In many ways, Robin Williams is just a big kid. Watch him play with eight-year-old son Zachary. Williams is positioned in front of the laptop computer, joystick in hand, as planes fly at him on the screen. He pops them off with childlike enthusiasm. “This is great!” he says, racking up kills. “Spielberg loves these, too, you know.” Williams is just back from his day on the set of Hook, in which he plays, appropriately, Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. And what about Zachary, Williams’ son and playmate? He stands by quietly as dad downs more planes, patiently waiting his turn.
In other ways, Williams has grown up quite nicely. The stand-up comedian with the quicksilver mind who became an overnight sensation in Mork & Mindy has matured into something of a rarity-a true genius in the world of stand-up comedy, as well as one of the country’s most respected dramatic actors. Many comics have had success in the movies, but few have enjoyed the esteem that Williams does (or the two Oscar nominations). Nor have many overcome the personal demons Williams faced early in stardom when drugs and alcohol threatened to destroy his career, if not his life.
Now 40, married for a second time and the father of three children, Williams is at his peak. He appears in movies of substance, not mindless comedies, and he has created a family life in Northern California far from the temptations of the Hollywood fast lane.
When Playboy first interviewed Williams in 1982, his career was at a crossroads. Mork & Mindy had nose-dived in the ratings and was canceled after a four-year run. His first movie, Popeye, had been a bomb, and his second, The World According to Garp, earned few rave reviews. But his stand-up comedy routines were legendary, racing from a sometimes simple premise-with mimicry, one-liners, characters and anything else he could think of-to cover an encyclopedia of subjects, leaving his audience breathless. The New York Times described them as having a “perfervid pace and wild, associative leaps,” and worried that his “improvisational method seemed tinged with madness.”
Much has happened to Williams in the ten years since that first interview. After the death of acquaintance John Belushi, he stopped using drugs. His first marriage fell apart in a very public manner, and he’s still angry about the way the press covered his divorce and marriage to the woman who had been his son’s nanny; his father, a Detroit automobile industry executive, died. Despite the personal upheaval, his professional life started to jell. His stand-up routines became, in the words of The New York Times, “sharper and less frenetic.” His successful concerts, albums, video tapes and cable specials put him in the top rank of comedians.
In 1986, he joined Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal to found Comic Relief, a yearly benefit for the homeless that appears on HBO. So far, it has raised more than $18,000,000. He also makes appearances in support of literacy and is an advocate of women’s rights.
But it was his development as an actor that surprised many. Not all of his film roles were memorable, especially at first, but as his list of credits began to build, so did his reputation. He followed Popeye and Garp with The Survivors (which also starred Walter Matthau), Moscow on the Hudson, Club Paradise and Cadillac Man. His performance in Good Morning, Vietnam earned his first chance at an Academy Award; his second came with Dead Poets Society. He followed that by co-starring in Awakenings with Robert De Niro, and with a tasty, morbid cameo as a “defrocked” psychiatrist in Dead Again. His performance in The Fisher King has received excellent reviews. And, of course, he’s headlining one of the most anticipated Christmas films-Hook, in which he co-stars with Dustin Hoffman (who plays Hook), Julia Roberts (Tinkerbell), Maggie Smith (Wendy) and Bob Hoskins (the pirate Smee).
Director Terry Gilliam has worked with Williams twice, most recently in The Fisher King and earlier in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in which Williams appeared as a giant-headed man in the moon. “The thing with Robin is, he has the ability to go from manic to mad to tender and vulnerable,” says Gilliam, who was a founding member of Monty Python. “He’s the most unique mind on the planet. There’s nobody like him out there.”
To catch up with one of our national treasures, we sent Contributing Editor Lawrence Grobel (whose previous interviews include Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro) to spend three weekends with the Pan Man. Grobel’s report:
“Since Robin was smack in the middle of making Hook, I was aware he was giving up precious family time to do the interview. Yet, once we started talking, I knew it couldn’t be rushed. Williams is a stream-of-consciousness talker, and ideas bounce off him like atoms in a blender. Give him a topic-any topic-and he can do five minutes.
“When he was on a roll, he would often lean toward the tape recorder to make sure nothing was garbled or lost. But he can also be quiet and serious, concerned about social issues and politics. And sometimes, when his pregnant wife, Marsha, would enter the room, he would simply become very loving, almost apologizing for spending this time away from her.
“Throughout our time together, Williams was open and friendly, often more concerned about my welfare than he was about his own. When my car failed to start after one of our sessions, I called my wife to come get me and Robin volunteered himself, his publicist and his gardener to push the car out of the way until a tow truck arrived. The thought of these three men struggling with a car up a steep hill-and the ensuing chiropractic bills-worried me enough that I tried to start it one more time. This time it worked. ‘It’s OK. I yelled. I’m outa here.’
“‘Wait!’ Robin yelled. ‘You better call your wife.’
“How can you not like a guy who’s willing to risk his back pushing your car and then reminds you to call your wife.”
PLAYBOY: This is our second time with you. How did the first interview affect you?
WILLIAMS: To tell you the truth. I can’t remember it.
PLAYBOY: You can’t remember it? That puts us in our place.
WILLIAMS: I can’t remember doing all the Mork & Mindys, either. It isn’t because of the drugs or anything. I didn’t even read it when it came out. Most interviews I didn’t read, for fear of having said something strange or having stepped in a hole. So it was fear. Now I’m not afraid. I do read them now, so I won’t repeat myself and so I can see what point I am in my life by what I’ve said. I will read this one.
PLAYBOY: You’ve described being interviewed as “two lepers doing a tango.” Isn’t it really one leper-the interviewer-and the subject, who doesn’t want to be touched?
WILLIAMS: Eric Idle described it best; he said it’s one-way psychotherapy. I’m telling you these things and you’re going, “Great.” I’m agonizing over some issue and you leave when it’s over and say goodbye, and I’m going [Bob Goldthwait voice], “Aren’t you going to help? Aren’t you going to give me any advice?” It’s like pouring out this stuff and then you write it down and people will read it, but I don’t feel any better. It’s like jerking off in a wind tunnel. Whoosh!-it blows back in your face!
PLAYBOY: It all depends on who’s asking the questions and the chemistry between you. A lot of journalists aren’t as trustworthy as you’d like them to be, and if you can’t trust them, you don’t open up.
WILLIAMS: [Shouting into tape recorder] That was him. And I’m not Bruce Willis. He said it. It was his line. But it’s true nine times out of ten, they haven’t read your book, they haven’t seen your movie, they don’t know dick about it. You’re waiting for those three questions that you can’t deal with. Or the standard ones [William F. Buckley, Jr., voice]: “What are the influences that make you who you are?” There’s always a Jonathan Winters question and one about your mother with the rubber band in her nose. After doing ten years of interviews, you look for that.
PLAYBOY: We’ll try to avoid some of those questions and ask a few new ones. For instance, did it take a lot of persuasion to play Peter Pan?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I had to convince myself that I could play this.
PLAYBOY: What’s the basic story line?
WILLIAMS: Peter’s children have been kidnapped. He’s grown up and become a man. But then Hook kidnaps his children to bring him back, because he’s had no one to fight with for so many years and he’s become bored. And the only way to save my children is to go back and fight him as Peter Pan.
PLAYBOY: Did you grow up with Mary Martin as your image of Peter Pan?
WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. It’s weird that Peter Pan has always been played by women, except in the cartoon, where he’s a boy. If you read the book, he’s a great character. He’s forgetful, selfish, cruel-he has all these different aspects to him. Very heroic. But he’s an eleven-year-old, right on the cusp of sexuality. He’s got all these things going on and he’s adventurous. And he doesn’t really give a shit about anything else. He has this great quote: “Oh, the wonderfulness of me.” You hear that from an adult, you go, “Eat my shorts.”
