Suffolk: Robin Williams was Hollywood’s court jester - as arts correspondent Andrew Clarke discovered
- Credit: AP
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.
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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.
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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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