FILMS

All play and no work

Robin Williams lets his inner child go wild

Brian D. Johnson December 28 1992
FILMS

All play and no work

Robin Williams lets his inner child go wild

Brian D. Johnson December 28 1992

All play and no work

FILMS

Robin Williams lets his inner child go wild

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Last Christmas, in the movie Hook, Robin Williams played a fortysomething Peter Pan who went back to Never Never Land to find his inner child. This Christmas, it seems, he is still there—an overgrown kid gleefully at large, and larger than life, in the Toys “R” Us playground of Hollywood fantasy. As the voice of the genie in Disney’s current cartoon hit, Aladdin, Williams lets his manic imagination run wild, with the animator’s art turning the actor’s verbal mimicry into a kaleidoscope of characters. Now, as the star of Toys, Williams is on the loose in yet another land of make-believe. He portrays a childlike inventor in a utopian toy factory, an allweather Santa’s workshop where work and play are synonymous. After playing versions of the man-child in Hook, Aladdin and Toys, said Wilhams, “I don’t have to worry about my inner child. I have an outer child—I’m supposed to find the inner adult.”

Interviewing Wilhams is like talking to several people at once. He is constantly slipping in and out of different voices, playing verbal Ping-Pong with himself.

And the jokes start flying from the moment he sits down to talk. He showed up for a recent Maclean’s interview in Los Angeles wearing a black baseball cap embossed with the word THINK (which he seems to do faster than most people) and a green T-shirt bearing a portrait of surrealist

painter Salvador Dah. “It’s -

a promotional shirt,” he said, suddenly sounding like a TV pitchman. “Great Artists for Nike!”

Wilhams makes comedy seem like child’s play. Manic improvisations spül from his mind like quicksüver, short-circuiting the official channels of whatever game he happens to be playing—whether he is performing on a con-

cert stage, a talk show or a movie set. Recently, however, Williams has shown that he is capable of restraint, submerging himself in screen roles ranging from a doctor in Awakenings (1990) to a derehct in The Fisher King (1991). 7oysdirector Barry Levinson, who cast him as a renegade armed forces disc jockey in

Good Morning, Vietnam five years ago, says that the comedian has matured as an actor. “He’s more confident,” Levinson told Maclean’s. “He’s probably just getting comfortable with the business, in terms of the camera, the moments and the downtime. He’s finaUy beginning to figure out how it all works.”

In Toys, Williams says that he tried “to find a

drier level of comedy” than his familiar highgear performance mode. His character, a toy designer with SUly Putty for brains, “is very serious about his playing because it’s his life and his work,” Williams noted. And he added: “He doesn’t know a lot about anything else. He’s kind of an emotional savant that way.”

The whole movie takes place in an artdirected fantasy world. A tale of paradise lost (and regained), it is set in and around Zevo Toys, a famüy-run fool’s paradise where Leslie Zevo (Williams) is clown prince. The factory has roUer-coaster corridors and waUs painted in toy-town colors. Created by Oscar-winning Italian designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, the sets offer a whimsical jumble of French surrealism, Italian futurism and Russian constructivismaU dancing to a Dada beat.

Zevo Toys is an industrial Eden. But trouble arrives when Leslie’s uncle Leland (Michael Gambon), a military madman hungry for a war, inherits the factory. Leland begins manufacturing real war toys—remote-control weapons to be used in real wars, with a Nintendo generation of hand-eye co-ordinated chüdren at the controls. And as tyranny takes over toyland, Leslie stops being a pacifist and mobilizes his own windup army to defend the free world.

With Joan Cusack cast as a deadpan doü and Robin Wright as Leslie’s perky princess bride, the comedy bounces along with a pleas -antly absurd, off-kilter rhythm. But then the bumper car becomes a tank. Despite the antiwar message, a prolonged and crashingly violent battle scene turns the movie itself into a kind of pyrotechnical war toy. And after screenings in Los Angeles, writer-director Barry Levinson found himself having to defend his movie from critics accusing him of overkül.

Levinson, who has been trying to make Toys since 1980, says that the movie m evolved into a cautionary

tale about the dangers of « Nintendo warfare, what he ï caüs “war without con-

science.” And Williams leaps to the director’s de-

fence. “Tiny little weapons

doing horrific things with no sense of human consequence—that’s what he’s getting at,” said the actor.

In the movie, the spectacle of windup toys and stuffed animals getting blown to bits in battle is oddly gruesome. “Toys are still a symbol of innocence to chüdren,” said Wüliams. “That’s why the battle is too much for

some people. But we’re so desensitized to violence. So, to make a point, you blow up a toy alligator or a stuffed cat.”

