He is the �ber-comic, the one other comedians fear and
respect. On the raw frontier of comedy, he's the gunslinger of giggles, a dead
shot who, when it comes to audiences, always kills. And now, like a shaggy dog,
Robin Williams has followed the likable likes of Tim Allen and Steve Martin as
a Hollywood-regulation, movie-comedy, straight-man dad.
It's not a bad thing. And he's sort of played a movie dad before, in drag,
as the titular Mrs. Doubtfire. Or magically, as an older and domesticated Peter
Pan in "Hook." Yet now, playing a put-upon pop in the family-vacation comedy
"RV," opening tomorrow, it seems a rare instance of the tornado being tamed.
Not that his co-stars noticed anything different on the set.
Jeff Daniels, for one, says he knew going in that Williams is "always gonna
go off" on his famed improvisational riffs. Then it's just a matter of going
with him." Which did, Daniels admits, require survival techniques. Sometimes on
a take, Daniels' hale and hearty character "would slap [Williams] real hard on
the shoulder, and then I'd get to that point in take two and I wouldn't do it
- so I'd keep Robin off-balance a bit. It was my only prayer," Daniels jokes.
"But I had a good time with him. He's a good listener."
Likewise off the set, according to Tony Award-winning singer Kristin
Chenoweth, who plays Daniels' spunky wife. "Robin and I could probably talk for
three hours nonstop," she says cheerfully. And not just talk. "People try to
sing in front of me and they get nervous," says the formidable Broadway belter.
"Except for Robin. He'll sing a full aria. In another language we've never
Making it up
That fearlessness served Williams well in his transition from street
performer to screen performer in 1977. He found his niche riskily going
off-script the following year to improvise many of his own lines on a network
TV series, "Mork & Mindy." A sudden star, he could have burnt out as a comedy
supernova (he has continued to perform standup with great success, over his
30-year career). Instead he stretched to become an Academy Award-winning
dramatic actor ("Good Will Hunting") and additional three-time nominee (for the
dramas "The Fisher King" and "Dead Poets Society" and the seriocomedy "Good
Morning, Vietnam"). But he has also kept his hand in the over-the-top hilarity
("Mrs. Doubtfire," "Death to Smoochy") that made him famous in the first place.
Which brings us to 2006 and "RV." Williams plays Bob Munro, a Willy
Loman-esque executive in a soda corporation. Forced to choose between his job
or a long-promised and postponed Hawaiian vacation with his family - wife Jamie
(Cheryl Hines) and spoiled kids Carl (Josh Hutcherson), 12, and Cassie (singer
Joanna "JoJo" Levesque), 16 - he attempts a third alternative. He rents an RV
for a family road trip on which he will secretly take along work that will
ultimately deliver him to the Colorado company his own company is acquiring -
and where Bob is expected to appear by a certain date.
"I never imagined being anyplace different," he says contemplatively in his
Manhattan hotel room, interviewed privately during a press junket for "RV."
"There's no, 'This is where I vant to be,'" he says, affecting a sinister
tone in the first of many voices he'll trot out for the conversation. "It's
where I am. It's not like I envisioned being more or less." He pauses, as if,
improbably, thinking about it for the first time. "It's been good. It's been a
A comedy of family
While there are physical, gross-out gags, the core of the movie is its
family dynamics. It opens with Cassie's childhood, when Dad's her hero and
she's a sweet little girl he's tucking into bed. Flash-forward to now, and
she's an obnoxious, iPodding teenager you just want to slap.
Williams' own daughter, Zelda, is 16. "It's kind of interesting to see this
phase, because she's a bit like JoJo's character, very intense, very much
like, 'You're so embarrassing,'" he says, launching into her voice. "'You
really bother me, Robin.'" She and her brother Cody, 14, call him by his first
name, he says, "when they're going to be kinda businesslike. They call you
'Robin' and then you realize, 'We're having a meeting, aren't we?' 'Cody and I,
as partners in this family, have developed what we like to call profit-sharing
ideas ...'" Williams also has an NYU-graduate son, Zack, with first wife
Valerie Velardi, in addition to his two children with Marsha Garces Williams,
whom he married in 1989.
He became famous almost overnight for improvising wildly and amazingly on
his hit '70s sitcom "Mork & Mindy." After a while, the show's writers would
simply leave space in the script with words to the effect of "Robin does funny
That tradition has continued into "RV."
"We would do two, three, four takes as scripted," says director Barry
Sonnenfeld, "and then I would say, 'You got anything, Robin?' And he would say,
'No, boss, I'm fine,' or, 'Yeah, let me try some stuff.'"
One scene, says Sonnenfeld, "literally was scripted as an improv ... the
Robin Rap," in which Bob rescues his son from some would-be white gangstas at
an RV park. "The script says, 'Robin arrives and says funny stuff to the white
boys.'... We have a totally other version of that scene where Robin plays a
sort of kung-fu Zen master. ... We screened it that way on Long Island, the
first recruited-audience screening we had, and it was phenomenal, it was, like,
hilarious, and I said, 'Well, OK, next screening we'll do the rap version.'
And the rapper tested even bigger than the Zen master, and also I preferred
"Sometimes you just go for the element of surprise," Williams says of doing
improvs with more structured actors, "and if it makes them angry, then you
don't do it again. Some people are very much about, 'Well, when do I come in?'
But when you have people like Cheryl Hines, she'll go anywhere with it; she's
used to that." With "RV," Sonnenfeld says, "Robin and I instantly knew that I
would give him enough rope to ad lib and he would he give me the ability to
control the movie and do takes the way I wanted to."
Unabashed about playing character bits and cameos, Williams is currently in
and out of New York filming a role in the ensemble fable "August Rush" and
another in the Ben Stiller comedy "Night at the Museum."
Slated for summer release is the radio-host thriller "The Night Listener,"
based on the Armisted Maupin novel, which played at the Sundance Film Festival
in January. And he stars in writer-director Barry Levinson's political satire
"Man of the Year," which is scheduled for 2006 release.
As for the reported sequel "Mrs. Doubtfire 2": "No, not happening. The
script they had just didn't work."
After all that, he'll need a vacation himself - though not in an RV.
"I've never driven an RV except for this movie, but I have a Land Rover,"
which he uses for family road trips. And as with Bob and his brood, "All of a
sudden you do have these moments where you're back just as a family, having a
great time and so mellow again that you realize, 'Oh. This is why we're
together.' It takes a while to do that."