PLAYBOY: Did it take a lot of work to get into the character of Peter?
WILLIAMS: It took a lot of hard work to try and get this really anal tone, to find one that is kind of lost but still believable as a man-boy-as a guy who suffers from a Peter Pan complex because, in reality, he is Peter Pan! Once in a while he’ll be talking and all of a sudden the Pan will come out and he’ll think, Oh, I’ve got to kill that, that’s like, in me. [In deep "Exorcist" voice] “Demonic possession. Happy thought.” And finding that tone to make it boyish, lost, yet still a guy who makes a living basically screwing people as quickly as he possibly can. [As the grown-up Pan] “Damn it, Hook, you know what this place cries out for is development.”
PLAYBOY: How much do you work with Dustin Hoffman as Hook?
WILLIAMS: We have about four scenes, with a huge scene at the end, the fight. It’s just full out. It’s a verbal confrontation. Physical, obviously, with the fighting. And no holds barred. It has to be that way. It has to be everything you’ve expected Hook and Pan to be. It’s truly a learning experience. You sit down and you learn each day, because Dustin comes and he helps. And I write for him. I’ll say, “Try a line like this.” Because he’s so deeply into character, sometimes he can’t see to improvise it or to find a line.
In the book, Peter makes fun of Hook, he does his voice. And it gets quite brutal-he kills fourteen men, plus Hook. They get offed by this little boy going, “Here’s my happy thought, you fuck!” So it has all those levels in it.
Want to know the dark side of Peter Pan? Look at the Khmer Rouge. That’s the most frightening army in the whole world, because it was an army of twelve-year-olds and they committed most of the atrocities, they were the ones who could get rid of people with no compunction. It’s the perfect age for an army-eleven- and twelve-year-olds-because they have all that rage, all the power of pubescence, and they don’t give a shit about anything.
PLAYBOY: Does Hoffman play a mean Hook?
WILLIAMS: There’s a cruelty to it, but there’s also a kind of wonderful comedy as well. It has to be a champagne villain. He has a great quote in the book: “No little children like me.” That’s a motivating factor. That’s why he hates them. He hates youth and innocence and joy, and he’s out to destroy them. Plus he’s quite frightening. He uses his hook as a weapon. It’s not just some fashion accessory.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of accessories, will Peter have his shadow?
WILLIAMS: They do a wonderful thing with the shadow at the end. There’s a great sequence with the young Pan and his shadow, wonderful animation. If they’re still doing it, it will be amazing.
PLAYBOY: Has Spielberg lived up to your expectations?
WILLIAMS: Steven has been amazing. At first you think, here’s a guy who basically deals in visuals. But no, he knows every movie that’s ever been made. He’s seen every movie twice. So he knows if someone did something before. And from that, he can give you an idea that goes beyond that. The weird thing that I never expected from him was this humanistic, behavioral directing. I thought he would be more into special effects. Just the opposite. The special effects he likes, they’re fun-but he’ll suggest pulling back, or adding a little bit more, trying things to make the story have a reality base. If it works, it’ll play because the human element works, because of the inter-relationships of the characters, not because of all the effects. The effects will be like this wonderful icing. But if the cake sucks, the icing won’t mean shit.
PLAYBOY: Since Tinkerbell is played by Julia Roberts, who aborted her wedding to Kiefer Sutherland during the making of Hook, there’s a lot more interest in her than just six inches of interplay.
WILLIAMS: God, the press on all that was just amazing. Helicopters buzzing her and Kiefer’s house. Imagine what that’s like at twenty-three years old. Imagine what it’s like for eighteen-year-olds who get really famous. You’re dealing with your sexuality and the world is coming at you like the Super Chief. How can they be balanced in fantasyland? It’s like Disneyland staged by the Marquis de Sade. [As Igor] “It’s the B&D ride. Shut up! You’re good, but not that good.” [In high squeaky voice] “Hi, everybody, it’s Masochist Mouse!” [Piercing scream] I mean, who thinks it’s real? It’s like thinking that Disneyland exists. And going, “There really are big mice.” [Jeff] Katzenberg [a Disney executive] will call, “Hi, Robin. Why do you keep attacking Disneyland?” I’m not, it’s a motif.
PLAYBOY: Is it true that Hook is costing more than seventy million dollars?
WILLIAMS: I don’t even ask. I don’t want to know. I’m not playing with you. I just don’t want that pressure. You can’t go around worrying about the cost of the movie. No one took any money up front. We said, “OK, we’ll take it in the back end. We don’t want to add any more to this.”
PLAYBOY: Bob Hoskins plays Hook’s main pirate, Smee. What was he like to work with?
WILLIAMS: He’s got the most natural grit of anybody I’ve ever seen. The other day we were supposed to do this scene in a pirate bar, and we’re drinking and I was supposed to spit out this fluid. He had this idea. He said, “You know what would be great? You ever spit fire?”
I went, “Pardon me?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Let me show you how,” he said, and he took me outside. He used to do it in a circus. And he lit this thing, like a piece of cotton, and took some kerosene and said, “Don’t you fucking do this with gasoline or you’ll kill yourself,” and then blew with his cheeks, and it was like a blowtorch! I tried it and it didn’t do much. He said, “Relax,” and showed me again, and after I did it again, out came this flame and I went [Cockney accent]: “R-i-i-ight! I spit fire!”
But when we went to do it in the scene, the fire marshal came and said, “You ain’t got enough room in here to blow fire, so bag it!” So we didn’t do it in the scene. But I did it with him. And that’s what it’s like working with these guys. It’s terrifying thinking of the consequences, but then you get into it and it’s like, “Wow! What a great way to stretch.”
PLAYBOY: Did you ever stretch too far-to the point where you were overacting?
WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. They tell me, “Why are you making the Greek tragedy face? To let people know that you’re sad?” Bob Hoskins told a great story about doing Richard III. He said the first night he was doing it and acting his ass off, everything was big! And the audience was snoring: Do not listen to this play while operating heavy machinery. The next night, he asked this old guy who was in the repertory company, “What the fuck am I doing wrong?”
“Here’s the trouble, boy: They know you’re in deep shit. Now all you have to do is tell them.”
And that night, he came out and said, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” in a regular voice, not throwing it to the audience, and they listened.
With film, it’s even more so. The moment you push it or go for a laugh, people know. That’s one reason people are so fascinated with Brando-he can keep you transfixed just by looking. And he seems so dangerous in that way, even if you find out later he was thinking of nothing at all.
PLAYBOY: Can you imagine Brando as an aged Peter Pan? Or as Hook?
WILLIAMS: Brando as Pan would be great. They say he has dinner with Michael Jackson once a month. That would be something that would make My Dinner with Andre seem like a cartoon.
PLAYBOY: Wasn’t Jackson considered for Peter Pan?
WILLIAMS: I think he and Steven had it planned for a while. They were waiting for a script for a long time. If anybody is Peter Pan, he has the credentials. He could play it up the wazoo.
PLAYBOY: We came up with some other names of potential Pans.
WILLIAMS: Want me to guess? Michael J. Fox. Or, wait, I’m blanking on his name. He’s a friend sometimes. Did Big.
PLAYBOY: Tom Hanks.
WILLIAMS: Tom Hanks, thanks. He’s a friend. [Castigating himself] “You idiot, you can remember people only by their credits!” Tom, I know your name, I just blanked, ’cause I’m thinking about you playing Peter Pan, you might be taking the part. Let’s see, a real interesting choice if you wanted to get a punk Peter Pan would be Gary Oldman. That would be like: “Right! I’m flying. Fucking fly-y-y-y-i-n-n-n-g-g! You see it? Follow me, Tinky. Here’s my happy thought.” Who else? Tom Cruise, if you want a kind of Top Pan. What’s your list?
