One of the truisms about celebrity interviews is this: actors just starting out are usually a pleasure, because they’re not yet jaded. It’s stars on the next rung up, those who’ve been famous for a little while, who can be a pain. They’re the ones who turn up late, are rude, and are seemingly desperate to prove themselves deserving of the kind of adoration that no one could ever really deserve.
When I met Robin Williams in a Kensington hotel in 2010, he struck me as a great example of the third kind of celebrity interview: a proper movie star who’s been through the personality-distorting wringer of fame and escaped out the other side with a new-found humility. He was gracious, kind and genuine. He listened carefully to my questions and made an obvious attempt to answer them fully.
You didn’t have to beg him to do the voices, either. His own speaking voice was so soft, I had to lean forward to hear it, but he often broke into impressions - the genie from Aladdin, Michael Caine, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I counted seven over the course of the interview.
Some comedians use humour as a means of working through their inner pain - so goes the “sad clown” cliche - but with Williams the almost compulsive madcap improvising seemed like a way to deflect attention away from himself.
He said he admired those comics who were braver: “I’m more kind of tentative about it, I’ll think, oh I can’t say that and then someone will talk about it honestly...I don’t talk about my own life. It’s not really personal per se and there’s other people where that’s their entire act.” He struck me as a little bit sad, but also sensitive, self-aware and emotionally intelligent. And he wasn’t just a clown either, he was a real actor.
Robin Williams: A career in pictures
Robin Williams: A career in pictures
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1980: Robin Williams in the world-famous Mork and Mindy series that launched his career.
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1984: Williams in 'Moscow On The Hudson'. The actor earned his first Golden Globe nomination for his turn as a Russian circus performer in this 1984 hit.
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1987: Williams in the critically acclaimed 'Good Morning, Vietnam'. Williams ad-libbed all the radio broadcast scenes from this 1987 film about a radio DJ sent to Vietnam to entertain the US troops serving out there.
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1989: Robin Williams appeared with Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles in 'Dead Poets Society' as English teacher John Keating - or the “slightly more daring O Captain, My Captain”.
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1990: Williams and Robert De Niro in Awakenings, an emotional film that saw Williams portray a British neurologist who administered a drug to catatonic patients that briefly awoke them from decades of catatonia.
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1991: Williams appeared as an adult Peter Pan forced to return to Neverland to rescue his children in 'Hook'. The film received mixed reviews but proved popular at the box office.
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1992: Williams in 'Toys'. The film followed a military general after he inherits a toy factory and decides to produce war toys.
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1993: Williams appeared in one of his best-loved roles in Mrs Doubtfire, where he played an actor disguising himself as a female housekeeper in order to spend more time with his children.
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1995: Williams appeared as man released from a board game after being trapped for decades inside it in the blockbuster 'Jumanji'.
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1996: Williams starred opposite Jennifer Lopez in 'Jack', a film about a young boy who ages four times faster than other children.
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1997: Williams appeared alongside Matt Damon in 'Good Will Hunting', a film that won him an Oscar for his portrayal of psychologist Sean Maguire. As he accepted his award, a touched Williams warned the audience: "Oh man, this might be the one time I’m speechless".
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1997: The box-office hit Flubber saw Williams take the role of Professor Philip Brainard, who creates the unstoppable green goo Flubber in his bid to produce a new energy source.
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1998: Williams gave a poignant turn as Dr Hunter 'Patch' Adams, an unqualified doctor who treats patients with laughter in 'Patch Adams' .
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1998: Williams stars alongside Cuba Gooding, Jr in 'What Dreams May Come', a film that follows American physician Chris Nielsen's journey through the afterlife after he is killed in a car crash.
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1999: Robin Williams, Bob Balaban (left), and Armin Mueller-Stahl star in the movie 'Jakob the Liar' about a Jewish shopkeeper who uses his imagination to engender hope throughout a Polish ghetto in 1944.
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1999: American Science Fiction drama 'Bicentennial Man' followed an android (Williams) as he experiences emotions and becomes more human
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2002: Williams took a more sinister role as reclusive crime writer and murderer Walter Finch in 'Insomnia'.
