Robin Williams: In Looking For Laughs, 'You Have To Be Deeply Honest'
Originally published on Tue August 12, 2014 4:45 pm
Comedian and actor Robin Williams says a woman once came up to him in an airport and said: "Be zany."
"Pardon?" he asked.
"Be zany," she insisted.
"It's that thing — they want you to be that thing," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2006. "And it's like, 'No.' Sometimes it's fun, and I'll play if the moment's right, if there's an opportunity. And if not, I'll talk straight with you."
Williams was known as a brilliant comedian, mixing manic improvisation with rapid-fire impersonations. He was found dead Monday in his home in California. The Marin County Sheriff's Office said he appeared to have died by suicide due to asphyxia. Williams, 63, had struggled with depression and with cocaine and alcohol addiction.
Williams was born in Chicago and studied acting at the Juilliard School. He got a breakout TV role in the sitcom Mork & Mindy. In 1997, Entertainment Weekly dubbed him the funniest man alive.
Williams had a long film career playing both comedic and dramatic roles. Among his films are The World According to Garp, Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, One Hour Photo and Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar.
In 2013, he briefly returned to television, starring in the short-lived CBS sitcom, The Crazy Ones.
We'll listen back to excerpts of Williams' 2006 Fresh Air interview.
On taking his characters home with him
I don't carry the characters around when I'm doing the movie, because it can be quite frightening for your family to come home as those people. ... I did that one time with a movie The Secret Agent. ...
In The Secret Agent, it's basically a character that was admired by Theodore Kaczynski, which is some fan mail you don't really want to open. This is a man who is a chemist and who specializes in making bombs and despises humanity.
I was kind of thinking about the character, and my wife said, "Stop!" Because you get that very kind of dead-eyed look, like ... "I really don't want to be here. No, I mean, the planet, not just this room." And it was — it's frightening, and I didn't want to do that to my family.
On scaling back improvisation during scripted films
I like the discipline. ... Years ago, I was doing The World According to Garp, and I improvised. And I started off just improvising like crazy, and George Roy Hill made a face like a weasel in a wind tunnel, and then I went, "Not good?" And he went ... "Just say the words." And it really helped to focus, [to] put all of [myself] into that. And also [be] freed up by that and find the behavior with that.
Occasionally you can improvise — use that as a base and go off from it. But if a script is well-written, you really don't have to. Like with Good Will Hunting — [there was] very little riffing there, because it was such a precise piece that you didn't need to.
On pursuing comedy after college
I [was] led to comedy as a survival mechanism, especially when I left school and went back to San Francisco and couldn't find acting work and saw this thing and it said, "comedy workshop." And I went, "Hmmm." It's like syntax repair, interesting.
So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was standup comedy, so you don't get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo. And then I started to realize, "Oh." [I started] building an act from there.
And then you went from the workshop to actual clubs, which, at that time, were usually music or folk music clubs that put comedy on almost as interstitials between the acts. And it was pretty wild, I mean, even the workshop.
We'd have comedy night after they had an evening of lesbian poetry, which brings in a really interesting audience for comedy — especially if you're a male standup. And it starts to — it builds up, you know? Performing comedy in San Francisco to begin with is pretty wild. You've got to — you've got the human game preserve to play off of. And it's a lot of great characters everywhere. You work off that and then you play the rooms, and eventually you get to a point where you're playing a club that is a comedy club, with other comics. And it's like, "Oh. Now you're among brethren."
On how his theater training helped his standup
Having been trained at Juilliard, I could enunciate and be offstage. And it kind of freed me up to work the audience. It was more like an anti-heckler defense, because if someone said something, I could come out in the audience.
And they're going, "What are you doing out here?"
"I know where you live."
And you could kind of change perspectives and kind of keep it going.
[The] first time I did a paying gig was at a club in Orange County called The Laugh Stop, and the whole sound system blew out. And so all of a sudden they said, "Go on." And I went up there, because I didn't need a mike to begin with, I'd just kind of work the crowd until they got the sound system back up. And it really kind of helped build a style that was more like, use anything, anywhere — and with the improv background, if anyone said anything, to go off on it.
On the dark side of comedians
Oh, they have a dark side, I mean, because they're looking at that. In the process of looking for comedy, you have to be deeply honest. And in doing that, you'll find out here's the other side. You'll be looking under the rock occasionally for the laughter. So they have a depressed side. But is it always the sad clown thing? No. But I find comics to be pretty honest people in terms of looking at stuff from both sides, or all sides. ...
I volunteered to be on the cover of a — I think it was Newsweek, for their issue on medication. ... And when the guy said, "Well, do you ever get depressed?" I said, "Yeah, sometimes I get sad." I mean, you can't watch news for more than three seconds and go, "Oh, this is depressing."
And then immediately, all of a sudden, they branded me manic-depressive. I was like, "Um, that's clinical? I'm not that." Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh, yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh, yeah.
