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
Forget the screen. In his last decade, Williams found his true joy on stage. The Juilliard-trained actor made his Broadway debut in A Bengal Tiger in Baghdad, for which he grew out his beard and paced around in a cage. He resurrected his stand-up act and said yes to any offer he could squeeze in. He did improv in tiny theaters where he gamboled with 20-year-old students like equals, and agreed to comedy sword-fighting at the Renaissance Faire. He wanted to entertain.
On free days, he'd hunt for stage time. One evening in 2006, he marched into the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Hollywood and asked if there was any room for him to perform that night. The house manager could only squeeze him into an 11 p.m. open mic hosted by Anthony Jeselnik. Williams promised to come back in four hours, and when the manager asked why he was even there in the first place, Williams replied, “Because at the Comedy Store, they'll laugh at anything I say.” By contrast, the younger, hipper UCB crowd, who'd grown up on Mrs. Doubtfire and now rolled their eyes at Old Dogs and Night at the Museum, would be harder to please.
“He had a big coke problem back in the day—ladies and gentleman, Robin Williams,” trumpeted Jeselnik. Williams burst out onto the tiny stage.
The first few minutes were awkward. It wasn't his room, and everyone knew it. Williams rushed through softball gags about Scientology and Arnold Schwarzenegger and the audience laughed hard and forced, more like they were laughing at the idea of laughing at Robin Williams than at anything he was actually saying. Eight minutes in, Williams shook off his nerves and got sincere.
“There are comedy gods. I'm here tonight to sacrifice myself,” said Williams solemnly. “Yes, I have made movies that offend.” Now, the chuckles were real. “Be careful and take care of yourselves on this crazy night as you're drinking, and I know you have been. That's why I came here tonight to talk to you young people. Young people who've come out for a free show—so why the fuck am I worried? Because you've paid nothing.” Finally, he's won them over with honesty.
“Tonight is a special night for me because I've come here to see you. No, seriously, dude—just give me some love,” he continued, working himself up as though preaching a mock sermon. “I've come to talk to you, my tragically hip friends! You, you blasé motherfucker! No, I see it, I know he's going, 'I don't care for you. I want to see something new, not an old hairy comedian. That's okay. The fact that you're dressed like a prison guard is okay.”
Williams winded down by thanking the crowd individually. They adored him, maybe even the scowling one in the front row he dubbed “my bald man, my Brokeback Mountain motherfucker.” He'd proven that he still had it.
Most importantly, he'd proven it to himself, at least for one more night. “Believe in whatever legend you can, because the end is near,” he beamed, flush with the fleeting love a performer can find only on the stage. Then he gave himself a comedian's epitaph. “Thank you, thank you for letting me die here. To die here is an honor.”
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