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2002: Williams undertook an unsettling, psychopathic role in One Hour Photo, where he played a photo lab technician obsessed with a family who frequented the store.
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2002: Williams starred alongside Danny DeVito in 'Death to Smoochy', a film about a corrupt children's television host disgraced by an FBI sting.
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2005: Robin Williams stars in 'The Big White', a film about a financially struggling travel agent trying to make a bogus life insurance claim in order to pay for his wife's Tourette treatment.
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2006: Williams and Ben Stiller star in 'Night at the Museum'. Williams will appear in upcoming film "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb," playing the statue of Teddy Roosevelt who comes to life at night.
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2006: Robin Williams, Jeff Daniels and Cheryl Hines star in roadtrip comedy 'R.V.', which followed the tribulations of a dysfunctional family.
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2006: Williams took the leading role in the political comedy drama 'Man of the Year' about a comedian who decides to run for President and finds himself mistakenly elected.
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2007: Robin Williams and Freddie Highmore in 'August Rush', where Williams played a homeless musician who teaches children living on the streets music and employs them as performers.
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2007: Robin Williams, Mandy Moore and John Krasinski starred in 'License to Wed'. Williams played a reverend who places a couple through a series of tests to see if they should marry in his church. The rom-com was poorly received by critics.
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2010: Robin Williams and John Travolta star in 'Old Dogs', a comedy that sees two friends and owners of a sports marketing firm struggle to deal with seven-year-old twins placed in their care. The film was nominated for four Golden Raspberry Awards.
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2013: Susan Sarandon, Robert De Niro and Robin Williams star in The Big Wedding
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2013: Williams starred as President Eisenhower in Lee Daniels' 'The Butler'.
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2014: Robin Williams with his Mork and Mindy co-star Pam Dawber in The Crazy Ones series. It was axed after one season.
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2014: Rob Williams stars in 'The Angriest Man in Brooklyn', the story of a bad-tempered man mistakenly told he has 90 minutes to live.
By this point, he’d already been through a lot in his personal life. He’d been a cocaine and alcohol addict in the era when his good friend John Belushi died of an overdose. Then after 20 years of sobriety, he suffered a relapse in 2006 and checked himself into rehab. His brother died the following year, his second wife filed for divorce in 2008, and he needed emergency heart surgery in 2009.
He had also enjoyed great success. He was beloved for family favourites like Hook and Mrs Doubtfire, admired for critical successes One Hour Photo and The Fisher King, and also - let's be honest - mocked for a string of absolute stinkers - Bicentennial Man, Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come.
This was an issue my editor had asked me to broach in the interview and I was still trying to work out a way to do so tactfully when Williams sensed what I was about to ask and jumped in to spare me the awkwardness. “People ask, ‘Why did you make Old Dogs? Because it pays the bills. You’re just out of rehab. Good luck. You’ve got to get out there.”
Perhaps it was easier to be open about his sometimes pragmatic approach to making movies because he was there to promote a film of which he was truly - and justly - proud. In World’s Greatest Dad, Williams played an English teacher and single dad to a vile teenage son. When the son dies in tawdry circumstances, Williams’s character decides to re-frame the death as something heroic. It wasn’t one of those mawkishly sentimental films which, by this point, Williams was known for. It’s a film filled with real, complicated adult emotions, moments that are outrageous yet thoughtful, cynical yet heartfelt.
This was also not one of the films he did to pay the bills, but one he did to help out a friend. Director Bobcat Goldthwait and Williams knew each other from their days on the stand-up circuit in the 70s and 80s, but Goldthwait had never had the same mainstream success. By taking the role, Williams allowed his friend’s film to get made. He was a nice man like that, obviously, but he was also a braver performer than he sometimes gave himsef credit for. World’s Greatest Dad was a chance to do something different. He took that chance and delivered brilliance.
That was my favourite performance of his, but in our interview he was never dismissive of his more famous family movies, either. He described once sneaking into the back row of a screening of Aladdin: “It was kind of like that moment in Sullivan’s Travels where I saw parents just laughing with their kids and I though yeah...that’s kind of sweet.”