PLAYBOY: John Candy?
WILLIAMS: [Raucous burst of laughter] He did it! Did you ever see the one where he played Divine playing Peter Pan? It was great. [Laughs] “Look at me, flying high.” There’s that great joke about Kate Smith playing Peter Pan, but the chains broke.
PLAYBOY: How about Linda Hunt?
WILLIAMS: Whoa. [Strong laughter] The European directors’ versions. Now we’re getting into interesting casting. [Gérard] Depardieu as Pan. [French accent] “Luk out, everybudy, luk up here, I’m flying. I have happy thoughts. And then I have sad thoughts. It’s the sad thoughts that keep me on the ground for a brief moment. Then I fly again.”
PLAYBOY: How about Steven Seagal?
WILLIAMS: [Tough-guy whisper] “Yeah, right, I’m, uh…are you Hook?” [Grabs an imaginary arm, snaps it, becomes Hook screaming in pain. Then back to Seagal’s voice] “Look at you now, you’ve got two hooks, no waiting.” He’s amazing. Here’s a man who practices aikido, the gentlest form of martial arts. Yet there’s more carnage in his movies than I’ve ever seen before. The stuff Seagal does makes the Chuck Norris stuff seem so wuss. When Seagal puts people in those locks and he does that snap move-that one where this guy’s arm just popped out-it was the most physical, brutal thing I’ve ever seen in movies.
PLAYBOY: How about Al Pacino as Peter Pan?
WILLIAMS: [Pauses, thinks, defeated] I can’t do him.
PLAYBOY: How about De Niro?
WILLIAMS: [Whistles. Becomes De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver] “What? You want me to fly? You want me to fly? Excuse me? I have happy thoughts. I have happy thoughts. You want me to fly? Right. Lost Boys. Right.” Raging Pan. [Changes to De Niro as Jake La Motta] “Scuse me. Scuse me. What? I’m supposed to fly? Pardon me. Yeah, kiss…my tights. Scuse me. I’m flyin’. Can’t you see? I’m off the ground. I’m flyin’.”
PLAYBOY: And in the end, do you and the Lost Boys and Wendy all fly away, like E.T. without the bicycles? Just sprinkled with dust?
WILLIAMS: That’ll be at the end. I have to fly home with my family, I have to take my son and daughter back. It is interesting playing it after reading all the literature about the Peter Pan syndrome. It’s a very Victorian tale that Barrie told. Basically about abandonment, orphans, dissociation from parents. And also the end, when he comes back to see Wendy, and she’s old and he can’t deal with it, so he takes her daughter. Here’s this girl who gives him her heart and he goes, “Yeah, thank you, you’re too old, kiss my ass, I’m outa here.” [Suddenly goes into Al Pacino’s character in And Justice for All] “I’m outa order, you’re outa order, I’m flying, I’ve got my happy thought.” Pacino Pan. “I’m outa dust, you’re outa dust, you’re old, you’re wrinkled, go!” How about Bette Davis as Wendy? “Get over here. Shut up! Get over here, you little creep. But you are! You’re a fairy!”
PLAYBOY: With Pan in the can, will you be glad to get out of Los Angeles and return to your home in Northern California?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. This place is strange for me. It’s a fantasy life, just very surreal. It’s a city where they have drive-by shootings, two-shot minimum. When you’re in L.A. for more than a month, you bump into your career too much. You start reading the trades, looking for your name. You get paranoid about how you’re doing. We’re living in this rented house in this security area in Bel Air where you go, fuck-this is a fortress. There’s a gate, a little beeper, a guy that comes if you press the beeper. What is that? Is that the way it’s supposed to be? N-o-o-o-o. But it’s the reality of this place and that’s why I don’t live here. People do pretty horrible business things to each other and still try and hang socially here. I don’t come down and hang out here. The house we just bought in San Francisco is at the mouth of the bay and you can go from there through this beautiful park and up along the western beaches. It’s incredible. It’s nice to have distance between you and the world.
PLAYBOY: You talk about horrible business things. Have you ever been screwed over?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I’m still getting fucked with. You’re not immune from it at any level.
PLAYBOY: Are you talking about being passed over for the Joker in Batman and losing the lead role in the upcoming film Jack the Bear to Danny DeVito?
WILLIAMS: What they do a lot of times, they bait people. They’ll say, “Robin might do this, are you in or out?” A lot of things are word of mouth and a lot of people are offered something and then, immediately, it’s taken away and given to somebody else. There are many stories of Gene Hackman getting offered a film and then they’re pulling him because Paul Newman comes back.
PLAYBOY: Were you used as bait to get Jack Nicholson to play the Joker?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. I was a little pissed by that. He’d been offered it six months before and then it was given to me. I replied, but they said I was too late. They said they’d gone to Jack over the weekend because I didn’t reply soon enough. I said, “You gave me till Monday, I replied before the deadline.” But it was just to get Jack off the pot.
PLAYBOY: And what happened more recently with Jack the Bear?
WILLIAMS: That was a case where something was written for me, developed for me and they gave it to somebody else. It was just a breakdown in the system. But I don’t want to harbor hatred, anger. I just have to keep working. Otherwise, how do you separate yourself from not wanting to go and buy an automatic weapon, kick down the studio doors and say, “I’m coming”? That’s why stand-up is great. It really helps to defuse that.
PLAYBOY: But haven’t you also had problems in that area, as well? Didn’t some magazines print complaints from comics accusing you of stealing their material?
WILLIAMS: I don’t believe that shit. I bought that rap for a long time with a certain guilt, thinking, You’re right, I’m no original. Yeah, I hung out in clubs eight hours a night, improvising with people, playing with them, doing routines. And I heard some lines once in a while and I used some lines on talk shows accidentally. That’s what got me that reputation and that’s why I’m fucking fed up with it. If I found out I used someone’s line, I paid for it-way beyond the call. But thinking that I’m sitting around listening to people and saying, “Oh, that’s great, I’ll use that.” No, that’s horseshit. To say that I go out and look for people’s material is bullshit and fucked. And I’m tired of taking the rap for it. People used a lot of my stuff, too. You’re supposed to just go, “Well, that’s flattery.” And sometimes people give you lines. A drunken guy came up to me years ago on the street and said, “Robin, here’s something for you: ‘Cocaine is God’s way of saying you’re making too much fucking money.’” A lot of times people come up and tell you this stuff. And you have to be careful. Did they hear this somewhere else? That’s why I avoid anything to do with clubs. People keep saying, “Why don’t you do The Comedy Store?” I don’t want to go back and get that rap again from anybody.
Another thing is, I don’t want to take anybody else’s time. I got tired of [other comics] giving me looks, like, what the fuck are you doing here? Maybe sometimes, don’t you understand, if I show up, it might bring other people to see you? You idiot. People come to some of these clubs hoping to see people like me, once in a while, and that’s great if they can see you beforehand.
PLAYBOY: If you don’t go to clubs to work out the frustrations of the movie business, what do you do for release?
WILLIAMS: Sometimes I get it with groups of friends. Invite people over and go, “Two-drink minimum.” I miss it, yeah. It’s just hard to find the clubs right now because they are so jammed. You don’t want to bump anybody. If I go on any place, it’s usually in the middle of the week, late at night, unannounced. When no one else is fucking there, so no one can say, “You took my line.”
PLAYBOY: Does stand-up help you with your acting?
WILLIAMS: The outrageousness and aggressiveness of it is perfect sometimes for acting. But the other side of acting is to peel all that away, just take off all the armor.