I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, "Whoa." And then other moments, you look and go, "Oh. Things are OK."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's off this week. We were all stunned yesterday by the news that comedian and actor problems Robin Williams was found dead in his home in California. Williams had struggled with depression and with cocaine and alcohol addiction. The Marin County Sheriff's office said his death appears to be a suicide. He was 63. Today, we'll listen to Terry's interview with Robin Williams. He was born in Chicago and studied acting at the Juilliard School. He got a breakout TV role in the sitcom "Mork and Mindy" and soon became known as a brilliant comedian, mixing manic improvisation with rapid-fire impersonations. In 1997, Entertainment Weekly dubbed him the funniest man alive. Williams had a long film career, playing both comedic and dramatic roles. Among his films are "the World According to Garp," "Good Morning Vietnam," "Dead Poets Society," "the Fisher King," "Aladdin," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "One Hour Photo" and "Good Will Hunting" for which he won an Oscar. He briefly returned to television last year, starring in the short-lived CBS sitcom "the Crazy Ones." Terry spoke to Robin Williams in 2006.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Robin Williams, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've played a couple psychologists - I mean, you played the neurologist, Oliver Sacks, and you played a psychologist...
ROBIN WILLIAMS: Yeah, he was a very good friend.
GROSS: ...Yeah, in "Good Will Hunting." But I'm wondering if you see yourself as a psychologist, in a way, as an actor because, I mean, what you have to do is really get into somebody's mind when you act.
WILLIAMS: Very much, and it helps to read about all that like - even doing a character like Perry in "the Fisher King," you have to really kind of go through and read all the documentation and look at the tapes and the things of posttraumatic stress and there's a lot of - yeah, as an actor, you get to explore all sorts of behaviors - some of it aberrant and some of it normal and some of it, you know, quite unusual. And it helps and - to be aware of that and to observe that and to bring as much detail as possible.
GROSS: I mean, one of the things you're famous for his always having like a hundred people inside of you and often...
WILLIAMS: Oh, that is very strange.
WILLIAMS: But for me, it's crazy to do this on radio - American radio, you know, after I found it difficult to do. But what - what?
GROSS: But here's what I'm wondering. Since you always seem to be traveling with a coterie of people inside of you.
WILLIAMS: A package of people.
WILLIAMS: It's a cheap posse.
GROSS: If there's always - whenever you do a character - whenever you do a character in a movie, if you feel they always have a counterpart inside of you someplace?
WILLIAMS: No, I don't know if they always have a counterpart. I think that maybe afterwards you find that. But I don't carry the characters around when I'm doing the movie because it can be quite frightening for your family to come home as those people.
GROSS: Yeah, I bet.
WILLIAMS: I did that one with the movie "the Secret Agent." I came home - in "the Secret Agent" it's basically a character that was admired by Theodore Kaczynski which is some fan mail you really don't want to open. But that he - this is a man who is, you know, a chemist and makes - specializes in making bombs and despises humanity. I was kind of thinking about the character, and my wife said stop, because you get that very kind of dead eyed look like I really don't want to be here. You know what I mean - the planet not just this room. And it frightened her, and I didn't want to do that to my family.
GROSS: You know, you obviously like improvisation a lot. What's it like for you when you're doing a movie where you're supposed to be following the script and you are following a script. Do you find that...
WILLIAMS: I am.
GROSS: restricting or do you like that discipline?
WILLIAMS: I like the discipline because it forces you to kind of - years ago I was doing "the World According to Garp," and I improvised. And I started off just improvising like crazy and George Roy Hill made a face like a weasel in a wind tunnel. And then I went - not good - just say the words. And it really helped to, you know, focus, put all of yourself into that and also be freed up by that and find the behavior with that. And occasionally, you can improvise - use that as a basic and go off from it. But if a script is well written, you realize you don't have to, like with "Good Will Hunting" - very little riffing there because it was such a precise piece that you didn't need to.
GROSS: Well, you mention "Good Will Hunting." Why don't we hear a scene from "Good Will Hunting?"
GROSS: And this is a clip where - you play a psychologist whose wife has died.
GROSS: And there's a hole at the center of your life, and your counseling a kind of working-class kid who is actually quite brilliant in terms of math, even though he's only working at the University in a kind of janitorial position. And you're actually both helping each other in this therapy relationship because he's bringing you more in touch with your feelings and you're kind of counseling.
WILLIAMS: It's pretty symbiotic in what we're doing.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
WILLIAMS: It kind of builds off of both, and it's, you know, almost parental in that way and yeah.
GROSS: And he's - there's a relationship he may or may not be building with a girl. And you're trying to encourage him to move forward on that. So anyways let's see the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOOD WILL HUNTING")
MATT DAMON: (As Will Hunting) I went on a date last week.
WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) How'd it go?
DAMON: (As Will Hunting) It was good.
WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) Going out again?
DAMON: (As Will Hunting) I don't know.
WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) Why not?
DAMON: (As Will Hunting) I haven't called her.
WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) You're still an amateur.
DAMON: (As Will Hunting) I know what I'm doing. Yeah. Don't worry about me. I know what I'm doing. Yeah, but this girl is like, you know, beautiful. She's smart. She's fun - different from most of the girls I've been with.
WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) So call her up, Romeo.
DAMON: (As Will Hunting) Why? - so I can realize she's not that smart - that she's [bleeping] boring? You know, this girl's like [bleeping] perfect right now. I don't want to ruin that.
WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) Maybe, you're perfect right now. Maybe, you don't want to ruin that. But I think that's a super philosophy, Will. That way you can go through your entire life without ever having to really know anybody. My wife used to fart when she was nervous. She had all sorts of wonderful little idiosyncrasies. She used to fart in her sleep. (Laughter). One night, it was so loud, it woke the dog up. (Laughter). She woke up and was like, oh, was that you? I said, yeah. I didn't have the heart to tell her. Oh, God.
DAMON: (As Will Hunting) She she woke herself up?
WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) Yes. (Laughter). But, Will, she's been dead two years, and that's the [bleep] I remember. It's wonderful stuff, you know? - little things like that. Those are the things I missed the most - those little idiosyncrasies that only I knew about. That's what made her my wife. And boy, she had the good on me, too. She knew all of my little peccadilloes. People call these things imperfections. But they're not. Oh, that's the good stuff. And then we get to choose who we let into our weird little worlds.
GROSS: That's Robin Williams and Matt Damon in a scene from "Good Will Hunting." That's - now, that's the movie you won the Academy Award for.
GROSS: Was it - did it seem like a stretch for you to do the movie?
WILLIAMS: No, I mean I was just excited that they offered it. I mean when I read it I went, this is a piece that has such depth. And when I met the boys I went, OK, you know. And then they actually took flack for it because people thought that they didn't write it but they did. And you realize it's based on, you know, family members. Like, Matt's mother is a developmental psychologist, and Ben's father is a bit like the character - Matt's character - this, you know, kind of maverick genius who went to MIT and then ended up working at a theater company with Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman. So all this stuff was part of it. And no, it wasn't a stretch. It was just a great exploration. And the idea of playing a psychiatrist but also a guy who's led - you know, who's coming out of it - I mean, who's - the loss of his wife pretty much knocked him on his ass and set him back drinking and kind of, you know - and then coming back to deal with this boy who is brilliant, you know, intellectually, you know, far out-stretching anybody else, but emotionally really blocked. And you know, he's a victim of a lot of, you know, not necessarily - I mean physical abuse, and you realize taking him through that - walking him through that in a weird way pulls me back, too. I had given up - you know, I was teaching but I wasn't really practicing as a therapist.
GROSS: You did a trilogy of recent films in which you were bad guys or very troubled. Two of them were dramas - "One Hour Photo" and "Insomnia," and one was a comedy, "Death To Smoochy."
GROSS: I'm wondering if - was that a conscious choice on your part to head to the darker side?
WILLIAMS: It was unconscious at the time to realize...
WILLIAMS: (Imitating Darth Vader) To go that way - come to the darker side, Robin. It was - they just came, and I thought these are interesting. I'd never had a chance to play them before and especially with "Insomnia" - to work with Pacino - (imitating Al Pacino) hoo-ha - that was...
WILLIAMS: (Imitating Al Pacino) I don't know, Rob. It's weird. I could - how was that take?
It was wonderful. They weren't rolling.
(Imitating Al Pacino) Oh, that's good.
But to work with him was the gift, and "Insomnia" was - this idea of playing this kind of a psychopath and the idea of someone who tries to win you over. I mean the sociopath-psychopath double bill was fascinating for me to explore that type of behavior and not have to do time.
GROSS: (Laughing) Right.
WILLIAMS: And also with "One Hour Photo." That - a lot more people seem to be deeply disturbed by that - about the access to their private life through, you know, their photographs which, you know - it's weird because now a lot of those labs are closing out as digital cameras take over but every person I talked to who worked at a lab said they all had a wall of shame where they had duplicated weird photos of grandma in a thong and put them on the wall. And it was like, come over here, Bob. Look at these. And that's, you know, the truth about the situation. You get - you know, people were very disturbed by that.
GROSS: Yeah, it was - I really liked your performance in this movie. And you played somebody who runs one of those one-hour photo booths in, like, a big, like, drugstore kind of store.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, in one of those big kind of mall outlet stores where the lighting is so bright, even, you know...
GROSS: And your life is so kind of empty in it...
WILLIAMS: Very much.
GROSS: That you become totally involved in the lives of - you know, of the people whose photos you develop...
WILLIAMS: Yeah, he basically has a...
GROSS: ...Particularly this one family and their family photos.
WILLIAMS: ...Family by proxy. And he tracks their life through their photos and he thinks of himself as part of the family. And the sad thing of when you see the news (unintelligible) - they'll show somebody who snaps. And they'll go, he always seemed so regular. And you go, what's that guy like - and that loneliness and that idea to live another life by, you know - by proxy - by photograph.
DAVIES: Robin Williams speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 2006. We'll hear more in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and we're listening to Terry's 2006 interview with Robin Williams who died yesterday at the age of 63.
GROSS: Was the kind of improvisational, eccentric humor that made you famous ever considered a problem? And here's what I'm asking - here's what I mean by that - did you behave in that kind of way, with a lot of like, zany characters popping out from you in - when you were young? At times that were considered inappropriate like - like in school?
