal memories

I always felt a bit distressed when an editor told me: “You’ve got an interview with Robin Williams.”

Robin Williams at the parties, and personal pictures.
Robin Williams at the parties, and personal pictures.Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images
Always on stage, always on, some great memories of Robin Williams
Always on stage, always on, some great memories of Robin WilliamsPhoto by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Even worse, “You have an exclusive one-on-one with him—alone.” Uh oh.

I knew that yes, this interview would be perhaps the most entertaining hour of my life for that year, but I also knew that I would come away with hardly anything to use in a story. At least when I was with my fellow roundtable compatriots, we could play good-cop, bad-cop and try to channel this genius’s hyperbolic nature into some sensible and usable material for a story.

I used to think that he was doing it all on purpose. Then, I realized that no, this is how he always is: he is always on.

And, many stories have been written about his wild-and-crazy interviews, so there was nothing new to that. What was hard was to find the real Robin Williams.

In 32 years of interviewing him through his ups and downs, I may have caught a few glimpses of him, but I don’t know if we’ll ever know.

Yeah, we go way back. In 1982, he was going to headline our Homecoming Game’s Gator Growl at the University of Florida. He granted an interview with our school paper, The Independent Florida Alligator, which was behind a bar off campus. I wasn’t doing the interview, but a lot of us sat in on the bar conversation and got to shake his hand, and it was pretty exciting just before he pissed off most of the administration by saying “penis” too many times and talking about his “Mr. Happy.”

He recalled laughing, “I remember that infamous Gator Growl, all the alumni were furious and then the next year they hired Bob Hope. I remember doing the interview and I brought a stripper to the party afterwards. She passed out. It was pretty wonderful because I was sitting with my manager and here she was and all you guys were all dressed up in tuxedos to celebrate afterwards. They made a toast and everyone raised their glasses, she raised hers and just fell over."

In the dozens of times I met up with him since then, he was reminded that I was the reporter from Gator Growl (although I really wasn’t, I let him think that), and it became a point of reference for him. He didn’t care if I was interviewing him for Entertainment Weekly, US magazine, The Los Angeles Times, Sci-Fi.com, USA Today or a po-dunk site like Zap2it, he always seemed to enjoy our interviews, and at least pretended to remember me.

I got to interview him during the Oscar buzz for his first truly dramatic role in “Awakenings,” and later talked to him about running around naked in “The Fisher King.” I got to go on the set of “Hook” where he warned me that Dustin Hoffman had an intense garlic-filled diet to keep people away from him as a pirate, and I went to the elaborate cast party of “Toys” where all the fanciful sets were still working.

I talked to him about the possibility of a getting an Academy Award nomination for playing an animated character after his genius Genie role in “Aladdin,” and what it was like dressing up as a woman in “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

And what it was like doing Shakespeare in “Hamlet” and playing gay in “The Birdcage” and playing Teddy Roosevelt in “Night at the Museum.” I got to sit with him and his close friend Christopher Reeve at a tribute to the “Superman” star after his injury. I also was backstage at one of the first Comic Relief tapings when Whoopi Goldberg pointed to he and Billy Crystal on stage and said, “Those are the two funniest men you’ll ever meet.”

At a few parties at the Toronto International Film Festival, where some of his more obscure indie films premiered, we could get a bit more personal. We talked about turning 50 (around the time of “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”), we talked about how he’d want to be remembered (after filming “Final Cut”), and we talked about his legacy (after “Death to Smoochy.”) He turned a press conference about his Holocaust movie “Jakob the Liar” into a hysterical stand-up comedy routine in Toronto.

And, I got to hold his Academy Award, soon after he won it. We were both in Aramni tuxes and he let me hold his Oscar just a few minutes. I have the whole conversation on tape.

"Here, you can touch it if you're nice, don't, not too hard. Easy."

Williams was ecstatic as he walked up the red carpet to the Miramax party at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was thinking out loud as I walked with him—holding his heavy statuette as I pressed PLAY on my mini-cassette recorder—about where he would put the darn thing.

"The bedroom, well, that's a bit too much. Ever since I was nominated I was looking for a place. I was thinking the library, but people don't usually go in there, and I can't say, 'Oh, come in and look at my libary, oh, and look at that old thing, that's just my Oscar,' I mean that would be pretty obvious. I heard Jodie Foster has hers in the bathroom, but to look at it while taking a dump, that's too strange."

Later, when having lunch with Robin and his second wife, Marcia Garces, she told me where the Oscar finally landed: “It's on my desk, and it holds the mail. It's the first room you come to in the house and he plopped it down there when we came home that night and it hasn't moved from there since."

I felt comfortable enough to eventually talk about his addictions during a sit-down interview for “One Hour Photo” where he plays a particularly creepy character. By then, he was clean again after a public sobering-up and he confessed to be about another addiction—the Internet, and particularly gaming.

I had an exclusive for about 24 hours and then he told the same story, almost verbatim, to Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”

He told me that he was funnier sober than when he was high, during the frenetic “Mork from Ork” days that I remembered from my childhood. “I would party like crazy after the show,” Robin said. “One time I was so hung over the director kicked me because I was on the floor because I would nap and he had to kick me to give me notes. But, did it make me funnier? No."

He connected with the bland “One-Hour Photo” character because he said, “It's about a man who's so lonely that he lives a life vicariously through these people's photographs and thinks of himself as part of their family."

Williams foresaw changes in the business of Hollywood. Contemplating whether actors could become obsolete some day when computers fully animate characters, Williams slipped into a robotic voice when interviewing him for “Robots” (after he did “Bicentennial Man” and “Happy Feet”). He said computers won’t ever replace actors. His experience is that computers are also faulty.

"Artificial intelligence is there waiting for you. It's just like the GPS in my car. I was on the Golden Gate Bridge and it said, 'Take a right turn.' No can do. Not possible."

He paused, and said, “That’s good. I’ll remember that.” He did, and he repeated that analogy in interviews for years afterward to show his suspicion of machinery.

It’s amazing how so many people were touched, great and small, by Robin’s compassion and caring. My friends from high school remember him signing a shirt for them, fellow journalists fell into depression, other friends remember seeing him performing in nightclubs.

His close friend, writer Bruce Vilanch, wrote on Facebook: “The only things I can think of to say are totally inappropriate, which Robin would have loved.” (Robin is in the documentary “Get Bruce” about the celebrated writer.)

And Barbara Eden wrote: “He was a TREMENDOUS comedic talent & WONDERFUL ACTOR! I loved his work! It is moments like these when you can truly say "gone too soon." He was a modern day legend & will be remembered for many, many years.”

And Sally Kirkland: “I had the joy of acting with Robin in Harvey Lembeck's comedy improv class. he always made me look good. I asked him if i could manage him (I was managing actors at the time) he said he wasnt ready. i said "I can get you on merv griffin this week) a week later he was on his first gig "Happy days" playing Mork. Thank you robin for making us all laugh and laugh and laugh and then cry. You were a miracle of a performer.”

Everyone always talked about how he made them laugh.

And so, it wasn’t always so bad to come away from an interview with him and really not have much to write about. At least I had a smile.

“I’d love to play naked again, sure,” I remember Williams saying, leaning back in his chair, plucking at a hair poking out of his opened shirt revealing his hairy chest. "Especially if allowed me to show all this fur, the movie will become like 'Gorillas in the Mist 2' or something like that."

Williams then turned to his agent, who entered the room signaling the end of our interview and barked, "Hey, why wasn't I asked to audition for 'The Country Bears'?"

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