From the archives: Robin Williams interview from 1996
Actor Robin Williams died today (August 11) at age 63.
Over the years, the Georgia Straight interviewed the mad-cap comedian no less than six times. Here is a reprint of an interview he did with editor and publisher Dan MacLeod back in March 1996, right before the opening of the movie The Birdcage. The opening to the interview noted that Willaims "was his usual vibrant, funny self when the Georgia Straight talked to him."
Georgia Straight: Was the message of this movie the main thing that influenced you to do it?
Robin Williams: It was the acting fun, the message of the movie, and a great script, with a wonderful group of people. It’s like some sort of parfait. It’s got everything. Elaine May wrote this great script, and Mike is an amazing director. And Dianne Wiest’s laugh is like a drug for me.
Were you concerned about being criticized by politically correct gays?
I was concerned about giving it a certain dignity, and I think we did give it an intimacy and a dignity that works. Of course, living in San Francisco, I am concerned about pissing people off. I don’t want to walk down the street and have Sister Mary Boom-Boom condemn me straight to hell.
What if an anti-gay politician like Pat Buchanan makes an issue out of it?
I’d be quite honoured if Pat went berserk. That would be the greatest publicity you could ask for.
Do you think straight people might become more tolerant of gays if they see you in this role?
I hope so. This movie is such a great comedy, maybe in the process of laughing there can be more acceptance at a time when people are trying to shove the clock back and writing the Constitution on an Etch-A-Sketch. I’ll probably get weird mail, like, “Dear fag, I’m going to kill you.” But I’ve gotten that before. I did a thing on the Tonight Show once, where I talked about the Right-to-Life people who always seem to disappear once the baby is born. And I talked about delivering a crack baby to its mother, saying, “Mrs. Simmons? Are you Right-to-Life?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Then here it is, your very own crack baby!”
“No! This is in the Bible?”
I got a lot of mail on that. You get anywhere near these people, and they’ll find you.
Do you ever worry about putting your family in jeopardy when you say things like that?
I do sometimes worry about that. But it doesn’t stop me, because I do hope to get a point across. But these people are dangerous.
Have you seen people actually change their extreme right-wing opinions, or is that just a liberal fantasy?
Look at brother Newt Gingrich. Newt had to acknowledge his sister [as a lesbian]. She’s there all the time, reminding him, and he takes a lot of flack for it. But it isn’t just a liberal fantasy. There is a moderate Republican movement that does acknowledge gays. I hope, God, in the midst of all this insane campaigning, that there are some bipartisan connections. Because there’s so much that needs help, on so many levels. In the midst of all this ranting, you can’t forget that in New York harbour, there is a statue that says, “Give me your tired, your poor…” And that doesn’t mean, “…for two weeks, to do light housework”.
Are things any worse these days than they were 10 years ago, in terms of entertainers being able to speak freely and openly?
People always get angry about entertainers speaking openly, but it is our right, just as it was when Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon did their thing on the Oscars. But then, Jack Valenti will come out and speak, and people fall asleep. But I don’t think we’re worse off.
Could this movie have been made 10 years ago?
Well, the French made it 20 years ago.
Aren’t you planning to make another French film with Billy Crystal?
Yeah, Father’s Day. It’s a remake of Les Compères, [the 1983 movie directed by Francis Veber], with Gérard Depardieu and Pierre Richard, about two guys who are told that they’re both the father of the same boy. But we’re not making it until they rewrite it and we see if it works. Ivan Reitman wants to direct it with me and Billy.
You were going to do another gay movie about the Harvey Milk story, The Mayor of Castro Street, at one time.
Gus Van Sant was supposed to write it and I was really interested. Then he fell out and I dropped out. Then I heard that James Woods was going to do it. And then Dustin Hoffman was going to do it. So I told them if Dustin was going to do it, I would play his lover. [Imitating Dustin Hoffman as a gay Rain Man] That’d be good, real good. Where are we going? Going to a bar. Big bar, yeah. You like the man? Large man, very large man, yeah. Extremely well-endowed, very well-endowed. Attractive man, attractive man, yeah. You want to go out with that man? Yeah, very much. I like that man a lot. I really like that man.
Did the success of Philadelphia make it any easier for this movie to get made?
A lot of different movies made it easier for this movie. You could also relate it to Mrs. Doubtfire. If movies make money, studios will make more of them. And independent movies will always get made. Nathan Lane was also in Jeffrey, a very gay movie that was low-budget, and it found an audience. They’re opening The Birdcage wide, in over 2,000 theatres, and this movie is kind of like a piñata. It’s got comedy, but underneath there’s a discussion of intimacy, and same-sex families, and anti-semitism—which is also something that Bob Dole ranted against in his speech on Hollywood and violence. So he’ll probably also come out against this Jewish gay movie. A lovely combination, isn’t it?
Did you give Nathan Lane any advice on how to play a woman?
Play it sexier? Use your hips? Lead with your tits? No, he didn’t need any help. And his is a whole other makeup, a real beauty makeup. They settled on the Barbara Bush look, the type of thing that would make the senator [Gene Hackman] like her.
Were you ever upset that Nathan was getting all the good lines?
It was rough.
What was your perception of Nathan before working with him?