WILLIAMS: Not at all, I was very quiet. No, no, no - in school I was very quiet and very kind of, you know, I went to an all-boys private school for high school. And then went to a public high school in San Francisco in 1969, it was pretty much, it was like the yin and yang of education. So I never really started to even be funny openly on that level - I was a closet comedian for so many years. And the idea of finally just letting it out was in the senior year of high school, where they had like, a play where you could make fun of everything. And that was the first time I really had a performance. I was serious about a student - as serious a student as you could be. You know, Cum Laude Society and the whole thing. And an athlete so it was all kind of, you know - go ahead. And I remember the motto of my private school was - Mens Sana In Corpore Sano - in sound mind, in sound body. It's a bit like the school in "Dead Poets Society." And I was one of the students going, yes, you know? And then, luckily I had a few teachers - a history teacher who told me that, you know, history is one of the great black comedies of all time; it's just on who's writing it. And all of a sudden I went, wait a minute - I can use these skills. And then when I went to college, that's where it really came out big time and a chance to perform at an improv theater company - mainly to meet girls. As you'll find out from a lot of people, when I talked to Rod Steiger years ago, he said, I went to an acting class not necessarily to act, but to meet women.
But you know, you get the idea that, you know, it started then, but no, there weren't - and it still isn't. I mean people - a woman came up to me in an airport one time and said, be zany.
I went, pardon?
They want you to kind of, be that thing, and it's like, no. You know, sometimes it's fun and I'll play if the moment's right if it's like, you know, if there's an opportunity, yeah. And if not, I'll talk straight with you - we can talk about that. Be cool.
GROSS: So do you think of yourself when you were younger as having been quiet or inhibited, or both?
WILLIAMS: Quiet and inhibited; both, yeah, I think. Yeah. (Laughter) I think I was just learning. I'm quiet, I'm an only child; so it was like, you know, going,
OK let's just learn where we are now - and moving back and forth between Detroit and Chicago. And you make a group of friends - sorry, lose those; moving over here now. And so you learn to kind of adapt. And you take your time, you kind of work the room slowly.
GROSS: It sounds like you really went from one extreme to the other. From inhibited to, you know...
GROSS: ...incredibly uninhibited, yeah.
WILLIAMS: Yes. Very much as Oliver Sacks's voluntary Tourettes. You know, you - just the sight of Ann Coulter, you know...
WILLIAMS: Except occasionally I get a laugh, you know? You know, they're actually using her saliva now as an anti-venom?
WILLIAMS: There are people are going, I was bitten by a cobra - Here, we have some of Ann Coulter's saliva - even the cobra's going, wow, she's effective.
GROSS: Now, before this did you know that you had a gift as a mimic? That you could do voices and accents?
WILLIAMS: A little bit. I used to, for my mother I could play my grandmother, which would even Freud would go, (in animated voice) don't do that. Be very careful when you imitate the relatives who aren't your parents (ph).
And I would do my grandmother - (in animated voice) oh, Sonny boy, how y'all? I'm down here just sittin' in Memphis watching wrestling in a teddy.
And my mom would be like, oh, that's wonderful - stop.
You know, that was the first kind of, you know, playfulness and imitating. You know, you always start imitating family members and - it was pretty cool.
GROSS: What kind of roles were you cast in in college? This is - we're talking Juilliard here, is this Juilliard?
WILLIAMS: Oh, when I actually started - yeah, Juilliard, you know, all different types of roles. I remember we did a production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" and I was one of the rustics, you know, the kind of the guys who were, you know - (in animated voice) the union guys - in the middle of the Shakespeare play you know, they're doing their play.
And I also played a fairy which was - and a dancer. Peaseblossom (ph) and Houseman (ph); I remember seeing him laugh big time, which was like watching Buddha blow up so it was pretty wonderful. And then we played all different roles you know, from Tennessee Williams, "Night Of The Iguana," I played an old character and it was - you know, you do the whole gambit. But that was also why I started to play a little bit more and you know, realized that I had more of - I'm more of a character-comedian than the leading man, who I went to school with - you know, Chris Reeves and a lot of people. Bill Hurt, Mandy Patinkin - they were all there at the time. And you know, hard-core, intense actors. And I'm like, oh that's cool but I'd rather play.
GROSS: Now, how did that lead to comedy?
WILLIAMS: I think it led to comedy as a survival mechanism, especially when I left school and went back to San Francisco and couldn't find acting work and saw this thing, like it said, comedy workshop. And I went, hmm, it's like, syntax repair - interesting.
So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church and it was stand-up comedy. So you don't get to improvise with others, but I started off doing ostensibly just, it was like, improvising but solo. And then I started to realize oh - and building an act from there. And then you went from, you know, the workshop to actually, clubs, which at that time were usually music or folk music clubs that put comedy on as almost like, you know, interstitials, in between the acts. And it was pretty wild.
I mean even the workshop, we'd have comedy night after - they had an evening of lesbian poetry, which brings in a really interesting audience for comedy; especially if you're a male stand-up. And it was kind of fun to see that, that builds - and performing comedy in San Francisco to begin with is pretty wild, you know? You've got the human game preserve to play off of, you know? And it's a lot of great characters everywhere. And you work off that and then you play the rooms and eventually, you get to a point where you're playing a club that is a comedy club with other comics and it's like, ah, now you're among your brethren.
