How prolific is Robin Williams? Between 1988 and 1998, the manic movie star appeared in 28 films, a rate of nearly three films a year. Eight of his films grossed more than $100 million. The biggest challenge, it seems, in producing a Williams starrer lies in juggling release dates so he won’t compete with himself at the box office. Take that, Tom Cruise.
In 1998, for instance, Williams starred in “Patch Adams” and “What Dreams May Come.” A subdued pace considering that in 1997, Williams appeared in four films — “Flubber,” “Father’s Day,” “Good Will Hunting” (which won him his first Oscar, as supporting actor) and “Deconstructing Harry.”
With 1999 far from over, three films featuring Williams — two narrative, one documentary — are slated for release before the year is up.
First out of the blocks, Columbia Pictures’ “Jakob the Liar” will have its European preem at Deauville and open in U.S. theaters Sept. 24.
Set in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, “Jakob,” stars Williams as Jakob Heym, a poor cafe owner who lives in a Jewish ghetto. He instills hope in his fellow Jews by inventing and spreading fictitious news bulletins about Allied advances against the Nazis.
While the plot appears a cross between “Life Is Beautiful” and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” the film is a remake of a 1974 East German film, “Jakob der Lunger.” This earlier work, based on a novel by Jurek Becker published in 1969, received the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Intl. Film Festival.
French director Peter Kassovitz co-wrote and directed this latest incarnation of “Jakob” after optioning the book in 1990.
Kassovitz has directed 30 feature and TV films since 1959, including “Room for Tomorrow.” He had intended to produce “Jakob” in France, where he lives and works, but then his manager, Gary Ungar, suggested Williams for the lead role, meaning the film would become a U.S. production.
“It was almost like the part was written for Robin,” says Kassovitz, who was enthusiastic about the idea. Ungar sent the script to Williams’ Blue Wolf Prods., where it caught the attention of Williams’ producing partner and wife, Marsha Williams.
Excited about the project, she called a meeting in 1996 with herself, her husband, Kassovitz and Kassovitz’s son Mathieu (who directed the critically acclaimed “Hate,” among other films). It went so well that by 1997 they were on location in Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland, making the movie.
“The time between our first meeting and our first day of shooting was pretty short, even by European standards,” says Kassovitz, for whom “Jakob” is not only his first English-language film, but his first produced by a Hollywood studio. “Robin said, ‘OK, I’ll do your film,’ and that was it. Once he committed himself, the studio quickly followed.”
Putting it together
With only a short time between other commitments, Marsha Williams, as the film’s producer, rapidly began to assemble a cast, which ultimately included Alan Arkin, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Bob Balaban.
Kassovitz found Robin Williams’ irrepressible sense of humor instrumental to keeping the cast’s and crew’s spirits up during the shoot, which due to its settings — late October in Poland and Hungary — and subject matter proved arduous.
“We had a lot of laughs because Robin just can’t stop,” Kassovitz says. However, he notes, it was difficult even for Williams to find humor in a story about the Holocaust.
“I had to reassure the American actors, especially Robin, to not be afraid,” says Kassovitz, who as a Hungarian Jew growing up in the 1940s managed to survive the Holocaust himself. “People who lived in the ghettoes survived in part due to their humor. It’s not mocking Jewish people. It’s paying tribute to the Jewish spirit and people.”
Also due for release in September is the docu “Get Bruce!,” which features Williams riffing about his friend, comedy writer Bruce Vilanch. The Miramax film, which will unspool at the Montreal Film Festival, garnered positive reviews after its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Set for a Dec. 17 release is “Bicentennial Man,” which reunites Williams with “Mrs. Doubtfire” director Chris Columbus. Based on a sci-fi short story by Isaac Asimov, pic chronicles the life of an android played by Williams who yearns to be a human being. The film, produced by Wolfgang Petersen for Walt Disney Pictures and co-starring Oliver Platt and Sam Neill — wrapped in August after shooting in San Francisco.
Upcoming projects for Williams include a film based on the autobiography of cartoonist John Callahan, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” Williams optioned the book detailing Callahan’s life as a quadriplegic and recovering alcoholic, and intends to star in and produce the film. Gus Van Sant, who helmed “Good Will Hunting,” is interested in directing.
One would assume that keeping up this rapid pace of production, would grow wearisome. But as Bob Balaban, points out, “Underneath everything, Robin is happy when he’s working. If he didn’t enjoy it, he wouldn’t have to do it.”