Someone asked Nicholson, “What is acting?” And he said, “Why should I tell you the fucking tricks?” Every person is driven by some deep, deep, deep secret and finding it drives you through.
PLAYBOY: Do you look for those secrets?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, you look for that, to help fuel the whole thing. I don’t know the great secrets of acting, I’m just now learning that it’s getting to the point where you don’t act. Some sort of Zen concept where you finally realize that what you think is acting, you shouldn’t do anymore.
PLAYBOY: If acting is ultimately letting people in, doesn’t that contrast with stand-up, which often means being aggressive to keep people at a distance?
WILLIAMS: It can be as aggressive as you want to be, depending on how fearless you are. Sometimes you want to keep people at a distance-people who have had four cocktails, twelve beers, going, “Blow me!” Do you really want to let them in? Come, let me share with you my deepest secrets. But sometimes you do, you’ll find the right group of people and you’ll just talk about shit that will amaze you. But you should be careful, because you might start talking about something you’re not ready to deal with.
PLAYBOY: Has that ever happened to you?
WILLIAMS: No, I kind of watch over that. Some issues are deeply personal. I get near them and think, I’m not ready to deal with that yet. When you’re comfortable with it, you can be free about it. If not, it’s open-heart surgery.
PLAYBOY: Do you have an interior voice that sometimes censors you?
WILLIAMS: It’s a voice that tells you, danger. There was a night at the Holy City Zoo [in San Francisco] where four guys started to get nasty. It became very confrontational. Are you up for it? Depends. Are you up for the fact that the worst thing you say escalates to violence? Can you deal with that? It can get a little prime. I never drank or did drugs on stage, but there were times when I thought I was going to go crispy, mainly because I was hung over. And one time, someone gave me a line of coke before I went out. For me, cocaine made me paranoid, and being on stage is not exactly the place to go when you’re paranoid. It was a short trip to hell. When I drank, the audience would send up a kamikaze switch-vodka and lime juice-chilled. They just want to see you drop. Kill the comic, flatten the boy. Watch the little furry guy go down. And one night, I almost did. I had four of them. I don’t remember what I said, but people said it was pretty funny. I was dancing with chairs. But I didn’t want that lack of control.
PLAYBOY: Vincent Canby once described your monolog as “so intense that one feels that at any minute the creative process could reverse into a complete personality meltdown.” Have you ever felt that could happen?
WILLIAMS: Where it’s beyond “Love me, please love me, or I might destroy myself”? It’s like comedy terrorism. But all I’m doing is taking and expanding out from an idea. You say a sentence and some word will trigger another word and sometimes they’ll all turn back onto each other and you’ll come back to the original premise. Then, when you really feel great, you’re just free-forming and there’s no connection between the inspiration and the bit. Then you don’t know what it is. It becomes one of those out-of-body experiences. At the Improv in San Francisco one night, just before the Gulf war started, I hadn’t been on stage in a long time and all this stuff I’d been thinking about just exploded. Marsha said, “I’ve never seen you so together and yet so free.” Even Garry Shandling, who was there, said, “You fucker.” I did a whole piece about the Christian religion, where it started off as a mom-and-pop religion where Mom was a virgin and Pop was God, and then it got organized and you can’t have a pop anymore, it has to be a Pope, kiss the ring. The bit just got so large it almost got frightening. It was getting near the edges of people’s credulity, where you start to fuck with the premise of what they hold near and dear.
PLAYBOY: Do you ever worry that you’ll run out of ideas?
WILLIAMS: No, there’s a world out there. Open the window and it’s there. The world is changing now, it’s beyond arithmetic. It’s like into some Malthusian nightmare. In two seconds, governments are gone. Oops, it’s Lithuania-no, it’s Yugoslavia-no, it’s two countries. It’s changing that quick. And there’s so much to play off. We’re living in this momentary society. If you want to be topical, that’s the danger.
PLAYBOY: What happens when you’re out there improvising and you suddenly draw a blank?
WILLIAMS: Oh, that happens a lot. To the point where you hit Premise Prairie. Nothing there. What do you do? Oh, God, the great abyss. Do you fall back on something old? Or do you die the death of deaths and try to go on? Can you find the courage to push yourself beyond the cliché and go to the next step? If you take the chance, sometimes you’ll find something so magnificent that it was worth dying for, and sometimes you’ll find nothing and have a horrible night. To go deeper with it, that’s the most interesting challenge.
PLAYBOY: Have you ever been envious of another comic’s routines?
WILLIAMS: I was just envious of other people’s daring. Like Richard Pryor’s ability to be so bold in talking about himself. Total candor. Now he’s this fragile man. I’ve seen him go on stage and people start yelling shit and he doesn’t know how to respond to them. Where in the old days he’d go, “Fuck me. Go away, motherfucker! Blow me! Suck my dick! I’ll put it out here, bring your little dumb ass….” One night, about five years ago, he went on, Eddie Murphy went on and I went on, and Richard was kicking again, it was great. When he kicks, there’s no one in the world better. No one has ever done what he does. He is the king of that. He did the best performance movie. And his stand-up, he set the rules. Then destroyed the boundaries.
PLAYBOY: Has he gone places where you’ve drawn the line?
WILLIAMS: I don’t want to talk that personally. Richard took it to the level of self-immolation. To the level of destruction. Some people have taken it to the point of disemboweling themselves on stage, to rage, to total anxiety. When Sam Kinison was starting out, it was incredible because it was so painful, and hilarious because he was talking about relationships. “I’m married…a-g-h-h-h-h-h!” And what struck you was the fact that this schlub had been through all this, and then he took another turn and got into a whole other area.
PLAYBOY: Who are the comedians who make you laugh?
WILLIAMS: Up until recently, if it’s stand-up, you’ve got to say Pryor, George Carlin. Kinison. Bob Goldthwait. Charlie Fleischer for obscure comedy-he does wonderful, strange impressions. Among comics, if you asked who’s their favorite, usually Jay Leno is in the top three, if not the top, because he is so quick and he’s the most topical of anybody. He has that Elvis jaw, that face you could cut windows with, but he has a rock-hard view of the world that cuts through shit on either side. Like he was doing all those Sununu jokes, just beating the shit out of him. Then he had a great line about Russia starting a democratic party; he said, “Why don’t they use ours, we’re not using it?” He can fire both ways.
PLAYBOY: What do you think of David Letterman and Arsenio Hall?
WILLIAMS: Doing television sucks material out of you like a vacuum cleaner on speed. Letterman is doing the same stuff he was doing years and years ago, this acerbic thing where he’d just let people hang themselves. He’s brilliant at that. Arsenio is an interesting combination of shmoosing and doing great characters.
PLAYBOY: How often do you rely on finding comedy through characters?
WILLIAMS: Characters are just a free way of talking as yourself. One night, I did that with Terry Gilliam. I created this ax murderer, a character he said was really frightening but hilarious. This very sweet guy who had killed people. Gilliam would ask me questions and I just started going with it.
PLAYBOY: You’ve worked with Gilliam on two films, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and, more recently, The Fisher King. He seems to be an unusual director.
WILLIAMS: He’s like John Huston, one of those people who has a vision, a way of seeing the world. Some people think it’s askew, some think it’s brilliant. Terry shoots stuff that has a half life. You walk out and it hits you. Whew! Shit! Fuckin’ sixty-foot samurais! Red knights! Icarus! Simple things! He creates images that are shot into your skull.
PLAYBOY: In The Fisher King, you’re playing a role more like Leonard, the character De Niro played in Awakenings—the innocent who winds up in a hospital with semicomatose people. Have you considered the irony?