GROSS: You got started doing stand-up comedy in what, the '70s probably right? Or '80s?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. I mean, yeah - the '70s. Mid to late '70s, yeah.
GROSS: So it's kind of like the early days of the whole comedy boom. So...
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it was like the revival and like, it started off kind of small and like, little clubs that were like, ostensibly usually music clubs that would have comedy. And then later on, when I went to New York, there were literally like the comedy clubs like the Improv and then in LA, The Comedy Store but, yeah.
GROSS: Who were you then? Like, what was your style on stage, like before working in...
WILLIAMS: (In animated voice) I was still Robin Williams.
What the style was? It was just kind of - early on, I realized that I didn't need to use a mic (in animated, loud voice) having been trained at Juilliard, I could enunciate and be offstage.
And it kind of freed me up to work the audience and kind of - it was more like an anti-heckler defense because if someone said something, I could come out in the audience, you know, like I'm, (in animated, loud voice) what are you doing out here? (Laughing) I know where you live.
And that you could kind of change perspectives and kind of keep it going. First time I did a paying gig was at a club in Orange County called The Laugh Stop and the whole sound system blew out. And so all of a sudden, they said, go on.
And I went up there because I didn't need a mic to begin with. I just worked the crowd and kind of - until they got the sound system back up. And it really kind of helped build a style that was more like, use anything, anywhere. And with the improv background, if anyone said anything, to go off on it. Like, one time in a New York club, some woman yelled out Dr. Roof - she was trying to say Dr. Ruth but she'd had five gin and tonics - and I started doing Dr. Roof, who was like, a black sex therapist (in animated voice) man say foreplay, you not done. Protection? Get away from me that's my protection, straight edge razor.
But it was all part of building a style that was pretty loose. And then later on, you would start to put structure to it. By the time I did "Night At The Met," it was pretty - it started to have, like a flow and kind of a structure, but up until then it was pretty freeform.
DAVIES: Robin Williams speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2006. We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. Williams died yesterday at the age of 63. Here's Williams singing the song "Friend Like Me," from the Disney film "Aladdin." I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRIEND LIKE ME")
WILLIAMS: (Singing) Well, Ali Baba had them 40 thieves, Scheherazade had a thousand tales. But master you're in luck 'cause up your sleeves you've got a brand of magic never fails. You've got some power in your corner now. Some haevy ammunition in your camp. You got some punch, pizzaz, yahoo and how. See all you gotta do is rub that lamp, and I'll say - Mr. Aladdin, sir, what will your pleasure be? Let me take your order, jot it down. You ain't never had a friend like me. Life is your restaurant and I'm your maître' d. Come on, whisper what it is you want. You ain't never had a friend like me. Yes sir, we pride ourselves on service. You're the boss, the king, the shah. Say what you wish, it's yours true dish. How 'bout a little more baklava? Have some of column A, try all of column B. I'm in the mood to help you, dude. You ain't never had a friend like me. Can your friends do this? Can your friends do that? Can your friends pull this out their little hat? Can your friends go poof? Well, looky here. Can your friends go abracadabra let 'er rip and then make of the sucker disappear? You got me bona fide certified, you got a genie for charge d'affaires. What you wish, I really want to know?
DAVIES: Coming up, we continue our 2006 interview with Robin Williams who died yesterday in an apparent suicide. He was 63.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Today, we're listening to Terry's 2006 interview with Robin Williams, who died yesterday at the age of 63. Williams was a one-of-a-kind comedian who also had a long career in film playing both comic and dramatic roles. He won an Oscar for "Goodwill Hunting."
GROSS: I know you've done performances in Afghanistan and Iraq for American troops there.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. That's an interesting thing. When you perform there, it's - when you're on stage and everybody's fully armed and in body armor...
WILLIAMS: I guess I didn't get that memo. And you realize you better be funny because they're strapped. And performing in Afghanistan the first time - 'cause I wasn't going with the joint Chiefs of Staff, so it was pretty much on our nickel - it was pretty wild and great audiences. And, you know, you land there the first time, and you're met by people who look like Spiderman on a day pass - full night vision goggles and, you know, jilaba.
My favorite people to perform for are the special forces guys, who are dressed in full Afghani kit except for the New York Yankees hat. And that was always - they were the ones with the light sticks going, dude. But yeah, I performed there three times in Afghanistan, twice in Iraq. I'll go back. I mean, this year, I missed it 'cause I was working. But you don't get a better audience. And it's good to go there and bring other people.
GROSS: The kind of material seemed most appropriate for entertaining our troops?
WILLIAMS: Materials for them? They don't censor me in terms of, you know, the blue factor. I mean, they just want to have a good time, so you can be - you know, pretty much let me do anything I could do on HBO. I mean, the political stuff - sometimes, you know, you can try stuff 'cause we went to one National Guard base and that was the time when they were revealing that the Hummers were about as well armored as a Prius and talked about putting down Rumsfeld on the front strapped down like in "Road Warrior" and just - (imitating Humungus) ah, Humungus, bring them to me.
WILLIAMS: And just see how that would affect the Iraqis. Just the fact - or put Cheney there and just hook up his pacemaker to jumpstart some of the Hummers.
GROSS: You said that, and you weren't criticized for it?
