Suffolk: Robin Williams was Hollywood’s court jester - as arts correspondent Andrew Clarke discovered
11:32 12 August 2014
The death of Robin Williams has left a huge void in Hollywood. He personified the word hyper-active. He was a standup comedian, a comic actor and a serious actor. But, the sheer scale of his public persona masked the man himself – as we have since found out.
I met him on two occasions but gained no real insight into what made him tick. However, I was treated to two outstanding personalised standup shows which had me crying with laughter. You have to wonder whether his larger-than-life personality, this urge to perform, to make people laugh was his defence against the world.
I interviewed him on promotional tours for Hook and for The Birdcage. At both events, which lasted 45 minutes, I asked two questions before the PR person appeared to say time was up. The remaining time was spent with Robin Williams delivering a stream of consciousness routine which had him impersonating Jack Nicholson, referencing the then Prime Minister John Major on the hustings before transforming himself into Madonna as a dance choreographer.
What will remain with me is the speed at which his mind worked and his inventiveness. At one interview, which was being recorded, a technician crawled surreptitiously towards a trailing microphone lead to restore a faulty connection. Williams spotted him out of the corner of his eye and immediately stopped being Arnold Schwarzenegger and transformed himself into a Southern Baptist preacher, stretching out his hand and screaming: “Reach out and you will be saved. Hallelujah.” The hapless soundman looked rather alarmed.
Both interviews had me wondering how on Earth I was going to write it up. I had been royally entertained but had virtually nothing that would translate into a sensible interview. In the end I wrote colour pieces about what it was like to interview a man who defied all attempts to interview him.
Although his big screen roles in Good Morning Vietnam, the genie in Aladdin and the eponymous Mrs Doubtfire will long remain as his legacy, his real genius was as a stand-up comedian. As his interviews proved his mind was endlessly inventive. His best comic roles were always improvised. The radio studio scenes in Good Morning Vietnam were shot as if Williams was presenting a real radio show and for his role as the genie he was shut in a recording booth with a random series of objects which were essential to the plot and told: ‘We don’t mind what you do but make sure you mention these things.’ The result was pure magic.
His comedy performances will be how we will remember him but Williams was also a very talented dramatic actor. It was a side of him he rarely showed. His performances as a teacher in Dead Poet’s Society, as a sinister voice on the end of a telephone in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and as an obsessive stalker in One Hour Photo were beautifully realised as was his Oscar-winning role as a psychiatrist in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s extraordinary debut movie Good Will Hunting.
No doubt we will hear more about Williams’ demons in the days to come but for me he will remain a dazzling comedian who had an unmatched ability to make people laugh. I count myself very lucky to have had two private performances.
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