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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 .

Segue to Williams' own solitary childhood in Birmingham, Mich., a wealthy suburb of Detroit. (He didn't grow up with his two older half brothers from his parents' earlier marriages--McLauren Smith, a physics teacher in Memphis, Tenn., and Todd Williams, an itinerant wine merchant.)

"I was living in this huge estate," Williams says, and then, with a Williams-esque flourish, adds: "It was miles to the next kid."

Robin would spend hours at a game table--a sandbox on stilts--that his father had built for him. The table was transformed into battlefields (to be succeeded, years later, by the Napa war room). Robin dispatched his 20,000 plastic soldiers to battle in various voices, an early version of the actor's Hydra-headed flair for character performance.

And then he turned 12.

Robert Williams, who'd served on an aircraft carrier in World War II, sat his son down one day and taught him a lesson about life's murkier realities. "He told me some pretty horrific stories," the actor recalls. " . . . A kamikaze hit the bridge. . . . He was lying there bleeding for eight hours. He tourniquetted himself. And he basically said, 'Listen. There's nothing more horrific than to lose the image that (dying for one's country is) glorious-- Dulce et decorum est . . . .' That whole horrific stuff, horrific, lonely, horrifying. And that kind of wised me up. And I gave them all away to some little kid."

The Williams family moved to Marin County in Robin's high school years, and he didn't stray far for college, attending--and flunking--political science courses at what was then called Claremont Men's College. Much more enticing were the improvisation classes that would ante up his early audiences--some of them patients in mental hospitals.

"The suggestions were quite amazing," he says. " 'Suggestions of a place?' 'Outsiiiiiide.' "

But Williams' first goal was to be a serious actor and, passing on his father's suggestion that he pursue welding as a backup profession, he opted instead for Juilliard. There he found a role model in John Houseman, then a head of the acting school, who advised that classical training could take him anywhere as a performer and infused Williams with the fire to merge acting with activism.

But the stately Juilliard School had no idea of what to do with the brilliant but manic Williams.

"He wasn't your standard Juilliard product," classmate Reeve says with some understatement. "Robin simply defied description. . . . He and I were in the advanced program together at the end of the third year. They asked him to go back to the first-year level and start over again, I think simply because they didn't know what to make of him."

Williams' high-energy shtick may not have played before the Juilliard powers that be, but it was standing-room only in the school's locker room, where other actors competed to keep up with his machine-gun wit.

Williams tried his hand at mime on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and improvised at comedy clubs around town. New York was true to its cold and lonely form, however, and Williams returned to San Francisco, without having graduated, to pursue a woman.

But serious acting opportunities were scarce at the time there, and Williams found himself drawn to the burgeoning market for stand-up comedy at coffeehouses and clubs like the Boardinghouse and Holy City Zoo.

Stand-up was a shield between Williams and other people; he called character comedy his "duck-and-cover" technique for eluding commitments: "For a long time, it was just this ego fix of (needing) to get out there and get some laughs, because it's a great way of avoiding dealing with anything. 'They think I'm great. What's wrong with you?' "

When Williams moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to stoke his career, success was virtually instantaneous. That year he was discovered by director Garry Marshall's sister, Ronny Hallin, who caught Williams' act at a nightclub and suggested him for the role of a space alien on "Happy Days." (Marshall's son had just seen "Star Wars" and concluded that "Happy Days" needed an alien to call its own.)

Mork from Ork, the interplanetary innocent with a mean improvisational riff, won his own spinoff show, "Mork and Mindy," which made Williams a sensation. The series ran from September, 1978, to June, 1982, downed finally by poor ratings. Williams moved back to Napa, which he'd been straddling during the Mork years.

Those heady years of instant fame were stoked by late nights, drugs and alcohol. Williams had been with John Belushi mere hours before Belushi was found dead of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles in 1982.

"It was a strange thing because my managers sent me to this doctor because they said I had this cocaine problem," Williams says. "He said, 'How much do you do?' And I said, 'A gram every couple of days,' and he said, 'You don't have a problem.'

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