Oscar-winner aims for humor laced with hope

Interview / Robin Williams

Robin Williams was completely happy. There he was, pedaling his bicycle down a country road 20 miles from his home north of San Francisco, when all of a sudden, a car pulled alongside. A kid's head popped out the window, asking "Is that Robin Williams?"

As the car drove by, he heard the adult say, "Get your head inside the car. That man is much too peaceful" to be Mr. Williams. (The comedian is known for his hyperactive style.)

"It's amazing what a little time off can do," Williams says during a recent interview. Sinking into a chair, he continues, "Guys on the street will come up and say, 'You look so much better.' It's really nice."

In one year, Williams made back-to-back films, a video for Disney, and a dozen appearances, including benefits like Comic Relief, the annual fund-raiser he heads with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg that has raised more than $38 million for the homeless.

Williams took several months off to "recharge his batteries" before starting on the movie "Patch Adams," which opens Christmas Day. Based on a true story, the movie focuses on a doctor who uses humor in his practice.

Williams's wife, Marsha, first read the script. She takes an active interest in his work and is his partner in Blue Wolf Productions. "Here, read this," she suggested one rainy Saturday, as Williams tells it. "It's a story about a real man. It has great potential, an interesting character, outrageous comedy. Yet the drama is very human.

"Marcia never says, 'This guy reminds me of you,' or 'you could do silly things in the film like you did last Christmas for the kids,' " he says. "She selects challenging roles, always with a good eye for character-driven plots."

His wife has also picked his next movie, "Jacob the Liar," based on a German novel that a Hungarian director brought to her attention.

"It's about a Polish Jew in 1944 who hears a German propaganda broadcast on the radio. He realizes that the Russians have fought the Germans back to the borders of Poland. Jacob suspects things may be getting better. He spreads the word, and the people believe the war may be ending. They think he has a radio. He doesn't, but he makes up things to give hope, first by accident, then by choice."

"Jacob the Liar" will be filmed in Poland and Hungary and produced by Blue Wolf.

Unlike many actors, Williams isn't interested in directing. "I need to have someone tell me when it's too little, or too much. Tom Shadyac directed 'Patch Adams.' He's worked with Jim Carrey on several films, so he knows about comics."

Reached later, Mr. Shadyac, agrees. "We'd do a scene as scripted, then try other things," the director said. "The first day on the shoot, Williams came to me and like a kid wanting to pitch at the big game, kept asking, 'Is it my turn now?' Sometimes when Robin would 'go off' his improvising was brilliant. Other times, it needed to be reined in."

Gus Van Sant, who directed Williams in his Oscar-winning performance in "Good Will Hunting," liked to use nonactors whenever he could. In one scene, Williams talked with a Boston landlady, who was the real thing. "It was the best stuff - creating a scene with the authentic person," Williams enthuses.

"In 'Patch Adams,' the youngsters you see in the children's ward of the hospital were patients. At first, I thought I'd just talk with one little boy. Instead, he wanted to introduce me to all of his friends. You couldn't write anything better than what the real kids said and did."

Eventually, Williams can't keep completely straight-faced when talking about his career. He tells of a time when he studied at the Juilliard School of the Performing Arts in New York and John Houseman, the actor who played so many dignified patricians, was one of his teachers.

"I remember him saying to our class, 'The theater needs you. You should be like a soldier in the army of the theater. Now, I'm going off to sell Volvos!' "

Williams says his father had the most memorable advice: "It's wonderful you're this passionate about acting, but you should have a backup profession, like welding."

When he's not working, Williams confides, he likes to drop in at small clubs and improv theaters to try out material: "Things come to life, there's an instant rapport with an audience. It sharpens your timing, and let's you know if you're on target. It's a lot more fun than welding!"

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