The generosity of spirit that Robin Williams displays in his human jack-in-the-box roles like in “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “The Fisher King,” and his more modulated work in “Dead Poets Society,” “Good Will Hunting” and other pictures, is the one on-screen quality that co-workers say is also an integral part of the man.
“There are very few people anywhere — never mind the movie business — who live up to a reputation for generosity,” says Mark Johnson, who produced two Barry Levinson-directed movies starring Willliams — “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Toys.”
“It’s refreshing to know that Robin is truly that way,” Johnson says. “In fact, he’s so generous that the support system built around him mostly has the job of keeping him from giving, in whatever way that giving might be manifested.”
“My favorite Robin anecdote is the waltz scene from ‘The Fisher King,'” says Lynda Obst, who co-produced the film with Debra Hill. “We only had Grand Central Station until dawn. We had 1,000 extras and we waltzed them through breaks. It could have been a demoralizing, hurry-up experience, except for Robin. He came alive at 2 a.m., began memorizing the names of all the extras — ‘C’mon, Bill, waltz with Mary …’ like that. He became the conductor, the choreographer, the assistant director and the director all at once and really put spirit into the scene.
“He gets to know the names of all of the kids of anybody who brings their kids to the set,” continues Obst. “He comes to work on the days when he’s not working. He’s fully involved. What you can say about Robin is that he’s the greatest, he’s an angel and he’s the real deal.”
Mike Farrell, the former “MASH” television star who was one of four producers of the Williams-fronted “Patch Adams,” about an actual doctor who prescribes laughs as well as medicine, calls the actor “a one-of-a-kind genius.”
“There’s an incredible sweetness coming from Robin,” Farrell says. “Without getting into hyperbole, he’s an enormously sensitive and fundamentally decent man. You can count on that no matter what. And he’s probably the best physical actor we have in this country.”
Bruno Kirby, who co-starred in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” explains the generosity in terms of the work.
“He never came from the standpoint of what’s best for him or his character, but from the standpoint of what’s best for the scene. He encouraged me to try more ideas. Sometimes, when someone is in the position of the star, they want to improvise for themselves. He was just the opposite. It was joyful working with such a huge talent, yet there was such kindness and humanity there. I can’t think of any time that I wouldn’t want to work with Robin Williams.”
Whoopi Goldberg, who teamed with Williams and Billy Crystal to present the Comic Relief fund-raising concerts-TV events for the homeless in the 1980s and ’90s, finds that Williams’ retention of a certain juvenescence works onscreen and off.
“How can I feel like we’ve grown up together, yet he’s still so much younger than me?” Goldberg asks. “That’s his magic.”
Glenn Close was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her debut film, “The World According to Garp,” as the titular character’s mother.
“He still calls me ‘Mom,'” Close says. “People see him as manic, but I usually think of him as a quiet and shy person. And he’s very savvy and sophisticated with a real sense of irony. I once went to Disneyland with his family and he went in and out of humming and singing, ‘It’s a cruel world after all.’
“He tries to be as truthful as possible — right from the heart,” she adds. “I think he’s a national treasure and an immense talent. His approach, with a childlike sensibility, is admirable, and he does many great acts of kindness. He has what all great clowns have, a sense of tragedy. He embraces the tragic and finds a cosmic sense of humor about it. With all the grief in the world, I thank God for Robin.”
Fran Drescher, TV’s “The Nanny,” co-starred in two Williams films, “Cadillac Man” and “Jack.”
“The first time I worked with him, he gave us all a great example of stardom,” Drescher says. “He was like the host of the party rather than the elitist guy. He’s just as concerned about the guy who picks up after everybody leaves as he is with the co-stars. He can be extremely low key, which people don’t realize. You almost get into the mother mode with him — ‘Do you need something?'”
Williams won his Academy Award for the role of burned-out academic Sean Maguire in “Good Will Hunting.” Co-starring as his fellow professor was Stellan Skarsgard.
“Working with Robin is very different,” Skarsgard says. “He varies scenes and comes up with new lines. His quality is in surprising himself and his fellow actors, and I found that very enjoyable. On one take, suddenly, he is Jack Nicholson. Every take is new. He really explores the material and follows his impulses without discretion.
“He has two or three brains instead of one. Sometimes, he says, ‘I have a stupid idea,’ and he has to have an extra take to get it out of his system,” Skarsgard continues. “He’s a different kind of animal. And that very funny and warm vibe you get from him up on the screen is the same vibe you get walking down the street with him. He is from another galaxy.”
It was Williams’ boundless energy that impressed actress Diane Lane when they working together in Francis Forc Coppola’s “Jack.”
“Everybody asks, ‘What’s it like working with Robin Williams?'” explains Lane. “It’s exactly what you would think. He has such energy. He was willing to experiment, and we never did the same thing twice. He was very into the details of the work. Both he and Francis had great love for childhood and they both were keen to mine out these little details of the childhood experience. Robin will take any risk that you dare him to take. He basically stayed a 10-year-old the whole time.”
Lane recalls that when she first saw “Moscow on the Hudson,” one of Williams’ first dramatic roles, she was worried that Hollywood wouldn’t know what to do with the actor. However, his enormous talents found their place on the big screen. “He certainly managed to carve out a unique place in the business,” she says.