WILLIAMS: Not by them 'cause they were living it. They were living the dream, baby.
WILLIAMS: You get picked up in a Hummer that goes, did you just strap that stuff on? Yes Mr. Williams, it's part of it. But you do stuff for them, you know, like meals - MRE - meals ready to excrete. They're basically - you go to Afghanistan and you swallow enough dust that you'll pass an adobe brick. But that's all part of it. You talk about that and, you know, you see a lot and you meet a lot of amazing people.
GROSS: Did the troops there want to know what your position on the war was, and did you want to let on at all?
WILLIAMS: No, they knew. I mean, they know that I'm not - you know, they know what my position on the administration is - you know, the great decider - I'm the decider. No, you make decisions. The decider is what they serve - they serve decider down with apples in Maine. Yup, right there. But they know where I'm at with that. They know I came there to perform for them. It isn't like - with a war you want to go oh man, you know? With Afghanistan you see that they've tried to really make a difference - you know, build it from the ground up and create - you know, like when you see when the elections occur, people really do want to vote and get out and, you know. And at one point when the Iraqis were writing the Constitution I said take ours, we're not using it.
WILLIAMS: And you remember when the Iraqis were coming here and - what the amendment - you - what the amendments are - amendment, commandment - explain to me the difference. But they know, and you're there, and saying hey dude, it's not about politics. It's about you.
GROSS: Would you have been surprised if somebody had told you the late 1960s in the Vietnam era that you would be entertaining troops in the 2000s?
WILLIAMS: Would I be surprised? Maybe a little bit, you know - when I went to Claremont Men's College their ROTC program had three people, and people protested. Five people protesting three people was the extent of our political activities.
GROSS: Yeah, I guess that's what I'm thinking - like, if your whole idea of like the military and what it means to be in the military has changed.
WILLIAMS: I mean - I find that there's a lot of extraordinary, brilliant people in the military, and then I find that there are - you know, there's others - you know, the lifers - the guys who know. And there's people who are prepared to do, you know, full-out - go, you know, do whatever they're told. But yet, they want to know - you know, I mean it's a whole mixed bag for me because I've always - I've followed military history most of my life. And I'm fascinated by.
GROSS: Oh, really?
GROSS: Well, have you ever wanted to be in the military and...
WILLIAMS: I have until my father explained to me that when he was on a carrier and it was hit by kamikaze that they closed all the bulkhead doors, and you're pretty much there on your own. And the dulce et decorum est doesn't last very long. And he explained, if you want to do this, understand that, you know, when things go down, you're on your own, and it's pretty ugly and very brutal. And, you know, men burn to death around you, and then when they're all clear, son, they come in and pick up what's left. So it was like, you know, oh, any ideas that it's glorious? No - but to realize that there are dedicated people there, yes - to realize that there are cases where it's quite necessary that force is - you know, if you watch "Why We Fight" with Eisenhower, you realize that here's a man leaving office saying we have one thing to beware, the military-industrial complex. And this is a man who took total responsibly for D-Day. He wrote a letter saying if this invasion fails, I take total responsibility. I'd like to pass that letter onto W and just say, read this - compare and contrast, you know?
GROSS: How did you deal with the draft in the '60s?
WILLIAMS: My draft number was 351. The Viet Cong had to be coming from Kansas.
GROSS: Oh, gee, so it was like not an issue for you. You were just out.
WILLIAMS: No, it wasn't. And, you know, it wasn't an issue so in a weird way I won the lottery, and it made the decision for me. If I had been drafted, it would've been an interesting call. I don't know whether I would've gone. You know, I don't think I would have fled to Canada. I think, you know - would I have gone? I would probably lean to probably saying yes or be in a unit like W, you know, in a - you know, he was in the same National Guard unit as Bigfoot - about the same number of sightings.
GROSS: Were you a fan of Bob Hope when you were growing up and of his...
WILLIAMS: No. I mean, I watched his movies later on when I saw him, you know? (Imitating Bob Hope) That's crazy, isn't it? Here I am in Beirut - wild - one big sand trap. I can't imagine Brooke Shields in a burqa. All you'd see is an eyebrow. It's crazy. Look out. We're dropping Ann Coulter down just to see who flees. It's incredible. I think we've even violated the Geneva Convention by putting her anywhere in Iraq is a violation of the Geneva Convention. People are fleeing right there. Actually, some of the Iraqis are giving up. And how about this Zarqawi - doesn't he look like Ron Jeremy? I'm telling you that's crazy. I saw the autopsy photo, and I said that's that porn actor. It's Ron Jeremy. I don't think either one of them are happy about the connection but wild, isn't it? It's loopy.
GROSS: (Laughing) Very good. Very good.
WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you.
DAVIES: Robin Williams speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. You'll hear more in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 2006 interview with Robin Williams, who died yesterday at the age of 63.
GROSS: Now, I know you were a big fan of Jonathan Winters.
GROSS: I have to tell you, I interviewed Jonathan Winters once, like, in the late 1980s. And it was as if he were narrating a hallucination that he was having that I didn't see.