WILLIAMS: It is somewhat ironic that I end up in a catatonic state. It was strange. And almost similar, except my character is lying down and his was in a wheelchair. The thing that appealed to me was not, “Oh, it will be great, now I’ll get to play the other part.” It was that the story was so interesting and the characters were so balanced. It has this wonderful strange going-back-and-forth quality to it-where one moment it’s very funny and the next it’s horrifying. That’s what I liked about it.
PLAYBOY: You shot Awakenings at a Brooklyn mental hospital. How tough was that mentally?
WILLIAMS: It was grueling, because there were real folks there on the bottom two floors. There was a ward that we never saw, of violent, criminally insane guys. You’d hear them screaming sometimes. It was depressing. It would make even Kafka go, “Too much.” It’s really the dark side.
PLAYBOY: That touching scene when Leonard awakens-were you off camera doing things to make him laugh?
WILLIAMS: Bob would say, “Surprise me.” So I did Harvey Fierstein talking to him. “Leonard, sweetheart, lose the puppy on the pajamas. Come over here, darling, did Mom bring you that terrycloth robe? Do you want some slippers?” I could drop him doing that.
PLAYBOY: You’ve worked with De Niro and now Hoffman. What did you get from them?
WILLIAMS: Dustin’s a guy who will try anything. He prepares up the ass, too. He’s doing make-up tests, trying to make himself look totally different, trying to transform. I’ve been on three films that he was supposed to do: Popeye, Garp and Dead Poets. I should be just hanging out by his house. “What did you pass on? Yeah? OK, that sounds good. What else?”
From Bob, you get the power of silence, of the deep-diving man. It’s scary. To be in the same room with Bob and you’re acting with him. [Becomes interviewer] “What are the fun things you want to do?” [Answers in a high-pitched voice] “I want to run a marathon with Frank Shorter, box with Mike Tyson and act with Bob De Niro.” You see how little he does and you think, What the fuck is this? But he knows how powerful he is. It’s total economy. Borders on rarefied. He knows exactly to the vowel what’s too much.
PLAYBOY: Oliver Sacks, the doctor who wrote Awakenings, said he thought that the way your unconscious and preconscious mind worked was a form of genius.
WILLIAMS: Oh, God, coming from him! Really? I feel like the Rain Man: “That’s OK, that’s OK, gotta go now, gotta make in my underwear. Thanks, Oliver, gotta go, gotta go.” Oliver thinks on levels that I’ve never dreamed of, because he has so much information. And he differentiates between the mind and the brain. The brain controls bodily functions and whatever. And then there’s this thing called the mind, which has to do with soul, with elements of philosophy, with things that are so deep and profound and beyond anything that you can analyze, but in essence, it drives it all.
PLAYBOY: So what do you think of his assessing you a genius?
WILLIAMS: Can I call myself a genius? N-o-o-o! I can say I get flashes once in a while. These riffs that run through you and you know it’s something you’ve never done before, and that’s great. There are people who live in that zone. Have you read [physicist] Richard Feynman’s book [Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman]? These people fascinate me. If there’s any profession I envy, it’s that. Imagine what it’s like to be Stephen Hawking and to come up with the Theory of Everything. But he’s got the job and he’s doing it great. I wonder if there are guys who collect just scientists’ autographs. “Excuse me, pardon me, Mr. Oppenheimer, seen all your bombs, could you please sign this? God bless ya. Could you put your name near your particle?”
PLAYBOY: Would you put any actors in the pantheon of geniuses?
WILLIAMS: The Brando man. Mr. Nicholson. Mr. De Niro. Mr. Hoffman, just because he keeps trying different things. Al Pacino. Duvall for his great characters. The younger ones? Probably one of the finest actors on film is Gary Oldman. And actresses? Meryl [Streep]. Susan Sarandon. [Pauses] God, this is hard, it sounds like I’m pimping for work.
Another genius who lives in that painful zone is Carrie Fisher. She’s constantly pushing herself to find new stuff and says brilliant things on a pretty consistent level. She’s very literate, lives on that painful edge, almost beyond that edge.
PLAYBOY: Geniuses in other arts?
WILLIAMS: God. Did you ever hear the music of Keith Jarrett? Some of the piano pieces just pour out of him.
Other geniuses? There are people who push the parameters. They take you someplace else. Musically, who keeps pushing the envelope? Just in terms of songs, you think of someone like Tracy Chapman, who tries things. Paul Simon. People may now think he’s getting redundant because he’s done another ethnic album, but no. Think of Bob Dylan. Think of who the people are you’d want to talk to. They must have some kind of genius if you’re thinking, I want to know what makes that fucker tick.
What makes Dylan go [improvises as Dylan]: “Time is enriched/Where does that poetry come from?/A man who changes religion more than he can change his shoes. I’m a wandering Jew from Malibu/Whaddya say we gotta do?/Look at me rip off Zimmerman!/I was a Christian, then Hasidim/For the things I truly need.”
He writes some great poetry. And it kicks. You may wonder what he is saying, but it’s wonderful stuff. In comedy, you think of Pryor. But that’s genius born of total pain. George Carlin. He just keeps pushing it. He doesn’t care. He did a great piece in Comic Relief about golf courses and graveyards. He lives in that zone where stuff keeps coming through him.
In literature, [Kurt] Vonnegut. No one is consistent, no one bats a thousand.
PLAYBOY: Ever read James Joyce?
WILLIAMS: Tried. Read the first couple lines of Ulysses, then went, whew, thanks, I’ll wait till the punctuation’s in.
PLAYBOY: You seem to transform yourself from movie to movie, jumping from the sensitive teacher of Dead Poets to the sleazy car salesman of Cadillac Man to the vulnerable doctor in Awakenings, the wounded knight errant in The Fisher King and now the boy-man Peter Pan. Are there any films you’ve made for reasons other than artistic ones?
WILLIAMS: Club Paradise. They said it would be a box-office smash, a great combination of people, we’ll kick ass, etc. And then [explosion sound] my ass got kicked. That’s when you get screwed. Jump off with your passion, not as a whore. I believed in The Fisher King and in Hook. In the stories. With Hook, it’s not blowing people away, stabbing and slicing and killing-it’s about heart and family and love and orphans and interesting and deep issues for all of us in an age of greed. And Fisher King I did because it’s about bottom-line compassion, about redemption, about not taking people on initial value but looking deeper. It’s about dependency and strange relationships that come and go.
PLAYBOY: Is that why you did Dead Poets Society?
WILLIAMS: It talks about something of the heart and of pursuing that which is a dream-and in some cases, to a tragic end. Originally, my character was supposed to have leukemia, which would have been Dead Poets Love Story. Then Peter Weir said, “Let’s lose that. Focus on the boys.” Lose the melodrama and it becomes much simpler and much better.
PLAYBOY: Brando says that comics are people with a lot of anger and pain. Have you felt much pain and anger?
WILLIAMS: No. Number one, I didn’t go through a very tough childhood. I used to joke about it. Say, “I was sixteen before I had my first Mercedes.” Or, “I had to work all summer long just to go to Europe.” I had a wonderful childhood. All I suffered from was a lack of a lot of parental contact and being raised basically by the black maid. There may have been some uncomfortable moments, but no anger or bitterness. It’s not, “Shit! Fuck! This world sucks!” I just made this incredible fantasy life because I had only myself to play with.
PLAYBOY: Did you have any kind of rite of passage into manhood?
