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COVER STORY : The Robin Williams Syndrome : Grown-up of choice to play Peter Pan in Spielberg's 'Hook,' 'the little manic guy' has the Hollywood clout to remain forever young--true to the ideals of the child and the artist

December 08, 1991|IRENE LACHER | Irene Lacher is a Times staff writer .

SAN FRANCISCO — Just about this time of year, it's supposed to be raining. But paradise--a technical term for the city on this particularly fine day--simply refused to oblige. The sky was a hard enamel blue despite the autumn odds, and Robin Williams, who takes nothing for granted in his adopted hometown, was crowing over his arid good fortune.

"People will be going, 'What's that, Ma?' 'That's rain, Tommy.' 'What's that like, Ma?' 'Well, you know when the sprinklers go off?' "

Today, Williams is all soft fur and chopped-up kimonos. His milky blue eyes are shaded by a fringe of brown puppy-down hair. His barrel chest is encased in a delicate vest made of Japanese fabric swatches. Even his feet scream Robin Williams--one is shod in a red sneaker, the other in primary yellow.

As he riffs and trudges down a dusty path in Golden Gate Park, Williams is feeling very much on solid ground. To his left the rich foliage breaks to reveal the Polo Fields, a sanctuary en plein air . There only a week earlier, Williams, among others, had been entertaining the troops--the 300,000 mourners for rock and benefit impresario Bill Graham and the embattled '60s ideals he stood for.

"There was a great quote of (Graham's). He said, 'When things piss you off, you've got a choice. You can either sit there and kvetch and say, "Oh, this is awful," or do something about it.' I think the one thing I picked up from him is you can do something about it and also have a great time," muses Williams, himself a stalwart of Comic Relief benefits for the homeless for four years.

Williams "feels this responsibility to what he stands for," says Lynda Obst, who co-produced the actor's recent film "The Fisher King," "be it the innocence and the joy of childhood, which he can bring into his performance, or that innocence of the time we all shared in the '60s that Bill Graham emblemized."

If it takes a certain innocence to emerge from the '80s, altruism intact, then Williams is the grown-up of choice to harness his own inner child for fun and profit. It's a quality that sets him apart from most other box-office behemoths. After the hard-charging politics of the '60s and the materialism of the '80s, here comes the movie star for the '90s--a combination of the two, the reluctant millionaire with a message.

So Williams' selection as the born-again adolescent Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg's "Hook" would seem to be stunningly obvious.

"The minute Steven heard that Robin wanted to do Peter, he was ecstatic," says Kathleen Kennedy, a co-producer on "Hook" (TriStar's big holiday release, which opens Wednesday). "He felt that Robin embodies everything about the child inside of us, and that was really the message that he was trying to achieve with the movie."

But perhaps paradoxically, playing to type has often been a double-edged sword for the latest Peter Pan in his own battles at the box office. His first film role, Robert Altman's "Popeye" (1980), may have seemed a logical next step from his dazzlingly successful portrayal of TV's interplanetary Mork from Ork. But the big-screen fantasy was a notorious commercial and critical disaster, flayed in part for binding the actor behind a turgid cartoon character.

Now, Williams is mindful of certain eerie similarities to Peter Pan. "I was like, 'This is a little frightening,' " he says. "That's why doing Peter Pan is still a little like, oooohhhh, another character with the name P . Another icon. Oh, man. You want that pressure?"

What's more, Williams' typical roles have tended to confront him with a critical conundrum--he's cast for being Robin Williams, then he's castigated for it.

His portrayal of the cuddly schizophrenic Parry in "The Fisher King," another baby step from his stand-up persona, may have been anointed by some East Coast critics, but it drew typically mixed reviews: The Chicago Tribune wrung its hands over "so much burly humanity, particularly of the overbearing Robin Williams variety" and the Boston Globe groaned, "You wish the film would go off the deep end, as Williams' character would do more often if it weren't so tied to his stand-up comic reflexes." Even Williams acknowledges that his wife, Marsha, reminds him when his act interferes with his acting.

Forget his nemesis Hook. In this incarnation of Peter Pan, the hero's biggest challenge could be his own shadow--"that little manic guy" as Williams has tagged his public image, a 78-rpm comedian weaned on a steady diet of audience feedback. For despite Williams' success on Hollywood's terms--big box office--getting the public to see him as more than a frenzied funnyman has been no joke.

"It's hard because people want to know you're a certain thing," he says. "They still say, 'That's the little manic guy. He's the little adrenaline guy. Oh, yeah, he touches himself. He doesn't do that anymore. But wait a minute. He's the little manic guy who played the really quiet guy and then the really scary guy. Oh, no, wait . . . ' "

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