WILLIAMS: Oh, big time. Well, he's an artist. And plus, he's also been medicated over the years, you know? The greatest part about Jonathan is if there's - he will create a world for you there, and that's why his records are so great. But if you see him in person, he transforms. He literally morphed before the technology existed. He was there doing that. And people were like, what? And he would jump in and out of these characters, multiple characters. And people were like - and, you know, you're right. It is, like, all of a sudden you're going - he'll drag you into that, slowly but surely.
GROSS: When did you become a fan of his?
WILLIAMS: When I saw my father laughing and when he used to be on the old "Tonight Show" with Jack Paar.
GROSS: And this was before you were performing?
WILLIAMS: He was amazing. Yeah, he was doing this thing. He was like, I'm - he came on to Jack Paar, and he came in with a little pith helmet saying, I am a great white hunter. My name is Terence Fergudy (ph)? And he said, what do you hunt? I hunt mainly squirrels. And Jack Paar said, what do you do? He said, I aim for their little nuts.
WILLIAMS: And you see Jack Paar just going, oh, oh. You know, it's - and a lot of these people are people he knows, you know? People - oh, Jon, you know me. And people from the - from, he calls, the happy place, which was the institute they put him in. And the great thing, when he - you know, the time he had the - kind of the breakdown, he climbed the mast of the Balclutha, which is an old, three-masted schooner that's in the bay in San Francisco, docked. And he climbed it totally naked. And when they brought him down and the ambulance and the police were waiting, they said, Mr. Winters, do you have anything to say? He said, yes, never land alone.
WILLIAMS: So, you know, you have a certain perspective there that comedy comes from a deeper place.
GROSS: Now, you mentioned that he genuinely had a breakdown. And I think it's true that a lot of comics have a very depressive side to them.
WILLIAMS: Oh, they have a dark side - I mean, because you're looking at that. You know, it's part of looking at - in the process of looking for comedy, you look - you have to be deeply honest. And then, doing that, you'll find out, here's the other side. You know, you'll be looking under the rock, occasionally, for the laughter. So they're - yeah, they have a depressed side. But is it always the sad clown thing? No. But they're - you know, I find comics to be pretty honest people in terms of looking at stuff from both sides, or all sides, and presenting you with, like, here it is, you know. And like Lenny Bruce said, the great thing about the white-collar drunk - yeah, I'll kill you. He says it's not like the sweet, Clem Kadiddlehopper drunk, like the Red Skelton - hello, buddy, hello. It's like, (imitating Lenny Bruce) yeah, I'll kill you. And I'll kill your dog, too. I tell you, I love you, but I'll kill you. That's how much I love you.
GROSS: Have you ever dealt with depressions? And I guess I'm wondering...
WILLIAMS: As a human being, I - yeah...
GROSS: Yeah. And I guess I'm wondering if, like, your manic side - if your manic side has an opposite side...
WILLIAMS: It's not even manic. I mean, manic people - sometimes - I volunteered to be on the cover of a - I think it was Newsweek, for their issue on medication - thank you. But - and when the guy said, well, you know, do you ever get depressed? I said, yeah, sometimes I get sad. I mean, you can't watch news for more than three seconds and go, oh, this is depressing. And then immediately, all of a sudden they branded me manic-depressive. It was like, that's clinical. I'm not that. Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh, yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh, yeah. Do you find a way - but does that immediately make me like, thanks, Terry, nice talking with you. Oh, I don't know, Terry, I don't know. I don't get - I'm OK. I'm OK. (Sniffling). Give me that. Can I borrow that? I'm all right, thanks for asking that, Terry - because yeah, I get depressed. (Sniffling).
WILLIAMS: I get depressed that I wasn't on "American Idol."
WILLIAMS: I could sing, you know?
GROSS: So no clinical depression is what I'm taking away from this.
WILLIAMS: No clinical depression, no. Am I - no. I get bummed like I think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, whoa. And then other moments you'll look and go, oh, things are OK - oh, whoa.
GROSS: I was also wondering if you were ever in psychotherapy? You know, again, you've played therapists. But I was wondering if you were ever in psychotherapy 'cause.
WILLIAMS: In? I was near it, yes. Yeah, I mean, no, actually, for years, still.
GROSS: Yeah because here's why I ask. First of all...
WILLIAMS: No, no, why do you ask? - because I'm not paranoid, but why do you ask?
GROSS: Well, a few reasons. One is, like, as we were talking about, you know, as an actor I think you have to have insights into how people operate and human psychology. But also, some people are so kind of verbally adept, like you are, that I wonder if they're talk therapy proof - you know what I mean? - whether they're so skilled at using words to get around things, in a way, that, you know - is it hard for them to be disarmed? (Laughter).
WILLIAMS: Disarmed? Well, you can disarm yourself. You could lay down the arms, and basically that's the purpose of therapy. At a certain point, if you're just going in to say, hey, look, I can really shuck this guy, that's not the purpose really. Eventually, at a certain point, you have to say, OK, what do you want to do? Why are you doing this? And, you know, at a certain point - or get money back, you know - because the idea is to kind of get to the point of realizing what are the issues that you could, you know, confront yourself, which is, you know, - the ideal is to deal with that and come out the other side going, OK, I know now these are certain things that I do. And do you wish to continue that way? You know, like you said, if you can talk your way around it, then all you're doing is just kind of, you know, self-replicating. OK, continue the behavior and never change. As one therapist said, change is not a hobby, you know? And as the one guy at the suicide hotline said, life isn't for everybody.