My perception was that he’s hilarious, and it’s been reaffirmed. They offered his part to me first, and I said no, I didn’t want to do that. Done that, been there, big woman. My wife said not to do it because I’d already done something like that with Mrs. Doubtfire. She said try the other part, because it’s more complex, and an interesting challenge, even though it might not get as many laughs. Comedy-wise, it has a tone almost like Jack Benny. And the acting scenes with Nathan and the boy who plays my son [Dan Futterman] are very intimate, and that’s another great thing to have in the middle of a comedy. But there are some mean things, too. When I suggest the solution to abortion is to kill the mothers, that’s rough stuff. It’s like Jonathan Swift. But if satire works, it is angry.
But the people who object to it can be pretty extreme, the kind of people who shoot doctors.
Oh, big time. And when you take a chance and speak about them, they rely on the fact that you’re afraid. They also function in very small ways. I live in San Francisco—oops, I shouldn’t even be saying that. I live in Canada. On a small island off Vancouver. Surrounded by killer seals. So don’t even think about it, you bastard!
It seems to excite you to talk about politics.
Excites me? It does. I have a large caucus as we speak. And it’s growing. It excites me and it scares me. It’s like a double bill. In California, people are bitching about the education cutbacks, because California is now the 48th state in terms of literacy. Years ago, they passed something called Proposition 13, which took away education funding through property taxes, and it bankrupted the school system. But yes, I get excited about education, and homelessness, and environmental issues—because I really don’t like drinking zinc or radium. I don’t like seeing two-headed fish floating by. Because, in the end, it does have an effect on you. When they talk about raw sewage being dumped into wetlands and drinking water, you have to realize that it’s really dangerous. Hepatitis is a real thing.
But your humour is not mean-spirited. Maybe the occasional kook will send you a letter, but you’re not a real threat to them.
But the occasional kook is extremely well-armed. You’re right, it’s not mean-spirited. I think this country is the most glorious possibility there is. And I’ve been to many places where it’s worse.
You studied political science before you went to Juilliard, didn’t you?
Yeah, I studied political science at Claremont McKenna Men’s College [in suburban Los Angeles].
Were you active politically there?
No, I was barely active mentally. I was having a lot of fun at that point. And Claremont was very conservative, with a lot of economists, a lot of think-tank guys. The biggest demonstration they had was two guys with a sign in front of the ROTC office. And they were just doing it because they thought that they could get laid.
Could you tell us what your next movie, Jack, is about?
It’s about a boy who ages four times faster than his mind. At the time the movie takes place, he’s 10 years old but looks like a man. It’s a fable, really, but I think it’ll work. It’s one of those really risky things that you have to either buy it or not. Francis [director Francis Coppola] did a lot of interesting things. Bill Cosby is in it, and Fran Drescher plays a very sweet, sad character, my best friend’s mother. Coppola is great, like a parent figure. He is the Godfather, but the good Godfather. We had Camp Coppola for three weeks, where we did all the things 10-year-olds do. I had a great time. And it was very sad when it ended.
You and Coppola are partners in a restaurant, aren’t you?
As a comedian, was Cosby an idol of yours?
Jonathan Winters was more my idol, but I listened to Cosby’s records. Cosby isn’t doing comedy in this movie. He’s playing my tutor, and he’s going against type. But we would kid around for the crew sometimes. He would play a Baptist reverend, and I would testify. It was like playing jazz. He’s also a great jazz aficionado, and tells some great Miles Davis stories. But he played the role dead serious, and it’s very powerful.
When was the last time you talked with Christopher Reeve?
Last night we had dinner together, at a restaurant downtown. He was great. He sat there for one-and-a-half hours without a respirator. And then I fed him.
Would you pay for his treatment if he needed the money?
Yeah, but he doesn’t. He’s got a book deal now, and some people have made him an offer to direct a movie. As for that rumour that I’m covering all of his bills, there are some things I’ve helped with, but he’s taking care of himself. I don’t want to deny him the dignity of having his own life. He’s also doing speaking engagements. And he’s started a foundation that’s already raised a lot of money. The amount of letters that pour in from everywhere is amazing. I did a thing for the Starbright Foundation, which is a virtual world for children who are in isolation, and these kids who have been through chemo and kidney transplants made valentines for him, saying, “I’ve been in pain too, but you’ll be okay, all my love to you.” It was amazing. And last night was great, because it was his first night out. There’ll be more.
Did you see this kind of strength in him when you knew him before?
Oh yeah. This is a guy who could fly across the Atlantic in a two-engine plane solo. And who tried to set the world altitude record in a glider. That’s unusual stuff. It’s just all focused now, because of the nature of what happened.
Does it make you uncomfortable to see him that way?
No. I come in, and basically we treat each other the same way, and that’s what people need. We laugh. He laughs a lot, which is great. I kid him about him going to a tractor pull with his new chair.
There was a rumour that you had a pact from the time you went to Juilliard.
That was that rumour of some sort of blood psychic pact. “Take care of me, brother!”
How do you put up with all the false rumours that are printed and still maintain a good sense of humour?
You survive it through good humour. That’s the only weapon I have. I’m not that powerful. I can’t kick someone’s ass, but I can maybe kick their psyche. I also survive it because I’ve got great friends and a wonderful family. I also have a lot of comedian friends who bust my balls every time a movie comes out. When Toys came out, I got a call that said, “Toys. Click.” It was Bobcat Goldthwaite.
Are they going to kid you about being in Kenneth Branagh’s new Hamlet?
It’s such a small part, they can’t, but I’d love it if they did. I play Osric at the very end of the play, which is a great kind of sycophantic character who comes in and Hamlet just mind-fucks him and kicks him out of the room. Shakespeare uses him as a plot device to get the duel together. I just did it because of my friendship with Kenny. Lord B.