Williams, who has three children (aged 1, 3 and 9), says that he has never outgrown his fascination for toys. “Under the guise of buying them for my children, a lot of times I buy them for myself,” he said. He is especially keen on computer games. But, he added: “It’s strange and somewhat horrific in the sense that you can buy games that duplicate missions from the Gulf War. You’re blowing up a figure or a box. But inside those columns of burned-out tanks are men. They’re in there, burned alive.” When Williams discusses war, he gets serious. He talks about the atrocities committed by preteen soldiers in countries like Cambodia and Somalia. “We have to say we cannot tolerate this anymore,” he said. “In essence, you must take away their toys, disarm these 12-yearolds, to get the food through, so an entire generation doesn’t starve to death.”

Williams, 41, says that when he was a boy growing up in Michigan and Illinois, he had a standing army of 10,000 toy soldiers. The son of a Ford Motor Co. executive and his wife, he was raised in suburban affluence. It was a solitary but happy boyhood, Williams recalls. “I was an only child—it feeds the hell out of comedy,” he said, adding that he “came out of the comedy closet” while enrolled in first-year economics at Claremont Men’s College near Los Angeles. “I went to these improvisation classes, and all of a sudden I was so much fun. I thought this is what I was meant to do.” Dropping out of Claremont, he studied drama, then paid his dues on the stand-up comedy circuit—until a role as a frenetic alien on the sitcom Mork & Mindy made him a star. In Hollywood, his life became a blur of alcohol, cocaine and partying. But, sobered by the 1982 drug death of his friend, comedian John Belushi, and by the birth of his son Zachary, now

nine, Williams retreated to his 600-acre ranch in northern California. He weathered other crises during the 1980s, including a painful divorce (in 1989 he married Marsha Garces, his former nanny) and his father’s death. “Thank God I got to know my father before he died,” said Williams, “because that kept me from being out nude in the woods banging a drum.”

Now, Williams says that his life is under control. And his only addiction appears to be work. As an actor, he has had an uneven career, from the ill-fated Popeye (1980) to his Oscar-nominated performance as a prepschoolteacher in Dead Poets Society (1989). Aladdin, meanwhile, gives his comic genius its most expressive outlet to date—although he never appears on-screen. “I just did it because I wanted to be in a Disney cartoon,” said Williams, whose taped improvisations served as rich inspiration for the animators. “They kept calling me back to do more,” he recalled. “There’s something really extraordinary about it. If you say it, they’ll draw it, except for the really blue things. Yeah, the European cut of Aladdin—‘Just rub me, I’m waiting.’ ”

As the genie, Williams deflates Disney orthodoxy with a refreshing irreverence. And the movie has won him a new generation of fans. “It’s great to have little kids coming up to you,” he said, “especially if it’s your own children. But if I do one more children’s movie, that’s it. Then, it’s time to build the Lego House. ‘Lego the Movie! He’s got blocks! He’s back!’ ”

Currently, Williams is playing five characters spread over 6,000 years in Being Human, a movie being shot by Scottish director Bill Forsyth. He plans to star in a film biography of San Francisco gay activist Harvey Milk, who was murdered in 1978. And he will appear in drag in Mrs. Doubtfire, a comedy about a divorced man who dresses as a housekeeper in order to see his children.

Suddenly, in mid-interview, the door of the hotel room bursts open and Dustin Hoffman walks in. Hoffman, who co-starred with Williams in Hook and who won an Oscar for Barry Levinson’s Rain Man, has come to say hello and offer some support.

“So, you’re working,” says Hoffman.

“Hyping,” says Williams. “You talk to Barry?”

“I just went into his room and made a speech,” says Hoffman.

“About art?”

“About Toys. Because I heard that it’s very controversial. You go out of the mainstream, boy, and wham! If you want to know what is behind the resistance to Toys, take a look at the line in The Los Angeles Times about Under Siege. ‘A lighthearted bloodbath.’ What a phrase. That’s what you’re up against.”

The two movie stars trade stories about filming in Morocco and swap bad jokes. Hoffman tells one about sex between a flea and an elephant. Williams counters with one about a mouse and a giraffe. “How’s your kids?” Hoffman asks. “Great,” replies Williams. “Cody’s walking. He’s like Cagney.” Acting out a hilarious imitation of a toddler on the march, he growls, “ ‘Hey, look at me, I’m a baby! Get outta my way! I got an erection and a full load o’ shit.’ Then he’s got this high-stepping thing. ‘Look, I’m a German baby, I’m one Aryan baby, and I’ll kick the shit out of your Lego.’ ”

Finally, after about 20 minutes, Hoffman leaves. “Go back to work,” he says. But for Robin Williams, the line between work and play is there to be violated.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Los Angeles

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