Film and TV

Misused by Hollywood, Robin Williams Found Joy on Stage

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Tue, Aug 12, 2014 at 7:44 AM
click to enlarge Robin Williams on the set of World's Greatest Dad - MAGNOLIA PICTURES
  • Magnolia Pictures
  • Robin Williams on the set of World's Greatest Dad
In Robin Williams' last great film, 2009's World's Greatest Dad, a black-as-pitch comedy directed by his old friend Bobcat Goldthwait, he played a miserable monster—a teacher who manipulates his son's death for his own popularity. His boy (Daryl Sabara), the school loser, has accidentally strangled himself while masturbating, and Williams is so desperate to preserve whatever dignity his kid had left that he fakes a suicide note which turns his child into a martyr (at least in the public eye, which is all that counts). It's a ghastly role, and one that could have only been played by him: a performer at once sad-eyed, vulnerable and craven for laughs.

One wonders if Williams would enjoy a chuckle at the public mourning that's followed what appears to be his own suicide. After all, he'd been a punchline for a decade—the once-Academy Award-winning actor who'd simply been cashing paychecks for roles in kiddie movies and pandering boomer fare. Almost defensively, he was the first to crack a joke at his career choices.

“You have to make fun of Fathers' Day or Bicentennial Man,” said Williams during his 2009 stand-up tour. “Popeye, I stand by.” In that same set, the jokes got even bleaker. During a bit about his over-reliance on GPS, Williams riffed about his navigation system trying to convince him to drive off the Golden Gate Bridge. “'I said, 'Why? Have you seen my movies recently?'” The GPS responds, “Robin, you should end it now. Things are not going well. Just take the right turn. I'll cover for you.”

Hollywood had a hard time figuring out the best way to use Robin Williams. The irony is that the infamous motor-mouth might have worked best as a silent movie actor, where he could have made full use of his rubber limbs and face. He was too wild and too, well, himself for most comedies, and his better dramas and dramedies tended to cast him against type. That is, until they became his type: the sensitive loon with the expressive eyes. He was excellent at playing the tragic clown, yet there was something unnerving about how hushed he'd get in his serious pictures, like an animal in a trap figuring out its next move. It made us uncomfortable because it felt like looking straight into the soul of a performer who was too anxious to please.

And then in the last decade, Hollywood got worse. The studios cut back on Williams' niche and green-lit fewer middlebrow heartwarmers and mid-priced family hits. The ones they did make were louder and dumber, and Williams got louder and dumber with them. People saw those movies and left the theaters tsk-tsking about what a sell-out Williams had become. He made low-budget, good movies too—like World's Greatest Dad—but in today's theatrical market, they mostly went ignored.

“I have two choices: Go on the road doing stand-up or do small, independent movies working almost for scale,” admitted Williams to Parade Magazine last fall as he announced his return to television with The Crazy Ones, which CBS canceled this spring after one season. “There are bills to pay. My life has downsized in a good way.” He sold his house in the Hollywood Hills for $869,000 and tried frantically to unload his 640-acre estate in northern California. His Xanadu had three pools, a bass fishing pond, a vineyard, and an asking price of $29.9 million. He couldn't find a buyer.

“People walk away from you,” acknowledged Williams. But despite a second battle with addiction and sudden replacement heart valve surgery (“It's wonderful to have a cow valve. If you don't mind the grazing, it's quite invigorating,” he quipped), he was still too energetic to wait around for his old audience to return.

Next: How Williams found solace in an unlikely place

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