WILLIAMS: That would be a rough one. Hey, how are you doing? Well, you know...
GROSS: So you feel like you've gotten a lot out of psychotherapy?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it's helped me over the years. It really helped kind of, you know - a lot? I mean, I think enough to keep going and be able to say - you know - yeah, does it mean everything's wonderful? Am I (imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger) all is working well, you know, Terry? It's going well for me. I feel good. And being governor has made me feel that, you know, as an immigrant, I came here to America with a dream and a vile of anabolic steroids, and look what happened.
WILLIAMS: But - yeah, it's helped me. I would say it's done a lot more good than bad. And I have been able to be disarmed on that level. But there's other times, in the beginning, where, you know - yeah, sure, OK - talk your way out of it. But a good therapist will kind of say, OK, this is not stage - or it was a friend, I guess. I heard somebody that said - who used to go to AA just for stage time, and that's not it.
GROSS: Can we talk about your voice for a minute? You're able to do so many voices, speaking in accents and so on. Did you work on that? Is that something you just kind of intuitively had, or is that, like, a craft that you...
WILLIAMS: (Speaking with a lisp) Well, initially, I had to overcome this. But no, I didn't work on it. I think it just happened - it was fun. I mean, I have a - people would say a kind of an eidetic ear, to be able to do that. And I speak French and speak Russian - I mean, not as much Russian as I speak French. And even when I speak French in Paris they're going, don't try it; speak English. And then she gives a cigarette to a baby. But it is the idea of just hearing it and kind of being able to assimilate that. I guess I was just acoustically, you know, given that ability. So I don't work on it. It just seems to come out pretty naturally.
GROSS: Do you sing?
WILLIAMS: I can. And I'm hoping to be on Broadway for "Brokeback Mountain: The Musical."
WILLIAMS: I have a song. (Singing) Can't quit you, Ennis. I know, as I hold you outside there's snow, and I feel that glow as I hold you down below - and we'll stop right there because I know that - when I accept the Tony, you know, I want to thank my partner Tom. And things you don't hear at the Tony, don't wait up for me, kids. But, you know, those are the things that I love about musicals. They're great. I can sing, but it tends to be more like Ethel Merman. I go for the big numbers like in "Aladdin," which is like Ethel Merman.
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
WILLIAMS: Do I have - yeah. (Singing) Hello, young lovers. And even then, right now your engineer went, tell him to not do that. But it's a good thing.
GROSS: Yeah because I figure people who can - people who can imitate voices and do accents and stuff like that could probably get notes, too - you know, be on pitch?
WILLIAMS: Yes. They could get notes, yes - little notes like, call me. Signed - who is this? Signed, Maria. Maria who? Maria Callas, you fool. Yes, I could get notes. I mean, there is a pitch to even any voice, just an accent. And, you know, in Mandarin you say, shay shay now tsao ka hu (ph). You can be the difference between ordering a car and saying, please play with my buttocks. You know, that's the difference in tone. And that's actually not a real Mandarin phrase. So for those listening, it's OK.
GROSS: Can I make a confession?
WILLIAMS: You're not wearing anything, but that's OK. You're in a radio studio, and if you're wearing - if you're just - if you're in a thong, that's wonderful. A thong in your heart, that's OK. No, no, please, confess.
GROSS: Well, before we did the interview, I had no idea what to expect.
GROSS: And I wasn't sure you'd give me a straight answer to anything. And I just want to say thank you for...
WILLIAMS: You're welcome.
GROSS: For actually having a talk.
WILLIAMS: Well, it's good to talk like that, you know?
GROSS: And for being really funny at the same time.
WILLIAMS: Well, that's probably what life is, you know? You can do both. You can talk and be funny. And you see it wasn't that zany. It was just conversation. It's a good thing, Terry, you know that.
GROSS: It's a good thing. (Laughter).
WILLIAMS: It's a good thing, as Martha Stewart said when she got out of prison. You know, she had that wonderful magazine she published while she was in jail called Truly Inside Living...
WILLIAMS: Which was wonderful. How to make trump doy (ph) with a lovely toothbrush, things to do with a shiv besides stab - you know, wonderful things. And if you only have one window, use the light. She was very good that way.
WILLIAMS: And you call this shev? You know...
GROSS: Robin Williams, thank you so much.
WILLIAMS: We'll be right back with some people from - oh, you're welcome, Terry Gross. We're here with some people from New Zealand who are talking about animal husbandry, and can you marry a ewe? Your call - lines are open. (Imitating ewe) baa. Easy. Terence, no. (Imitating ewe) baa. How was it? Not baa-ed. All right, thank you. We're back. Thanks, Terry, it was a good day. It was a good day. Good talking to you, Terry. Take care of yourself. We'll be right back with Ann Coulter just to talk about, well, euthanasia. We'll be going, bye-bye.
GROSS: Thank you.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome.
DAVIES: Robin Williams speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. Williams died yesterday in an apparent suicide. He was 63. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a funny new novel about academia called "Dear Committee Members." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.