Robin Williams: Don't Laugh

Here's the dark side of the comedian

Robin Williams during One Hour Photo Press Conference with Robin Williams and Michael Vartan at Park Hyatt Hotel in Century City, California, July 27th, 2002. Credit: Vera Anderson/WireImage/Getty

Admit it. Robin Williams had lost his comic edge, buried it in a cushy life and tear-jerking movies. "The one that seemed to piss people off the most was Patch Adams," says Williams, referring to the 1998 film in which he played a doctor who dressed like a clown — complete with red rubber nose — to cheer his dying patients. "With that one, the reaction was, 'Oh, my God, you prick!' I was like, 'Hey, lady, did the clown bite you? I'm sorry.'" Then, last year, things changed. Williams turned fifty. He took leave from his comfortable life in San Francisco with producer wife Marsha and their kids — Zelda, 13, and Cody, 10 (son Zachary, 19, by his first wife, Valerie Velardi, is a student at New York University) and went back to stand-up for the first time since 1986. He did a national tour that culminated in a solo concert on Broadway, now airing on HBO. He took on tough subjects — even the sense of tragedy that has permeated the country since September 11th. He fired on George Bush: "A lecture from him on business ethics? That's like getting a facial from a leper." In Hollywood, the change was even more dramatic. The feel-good stuff that won Williams an Oscar as the shrink with a ready hug in Good Will Hunting vanished in 2002. He was a foulmouthed star of kiddie TV in Death to Smoochy. In Insomnia, cop Al Pacino chased him for killing a teenager in mad lust. And now, in One Hour Photo, Williams takes his creepiest role to date as Sy the Photo Guy, the quiet nut job at the mall who develops your pictures and keeps copies for himself. What was driving Williams to show his dark side with such a vengeance? It had to be more than penance for Patch. With Williams, it's best to get right to the point.

Is this Dr. Robin or Mr. Williams I'm talking to?
Ah, the Jekyll and Hyde reference.

I often get it mixed up. Is "Mr." the bad seed?
Yes. One has a degree, the other works at night.

So I'm talking to your Sy character from One Hour Photo?
Yes, the quiet one. I had to keep a watch on Robin when we were filming. I wanted the character to remain Sy, and whenever we'd try to improvise a scene it became a danger for me, because Robin would show up.

Your director, Mark Romanek, said you'd release energy between takes by doing dialects.
I'd do it because there was this dangerous thing that would happen where I'd turn into Method Man: It would get so tight and contained. Mark said, "Relax, blow it out."

They should do a film of your outtakes.
"America's Funniest Man as a Stalker: Let's watch the fun!"

Do you worry at all that people might begin to see you — the real Robin Williams — as creepy?
That's OK — then there'll be fewer people coming up for autographs. I don't want to creep out kids, because I still like when they come up and say, "You're the Flubber guy."

Do you have a scary side?
We all have a dark, nasty side, not just a hungover fuck-you side. The lethal ape. The violent side that you control that can come out or can be watching late-night soccer, where all of a sudden you get this rage going.

Al Pacino told me he envied your ad-lib chops.
Oh, he's got them. I've seen them. During Insomnia, I saw his eyes light up when he said this line, which they didn't use in the film. He said, "What were you doing with her?" And I said, "I was a mentor." And he said, "Yeah, you meant ta fuck her." It got a huge laugh on the set. And I thought, "Ah, you've been bitten, haven't you, Al?"

Your most acclaimed films, from Dead Poets Society to The Fisher King, are usually about hope and redemption. Why this trio of perversity?
To do the exact opposite. They're about loathing, murder, chaos . . . and beyond, about outsiders who never get back in.

How well did you understand Sy?
Very well. Having been an only child, it's not like you don't know about living vicariously through other worlds, or finding a fantasy fixation, like me growing up fascinated with military things.

You've spoken of your own father [a wealthy Detroit industrialist who died in 1987] as being absent and remote. Was Sy's behavior in this movie a way of bringing up a side of your father?
That would be therapeutic, wouldn't it? "Is this your own father coming back? Are you working out on film issues of parental abuse?" God, I don't know. I wouldn't take it that far. There is a desperate sadness about Sy that hits you hard, such a loneliness.

Is doing drama more cathartic than stand-up?
Yeah. I can get the laughs doing stand-up, but then there's the desire to explore the deepest, most painful stuff. The single saddest line in One Hour Photo is, "Someone cared enough about me to take my picture. I exist." That just dropped me. Maybe because I have very few pictures of myself as a kid. I have a picture of me sitting on the couch next to my mother [who died last year] holding a toy machine gun. At that point, she wasn't drinking; everyone looks very nice. I asked, "Mom, you have any other photos?" "Not really."

Is there anything in your past you wouldn't want to go through again?
A divorce. Divorces are awful. Painful for children. But I guess I had to go through that to get to the place I'm in now.

Have you ever hit your kids?
If they're hurting each other . . . sometimes it's more a frightening tone of voice that I get, which I got from my father. That scares the shit out of them and makes them cry.

Have you ever really scared anyone?
 couple of people. I've done violent things to things, where I destroyed an object rather than cause harm to a person. And that's been frightening — to myself, too. I've shattered things. It's learning to find outlets for that — for me it's long-distance cycling. Which is also a great meditation. I like going for thirty-mile bike rides, I can mellow my ass out.

Will we see your comic side onscreen again?
It's not just going to be dark, nasty fuckers for the rest of my career. Most animals have a defense mechanism. [Comedy] is mine. It's my offense and defense . . . .

OK, let's try a few questions: Change one thing about your first sexual experience?
The length.

Repeat one drug experience you've had?
Ecstasy with Marsha was quite lovely. I'd do that again.

If you could be the lover of any person other than your wife?
Susan Sarandon.

Retract one lie you've told.
"No, I'm not married."

The toughest question you could be asked?
"If you were in prison, would you be the bitch?"

What would you say in a commencement address to graduating students this year?
Wear sunblock. Get canned goods. Be prepared. A small survival rifle. And knowledge. Learn as much as you can about skinning, drying and desiccating beef. You're walking into, as the Chinese say, interesting times. "We all have a dark, nasty, violent side — the lethal ape."