WILLIAMS: You mean put your penis on a rock, bang your balls with this big stone and now you’re a man? No. Was it confirmation? No, because I’m Protestant, idiot! There’s no confirmation. There’s just escrow. I really made the transition to manhood when I went away to college, moving away from home to where there was no one dictating what choices I had to make and I went berserk for one year. I just went, “Fuck this! There are girls to sleep with! And improvisational-theater classes, where you don’t have to learn any lines and people laugh.” I did all the shit that I ever wanted to do. Flunked out of all the political science classes, but found what I’m doing now. It was this weird catharsis. Total freedom. Like going from Sing Sing to a Gestalt nudist camp. Everything opened up. The whole world just changed in that one year.
Then came the second transitional period, when I was about thirty, when I started to talk to my father [shortly before his death]. That was like the Wizard of Oz, where you look behind that curtain and you see the man for what he is. There was this little man behind the curtain, going, “Take care of your mother and I love you and I’ve been very worried about certain things. And I’m afraid, but I’m not afraid.” It’s an amazing combination to exhilaration and sadness at the same time, because the god transforms to a man.
PLAYBOY: How strict was he when you were a boy?
WILLIAMS: Not very strict at all. He was stern. He looked like a retired English viceroy, he had that kind of laid-back way about him. I never heard my pop yell, except once when I flipped my mother the bird. That’s the one time I got smacked. They were yin and yang, my parents, who gave me a kind of perfect balance to do what I do now. My mother’s this outrageous character who’s so sweet and basically believes in the goodness of people. And Dad had seen the nasty sides of people. He had been in combat. She told me, “There are no boundaries.” And he gave me this depth that helps with acting and even with comedy, saying, “Fuck it. Do you believe in this? Do you really want to talk about it? Do it. Don’t be frightened off.” Somewhere in his early life, he had to give up certain things, certain dreams. And when I found mine, he was deeply pleased. He was working his tits off to make this life and he had been screwed over by too many people in the automobile industry, which uses you and discards you just like the movie industry. He had seen that my life was in transition and that I was starting to take control.
PLAYBOY: Weren’t there some problems with your parents’ taking you out of boarding school to live with them?
WILLIAMS: No, I wanted to go back home because I wanted to be with my family. My mother’s so naïve about certain things. The National Enquirer called her and said, “We’re doing a story and we’d like to have some photos.” She gave them photos of my father and me and some school photos. They used these pictures to imply that my father was this tyrant and I came from this horrible existence and that’s why I was funny.
PLAYBOY: And how did your mother react when she saw that story?
WILLIAMS: She felt used, and she was. But that is also balanced with her desire to sometimes be in the limelight. Normally, if I’m with her and I see cameras, I say, “Let’s go, Mom.” And she turns into Bette Davis. She’s saying, “Stop! Let’s talk to them.” It gets interesting. But it can sometimes feel like psychic rape. Like the People interview. When you do these things, you get halfway through and you realize, My god, they’re sticking it to me. It’s like this feeling of violation. And what’s weird is they’re stabbing you with your own kitchen utensils. “That’s my fork!”
PLAYBOY: Let’s talk about that People cover, where they sensationalized your leaving your wife Valerie for your child’s nanny, Marsha. There was a very strong anti-People reaction within the entertainment industry because of that, wasn’t there?
WILLIAMS: I think so. They went from being a magazine people wanted to do to a magazine people were wary of. It was really a hatchet job, a setup, an ambush. A very low blow. And it cost them. Celebrities got very worried, like, Why should I do a story with you?
PLAYBOY: Would you ever do another story with them?
WILLIAMS: No. Not while the management is the same.
PLAYBOY: They described your life then as being at “the apex of a triangle of tension.”
WILLIAMS: The tension was only that I was trying to tidy up the last ends of my first marriage and get on with my life with Marsha. And the fact that I didn’t want to talk about that, because I was trying to be respectful of my first marriage and end it decently. And then it just exploded. But I was so angry and horrified that the interview turned this way, it was like being mugged. At the end, they said, “We have to ask you certain questions or you don’t get the cover.” Fuck it, I don’t need a cover that badly. I sat down and talked to the reporter very personally and said, “This is what’s up, this is the truth.” And they didn’t put any of it in. They made it seem exactly what they wanted to do from the very beginning: Marsha broke up the marriage. Which is total horseshit.
PLAYBOY: What is the truth?
WILLIAMS: I had been separated and away from my wife for a year by the time Marsha and I became involved. And the reason my marriage fell apart had nothing to do with Marsha, it was with a total other woman that I can’t even get into now for legal reasons.
PLAYBOY: Is this the woman who sued you, claiming you gave her herpes?
WILLIAMS: I can’t discuss it, it’s what’s called a gag order, you’re not allowed to discuss it till it gets settled. I had this wanderlust and so did Valerie. And Marsha was working as my assistant at that time. She would just talk me down. I was not suicidal but fucked up. My wife was living with another man, I was just out of my fucking mind. I was very indignant and self-righteous and Marsha said, “Listen, asshole, there’s no reason to be indignant, you were no prince, she was no saint.” After about a year, I started into therapy. I was living in a house on the beach and started to get my life together and I fell in love with Marsha. And that’s why my life was saved by her, not ruined by her. That was a troubled time, and enough said.
PLAYBOY: Marsha has called herself your safety net. How strong is she?
WILLIAMS: It’s more than just a safety net, it’s a reality check. She’s real honest about everything. If I start to get too insecure, she’ll say, “Stop it, you’re great.” And she’s very creative, too. She was a weaver, but she gave it up to help me with my work. She was writing with me, she would write on Good Morning, Vietnam. She makes sure everything runs. Not that I have a huge entourage. I mean, I’ve got her, I’ve got…I mean, she’s not an entourage. [As interviewer] “How many in your entourage?” [Pompously] “Well, the family. Zelda, who I can write off as a roadie.” [As the child Zelda] “Daddy, can’t carry bags, bags heavy.”
PLAYBOY: You moved your family to New York when you did Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with Steve Martin at Lincoln Center. How was that experience?
WILLIAMS: Painful. We put our ass out and got kicked for it. Some nights I would improvise a bit and the hard-core Beckett fans got pissed off. We played it as a comedy team; it wasn’t existential. Like these two guys from vaudeville who would go into routines that would fall apart into angst. Basically, it’s Laurel and Hardy, which is how Beckett had staged it in Germany.
PLAYBOY: Did you and Martin learn anything from each other?
WILLIAMS: I learned about physical comedy and the nuts and bolts about timing from him, because, obviously, when I do my act, I have as much timing as an Uzi! And his is the comedy of pause, of waiting, of holding back. I don’t know what he learned from me. Perhaps about how not to be that anxious or obsessive. I also got to know about his appreciation of art. I’ve seen some of the art he has bought and I thought, Wow, while I was off putting half my profits up my nose, that’s what you were doing. You were buying that. He trades paintings as if they were baseball cards.
PLAYBOY: During the early Eighties, when you were snorting your profits away, how out of control did you get?
WILLIAMS: I was totally out of control for a while. It was either fear or just a sheer wanting to run away from it all. I couldn’t imagine living the way I used to live. I don’t remember it as being anything except quick, with this series of people flashing through my life. Now people come up to me from the drug days and go, “Hi, remember me?” And I’m going, “No, did I have sex with you? Did I take a dump in your tool box?” It was kind of like my head was in a bell jar. I got crazier and crazier and then petered off.
PLAYBOY: When did it stop?
WILLIAMS: After John [Belushi] died. A month or two after that.
PLAYBOY: A lot was made of your visit to Belushi the night before he died, but you were reluctant to discuss openly exactly what happened. Have you ever talked about it?
WILLIAMS: I discussed it with the grand jury. I went to see John, he didn’t want to see me and I left. And that was it. It was blown into this whole evening of debauchery. Like we’d been out together all evening.
PLAYBOY: Why didn’t Belushi want to see you?
