Robin Williams Heads for the Hills
This story originally appeared in the September 16th, 1982 issue of Rolling Stone.
The hills are alive with the sound of hawks and the sound of stranded aliens and the sound of a swayback horse and the sound of a television-network executive and, not surprisingly, all of them are coming from Robin Williams’ mouth. “E.T. phone home, E.T. phone home,” Robin Williams is hollering to the hills, on a peak atop his 600-acre, top-secret hideaway ranch. Or, spotting a hawk rising and falling: “Sometimes you see them swooping down and grabbing things, a squirrel or a rabbit.” As Squirrel, or Rabbit, in tragic voice: “Why me? Why me?” As Hawk, tough and zen: “It was your time.”
What is this? Robin Williams, well-known stimulus junkie, at rest in the California hills? Robin Williams, who’ll tell you about the pleasures of Hollywood, going off in grubby running shorts to the fishing hole, feeding a stray cat and watering the plants? Robin Williams relaxing? Is that not a contradiction in terms?
A giggle of acknowledgment from Robin, turning lobster red in the sun, content.
Yes, he says, he is here, on the mountain, to relax. He feeesh, he says. He run up the hill. He run down the hill. He play with the computer. He let the clothes fall on the floor. He do nothing.
“What do you call your ranch, Robin?” some kid in Texas yelled out a few months ago, when Robin was on the road.
“Call it the Fuckin’ Ranch,” Robin hollered back.
“What do you raise there?” the kid asked.
“Raise beef jerky,” said Robin. “Cows get so old, they just shrivel up and we sell them as jerky.”
Sic Transit Comedian
Have you ever noticed, every time you read a story about Robin Williams, there are millions of voices coming out of Robin Williams’ mouth? This is because every time you talk to Robin Williams, millions of voices come out of his mouth. There’s ABC-TV president Anthony Thomopoulos, as he might have sounded when he called to cancel Mork & Mindy: [deceptively sweet little voice] “Mr. Williams, you’re dead.” “What?” “You’re dead.” Or, the Temptations of Hollywood — and by this we do not mean the soul group — when Robin went through his “massive fuckup stage” [crazy fun-house voices]. Or, friend Eric Idle advising Robin, at his newly acquired ranch, on how to rest: [sotto voce] “Look, that’s a flower, asshole. You don’t need to talk into a microphone when you can smell a flower.”
Makes it damn tricky to find Robin, those voices. Slip him a question, wait for an answer, and it comes back in comic tongues, a smoke screen, a camouflage. “What is he, this Robin Williams,” Robin Williams will cackle and say. “Is he an actor? Is he a fish? Is he an ah-ni-mal?”
There are lots of voices about Robin Williams these days, too. The voice of his wife, Valerie Velardi, blunt and straight-forward when she talks about the other women in his life. The voice of his former Mork & Mindy costar, Pam Dawber, when she talks about his anxiety attacks during the early days of the show. The voice of one of his managers (and there are many) calling from the coast the day after the news that the inquiry into John Belushi’s death will be reopened, saying that Williams, reportedly with Belushi on the night he died, may be questioned by the police. It’s not a social call, this call. He wants the tapes of our interview, the manager says in a decidedly nervous voice; he wants to know what was said.
A tense time, with the Belushi matter, for Robin. And a transitional time in the rest of his life.
Mork & Mindy, which made rainbow suspenders and “Na-noo, na-noo” part of the cultural landscape, folded, leaving Robin in that precarious career slot, Guy Who Used to Have His Own Show. Robin’s second film (his first dramatic role, Garp in The World According to Garp) was about to be released, and Robin was waiting nervously for the results; his first film, Popeye, having done only so-so.
Also, a time of change in his personal life, Robin insists. The heavy-partying days — the days when he felt he had to go to “every party, every disco, every club” and his weight ballooned up from drink–are now over, he says. The times when he used to stay out a couple of days in a row, treating himself to anything he damn well pleased, are over as well, his wife adds. Oh, they both say, they still go to parties, but now they understand the need for balance, the “nurturing” benefits of country life. It is quieter now.
Things are different, he has been changing, they have been changing. He says. She says. Their voice.
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