FILM / The man you hate to love?: Pauline Kael called him a 'benevolent eunuch', other critics say his balls are all in one court. Sexless? Predictable? Can they mean that funny man Robin Williams? Interview by Sheila Johnston

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The Independent Culture
The earthquake]' (my neighbour in the crowded press room has had an epiphany), 'There's been no major Hollywood star in London since the earthquake] I'll ask him about that.' Robin Williams is in town and the hack pack is in full cry. Because Williams, we all know, is a master- interviewee: famed for turning routine plugging exercises into virtuoso impro sessions, delivered in a babel of voices and personae. Bootleg tapes are said to sell for tidy sums. And his cuttings show him prepared to answer questions from the banal to the impertinent with unfailing courtesy and a sometimes damaging candour.

He's a thoroughly nice, decent man, everyone says so, and not only the professional flatterers: perhaps the most acid test was administered by a journalist from Empire magazine, who wrote to several dozen stars for autographs, posing as a fan. Only Williams passed with flying colours for his prompt, friendly, personalised greeting.

What's more, he, his entourage, collaborators, children, agents and assorted lower forms of life are promoting one of the biggest hits (as a matter of fact, the only major box- office hit) of the American Christmas season, Mrs Doubtfire (reviewed opposite). So today, everyone wants a piece of him. It's the first media feeding frenzy of the new year]

Problem is, Robin Williams is, for all these reasons, a popular but all too familiar figure. He first came to Britain in 1979 for Mork and Mindy, the sitcom that pitched him at one fell swoop from non-entity to television superstardom at the age of 26. Since then, all the angles have been done, it seems: the drugs, the drink, the divorce, the drag (as Mrs D, he plays a stout, sixtysomething matron), the price of fame.

And this week he is furiously clocking up talk shows, radio interviews, world press. I shall have to share 25 minutes torn from Mr Williams' busy, busy schedule with two showbiz journalists, and must quietly wait while he answers questions about his height (5 foot 8 inches); buying a vibrator in a San Francisco sex shop disguised as Mrs D ('Is there a fitting room?'); just how much hair he shaved for the role ('My arms, and a bikini wax on Sundays just for the hell of it') and, yes, the earthquake ('Missed it - I live in San Francisco'). Meanwhile the Mirror man rolls his eyes skywards as I, serious interviewer, quiz him about performing in Waiting for Godot.

Williams looks tired. Terry Gilliam, who directed him in The Fisher King, said of him recently: 'When he's not out in public, he becomes very childlike. Introspective. Very soft.' Is he really such a wild and crazy guy? 'I can't be,' he says. 'I'd burn out, I'd be a pile of ash . . . Your bottom-line fear is of the well drying up. At that idea you start going, 'Oh, well, erm, so now I'll just be a game-show host'.' He's quiet, subdued; the voices seem to have deserted him. I feel a little sorry for him.

But maybe that's just the Child- Man kicking in for sympathy. The case against Williams submits: that all his characters are the same - the cuddly innocent, majoring in infantile regression; that he has a compulsive need to ingratiate himself with his audience; and finally that he's a juggernaut who turns all his films into manic tours de force of performance art (his brilliance as the genie eclipsed Aladdin).

The defence has weighty evidence. Three years at the prestigious Juilliard Academy: Williams says, of playing Mrs D, 'I took a mask class at Juilliard, where, by putting on a mask you create a character. That's what's happened with Mrs Doubtfire: by all those things I wore I made her.' He has been thrice Oscar nominated (for Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King) and recently won a Golden Globe for Mrs D.

The story goes that his television script-writers, fed up with seeing Williams scoop all the credit for their gags, took to sending blank pages down to the set, inscribed Robin Williams does his thing. 'Yeah, they used to do that,' Williams says, a mite resentfully, 'but you can't just riff a whole film, that grows thin real quick. They think I'll fill in the gaps and I can't. You need a character, you need a story to draw people through.'

He likes, he says, the graft of theatre: 'Godot was almost like a Zen play. You get these massive depressions, Beckett wrote them in. These pauses. And then he wrote: Silence. The pauses are where you get lost. And the silences are the abyss. But the discipline of it is releasing in some ways.'

Chris Columbus, who directs him in Mrs Doubtfire, denies that his shoot was a free-form laugh-riot. 'Robin comes to the set and he'll do four or five scripted takes. And then he'll start improvisations but always based on character. They don't get too wild until around Take 14 or 15. I then go back to the editing room and interlay them throughout the original scripted sequence. And they cut like butter.'

Co-stars, like Pierce Brosnan, testify to his generosity, on and off screen. 'I certainly knew Mrs Doubtfire was a very strong vehicle for Robin. But I never felt that I was second-best - that kind of comedy is really like a dance; you're only as good as the actor you work opposite. And I have to give Robin and Marsha (Garces, Williams' producer and second wife) their dues and say that they really did the picture with great style and grace, in the way they treated everybody.'

Still, inspection of the Williams oeuvre reveals a definite template: the genial, unthreatening Lord of Misrule. There is the wacky DJ of Good Morning Vietnam (1987); the mildly anarchic teacher of Dead Poets Society (1989); the deranged tramp who leads Jeff Bridges towards a curious personal redemption in The Fisher King (1991); the nave, childlike funster in Toys (1992). If he is unpleasant - the workaholic father at the beginning of Hook (1991) - it is shortlived.

He is reliably sexless - when did you last see him in a bedroom scene, or, come to that, even a screen clinch? Though, to be fair, in Awakenings (1990), of which Pauline Kael wrote, 'This is another of Robin Williams' benevolent eunuch roles,' he did finally get around to buying his love interest a cup of tea.

Williams now claims he's fed up with being Pan, the man-child. 'I want to play something nasty, but no one thinks of me when they want a psychotic guy; Chris Walken gets all those scripts. If worst comes to worst, I'll go back on the road and be a stand-up comic - that's got me through the bad periods before. Part therapy, but also, you know, cash. To wait for a role that isn't necessarily the sweet, likeable guy, that's a hard call sometimes. I've been asked about the Riddler (he is being mooted for the new Batman) - yeah, if the script is good I'll do it. They'll always offer lots of money for certain things, but you can get creamed that way.'

There's always an in-built tension for the actor-comic: stand-up requires a strong, recognisable persona; acting the ability to hide, at least in part, behind the mask. Few doubt Williams' achievements in the first arena; and he has turned in some interesting film performances, in the little-seen Seize the Day, for instance, where his failed salesman darkened the endearing tics into a sour, disappointed neuroticism.

By some reports, it alarmed the actor's spin doctors: they were said to have blocked the crossover of this television movie into cinemas (it surfaced recently on British television). 'If Robin Williams had a hit picture recently we might have agreed,' one of his management team was quoted as saying at the time, 'but his last two pictures have gone into the tank.'

That was in 1986, and Williams was riding out some right flops: Popeye, The World According to Garp, The Best of Times, a football movie, and Club Paradise, a skittish Club Med comedy. But now his stock has soared, Toys notwithstanding, and perhaps he could take a chance and dig out that ugly mask: get laid, maybe, go out and waste some guys. Because it would be sad if cuddly Robin Williams were to wind up the obverse of Erich von Stroheim: the Man You Hate to Love.

(Photograph omitted)

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