WILLIAMS: I have a strange feeling it was some sort of miscommunication or a setup in some way, because I went there and there were these strange people there-his friends-and he was loaded. I asked, “Are you OK?” He said, “Yeah, I’ve taken a couple ‘Ludes.” He didn’t look like he wanted me there and I split. And next day he’s dead. It was like seeing an elephant go down. Here’s this guy who was a beast, who could do anything, and he’s gone. That sobered the shit out of everybody.
PLAYBOY: Did you know Belushi well?
WILLIAMS: I knew him vaguely, I was with him a couple of times. Drinking once. There was one time that was magnificent, because we both sat and watched Jonathan Winters perform. That was the sanest I ever saw him.
PLAYBOY: That brings us to one of those questions you’re often asked: What is it about Jonathan Winters that so inspired you?
WILLIAMS: It was like seeing a guy behind a mask, and you could see that his characters were a great way for him to talk about painful stuff. I found out later that they are people he knows-his mother, his aunt. He’s an artist who also paints with words, he paints these people that he sees. I knew how his act worked when I went to his house and saw his special room. Then I wanted to have a special room like that.
PLAYBOY: What was in his special room?
WILLIAMS: Just things he’s collected, pictures of Presidents that he’s performed for. Kachinas, little dolls, lead soldiers, antique toys, an entire wall of antique pistols. I went, “You’re like me, we both collect information, we collect images and we play them back in this kind of room.” You can see how it affects his art, it’s his room, his mind room. And now I have a room like that.
PLAYBOY: What do you hold to be most valuable in your room?
WILLIAMS: Einstein’s autograph. An English naval cutlass my father gave me. And my most precious object is another thing my father gave me, a little carved netsuke called a Peach Seed Man. It’s a little boy popping out of a peach seed. When my dad gave it to me a couple weeks before he died, he said, “This is you.”
PLAYBOY: Before children start seeing you as Peter Pan, do a lot of them still recognize you as Mork? Do you still get a lot of “Nano nano” when you walk down the street?
WILLIAMS: Some of that still goes on, but that’s in their brains, in the memory bank of a country because it comes from TV. Watch the way people watch TV, it’s hypnotic. Just sit back and you’ve got cable and ninety-five choices and you don’t really care much about anything else. Eventually, you don’t know about history, you can’t remember if there really was a Civil War, and eventually people get slaves again. You can have a President who basically reads cue cards and it seems OK, because he’s just like the guy on the series with the family with the little black child and it seems all right, because he’s kind, and when he’s angry, it’s TV angry, where you get kind of angry but you don’t go, “Fuck off!” You basically get where your eyes dim and the world seems all right and you kind of tighten up so much that your sphincter doesn’t open. Then people at home can be TV pissed and they can go to a TV war and watch it. We basically fought a war, watched it on the TV set, and you can buy the tapes, sucking on the glass teat.
PLAYBOY: It’s been almost a year since the Gulf war. Any opinions on that?
WILLIAMS: Getting involved in the Middle East is like tap dancing in quicksand. There have been similar struggles for about two thousand years. What did we fight for? We fought for these Kuwaiti princes who, for most of the time, were in Zurich going, “Service! I am very upset about my people, hold on…. Put the plate over here and the champagne over there.” And when they came back, the first thing they did was rebuild their pools. Everything went back to where it was before, except Saddam has fewer toys. Why was it a big surprise that as soon as the war was over, he’d go back to doing the same things, business as usual? I don’t believe the war changed much. We’ll probably have to do something like that again in the future. These are people who don’t play by rules.
PLAYBOY: Before George Bush became President, you said he was the kind of guy a rattlesnake would refuse to bite out of professional courtesy.
WILLIAMS: And look how right I was. [As John Wayne] If you take John Wayne and tighten up his ass, [now as Bush] there you have George Bush. I do political voices once in a while just because you gotta keep making fun of the great Bushmeister. He’s just incredible.
PLAYBOY: Do you think there’s anybody among the Democrats who has a chance against Bush?
WILLIAMS: It’s hard, because you’re fighting an image. You’ve been fighting eight years of Mr. Warmth and now George has proved he has the cojones, so who are you going to fight with? You have to come back with someone of notable character and charisma-not things the Democratic Party is going out of its way to look for, if you look at the last two candidates. Bill Bradley could be quite wonderful, he could debate the piss out of Bush, but he doesn’t have that charisma. Gore Vidal? Just watch him redecorate the White House! [Mario] Cuomo? He’s certainly charismatic and powerful, but there’s the sheer ethnic thing of people going [backwoods voice]: “Cuomo? He’s a cuomosexual. What the hell’s that? I ain’t votin’ for no Cuomo!” With no holds barred, I would say Barbara Jordan. This woman is as powerful as anyone you’ll ever hear. She has this dignity. She’s a black woman from Texas and she kicks ass there. She’s amazing, sounds like Roosevelt when she speaks, has that kind of voice. If she was feeling better, I’d say bingo!
PLAYBOY: Do you think that poking fun at our problems can do anything to help solve them?
WILLIAMS: What’s changed for me in the last four years is rather than just sit and criticize, you say OK, what can you actually do to start wading into it and make it work, instead of just saying, “You’re wrong, that sucks, they’re ripping us off.” Now we have to fight from our local community up, and work on schools and for the homeless. All that’s left now in a lot of our schools is reading, writing and arithmetic, everything else is considered catsup.
PLAYBOY: You do a lot of work for the homeless through Comic Relief. Do you also do things for education?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, plenty of stuff, charity things for schools and literacy programs. We’re raising a nation of overweight, unintelligent people. The cities have broken down, the educational systems suffer cutbacks. The reality is, we’re broke. Art exhibits, nudity in films and magazines, abortions, it’s all up for grabs now.
PLAYBOY: Do you think abortions will eventually return to being illegal?
WILLIAMS: Poor people will either be forced to have the children or to go to these horrible doctors who function on the fringe. Making the decision to have an abortion is no easy choice for anybody, and if it isn’t a hard choice, then the woman’s not really going to make a great mother anyway.
PLAYBOY: Have you ever gone through it?
WILLIAMS: Long, long, long time ago, and it was because we were too young and it wasn’t right. Here’s what bothers me more than anything about those who believe in the right to life: They don’t support the second part of the process, when they have all these children. Amend “right to life” to “right to a decent life.” They don’t support the education, they don’t support the health care. If you are going to have a society where it’s mandatory to have a child, let’s make it mandatory to make this child’s life wonderful. I don’t want to deny life to anybody, but sometimes you have to choose-and it’s a horrible choice, I’m not denying that. To deny people that choice forces them into the other dilemma, and then you raise children who are not loved and who go through a living hell of not being wanted, or are tossed off and live in homes or institutions, or who grow up numb.
PLAYBOY: Does the answer lie in better birth control?
WILLIAMS: Here’s the best birth control in the whole world-if you have no pills, no diaphragms, no other forms of contraception, here it is for ladies: If he comes at you with that little thing in his hand, just laugh at it! Ha, ha, ha. We can’t deal with that. It’ll be gone, the little thing will be outa there. Assault with the macaroni, put it away!
I did a recent piece about sex in the Nineties: It’s you and you. Put on the special song that only you like. And you don’t have to fake orgasm, because it’s just you. Ménage à mono. In an age where there is this incredibly deadly virus that could take us out as a species, it puts a whole other spin on it. We all look pretty ridiculous during sex. Even Warren Beatty looks pretty fucking stupid at the moment he fires the fool. Whatever strap-on attachment you use, you still look like a poodle and someone has to get a fire hose.
PLAYBOY: You’ve always been fond of dick jokes, calling it Mr. Weasel, the Throbbing Python of Love, Mr. Happy–
WILLIAMS: The One-Eyed Weasel with No Conscience. For a while, it was the essence of my act. The ultimate dick joke was this tribute the American Cinematheque gave me. It wasn’t a tribute, it was a roast. It was a rough night.
PLAYBOY: Why was it rough?
WILLIAMS: Basically, it was an evening talking about me and my dick. It was Robin and Friend. Me and Señor Schmuck. After a while, I felt I should have gone, “Ladies and gentlemen, let him speak for himself.” [As his dick] “I love the guy and when he’s not choking me, he’s fabulous person.”
PLAYBOY: Why didn’t you do it?
WILLIAMS: How could you follow Billy Crystal, who came out with a giant penis on his head?
PLAYBOY: Wasn’t that the tribute where Chevy Chase insulted Disney’s Michael Eisner?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. He said, “Michael, do you mind if I pee in your mouth?”
PLAYBOY: How uncomfortable did that night get?
WILLIAMS: It was uncomfortable only in the sense of the outrageousness of it. It got pretty intense. It was like a Friars roast, and I don’t think people expected that. I went to Martin Scorsese’s Cinematheque tribute and no one went, “Yo! Marty! You bastard, over here.” His was more of a real honor. I think people came to mine thinking it was going to be an honor and it was, “Blow me. Why don’t you just put your dumb dick on the table?” And Chevy’s thing, and then Billy came out as a dickhead. Everyone unloaded. It was a microwave, not a roast. It was actually written up in Spy. They used it as an example of the decadence of Hollywood. I guess all I’ll be remembered for is my dick.
PLAYBOY: You’re forgetting Popeye.
WILLIAMS: Oh, Popeye, with that face like rubber. I felt like a guy robbing a bank with a condom on his head.
PLAYBOY: Guess you’re right. But at least you’ll be remembered.
WILLIAMS: When in doubt, go for the dick joke.
PLAYBOY: There were a lot of dick jokes made at Pee-wee Herman’s expense after he got busted for allegedly fondling himself in an adult theater. What did you think of all the fuss that was made about that?
WILLIAMS: It was insane. And really frightening. It goes back to the days of Fatty Arbuckle. People forget that. Disney and CBS immediately dropping his stuff. Wait a minute, he’s not been proved guilty, what are you doing? Even if it was true-exposure for masturbation-it’s like being busted for loitering in a Buddhist monastery.
PLAYBOY: Will this ruin his career?
WILLIAMS: I think his appearing at the MTV awards was a sign that the majority of people who matter are not going to buy that shit. He came out as Pee-wee and nobody seemed to mind. They weren’t going, “Begone, demon seed.”
PLAYBOY: The Senate didn’t buy the charges of sexual harassment against Judge Clarence Thomas. Did you see the hearings as a new mine for future dick jokes?
WILLIAMS: It was incredible. Never did a Congressional hearing have so many references to penises. They kind of lifted the rock and showed you the underside of government. Clarence Thomas never gave any opinions to the Senate. They should have a show called Bar Search, with Ed McMahon, where they would go around the country. “Here we are in Pinpoint, Georgia. He’s a judge, he’s also a dancer.”
PLAYBOY: Judge Thomas will probably be on the Court in the year 2020, when you’ll be seventy. What do you think the world will be like then?
WILLIAMS: [In various announcer voices] It will be one giant film corporation. It will be Sony-Disney-Carolmount. There will no longer be any governments. It will be one nation, under God, indivisible, with circuits and VCRs for all. There will be cold fusion. We’ll actually be able to power our cars with our own feces. The emissions problem will be a little intense, but just light a match.
PLAYBOY: This being the start of a new year, did you make any resolutions?
WILLIAMS: I used to when I was a kid. I used to give up a lot of things for Lent, too, and then I still got hairy.
PLAYBOY: At least that won’t stop you from working. Toys, to be directed by Barry Levinson, is next for you. What’s that about?
WILLIAMS: A toy factory taken over by an ex-general who starts making functional war toys. And that’s about all I can tell you. Someone just sent me a script to play Harvey Milk-do you think that will offend some people? That’ll be an interesting choice for my career, won’t it? He really brought a whole city to consciousness.
PLAYBOY: The city was San Francisco and the consciousness had to do with gay men. You’re obviously aware that gays have taken you to task for portraying them effeminately in some of the routines you’ve done for Comic Relief.
WILLIAMS: I understand what they’re talking about and I have tried to cut back a little. I can see their point, because they’ve always been portrayed as being that way. But don’t tell me that if you walk down a street in San Francisco, you won’t see a lot of people like that. I’ve been taking a lot of shit for firing at Jesse Helms, too. These born-again Christians were shooting down AIDS research money at a time when it could take out the species. How do you not offend anyone? Finally, you just say fuck it, I have to do what I do. If it pisses you off, I still do other things that piss other people off. I’ve got the born-again Christians after my ass because I defend gays, and gays are mad at me because I do effeminate characters. You can’t keep modifying or you’re like a chameleon in front of a mirror.
PLAYBOY: You also managed to piss off John Cardinal O’Connor, who objected to your comment about Marsha’s pregnancy when you said you intended to make a movie of it, called Fetal Attraction. He said it was in gross bad taste. Does that concern you?
WILLIAMS: No, it doesn’t. It was really strange, because I’ve said things much rougher than that. I think what offended him more than me saying it was the fact that it was quoted on the news and that people laughed. Well, sorry, John, don’t mean to bum you out. I guess having babies is kind of rough when you’re sitting there surrounded by choir boys. If I’m excommunicated, does that mean I don’t get cable?
PLAYBOY: Jesse Helms, Cardinal O’Connor, some militant gays-and we thought everybody liked you.
WILLIAMS: I’ll give you a list. The weird thing in Hollywood is they’ll still smile at you, but the bottom line is they’re thinking, You prick, you scumbag, I hope you choke on your own shit! Why don’t you gag on your own genitals?
PLAYBOY: Does this come from jealousy?
WILLIAMS: Sometimes they don’t like the way you look. “You’re not funny, fuck you.” In New York, a guy came up and said, “You the guy on TV?” “Yeah, I am.” “You suck! You bite donkey dick, get off, you’re so fucking bad!” Perhaps he had a bad day. But then you start to free up and have a good time with it and hope that a few people like what you do so you don’t have to sell stuff like male hygiene spray. [TV commercial voice] “Foul Ball, for the man. Want to get rid of that special smell? Foul Ball.”
PLAYBOY: You spend a lot of time in New York-making films, doing plays or shows. Do you like going back there?
WILLIAMS: It’s great to go back for a while and get the shit peeled off you, get sandblasted: “You think you’re so hot? I don’t think so.” My favorite part of New York is the Park and the zoo, where you can see the animals wondering, What the fuck am I in a cage for? Look at that lady in bicycle shorts at three hundred pounds. Why am I an object to stare at? Look at her.
PLAYBOY: What’s more important to you: your life or your work?
WILLIAMS: A balance of the two. Time is really this delicate thing. Working your tits off during the week, then find time to come home at night and not be so self-involved. “So, enough about me. Now, what do you think about me?”
PLAYBOY: Any fears of your losing that balance?
WILLIAMS: Recently, Jerzy Kosinski killed himself; supposedly, the reason was that he just didn’t want to become a vegetable, he didn’t want to lose his sharpness. There’s that fear-if I felt like I was becoming not just dull but a rock, that I still couldn’t spark, still fire off or talk about things, if I’d start to worry or got too afraid to say something. As long as you still keep taking the chances and you’re not afraid to play Peter Pan…. What if it fails? “I don’t care, I’m having a great fucking time.” If I stop trying, I’d get afraid.