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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 .

"That was before they'd started to acknowledge it was psychologically addicting. And then at a certain point you realize, maybe it is. Physically I'm not craving it, but mentally I'm really thinking it might be a good idea."

Belushi's death, coupled with Williams' own impending debut as a father, made him realize that drug use was in fact a bad idea. It's something he talks about freely now with some zeal, although he typically Robin-izes the subject, transforming it into comedy, proselytizing minus the pain: "Freebase? It's not free. It takes all your assets. But if that sounds exciting. . . ."

Flush with his TV triumph, Williams crossed over to film in 1980 with the eccentric "Popeye," lured in part by Robert Altman at the helm. But the actor's charms were trapped somewhere behind the gruff voice, prosthetic arms and turgid script.

In what was to form the pattern of his career, Williams lurched to an entirely different kind of role in 1982's "The World According to Garp," a bizarre literary take on radical feminism, directed by George Roy Hill. In "Garp," Williams the comic persona was totally subsumed by the demands of the script. Williams has sought limits like that throughout his career in a paradoxical quest to expand his range. When he made a misguided attempt to improvise, Williams says Hill made "his weasel face" and cut the camera.

"It was hard at first because it was new," he says. "It's like putting on braces, and then eventually you learn to walk a little differently. You're all of a sudden, 'Oh, I don't need that chop to make something work.' "

Williams' next film, "The Survivors," was a bust, a well-meaning survival comedy directed by Michael Ritchie that suffocated from predictability. It took a former stand-up comedian to rescue Williams' film career from the comic typecasting inferno--Paul Mazursky, who directed him as the Russian jazz musician of "Moscow on the Hudson," a sometimes elegiac film that showed him off as a tender romantic lead.

Surprisingly, another turning point was the deservedly obscure flop "Club Paradise," an anti-development island comedy directed by Harold Ramis that taught Williams a painful lesson. " 'Club Paradise' was a sheer effort of greed," he says. "I just went for the cash and went, 'Great, now make a commercial movie' and I got creamed."

(The film found a lonely and unlikely champion in Pauline Kael, who declared it heroic. "She raved about that movie, and I was like, ' Hooooooo . Pauline, sweethaht, dahling, dahling? Did someone else get ahold of your word processor? Talk to me.' ")

Williams' characteristic response was to veer in the opposite direction. His next film was "Seize the Day," a PBS drama based on a Saul Bellow novel about a deeply troubled father-son relationship, for which Williams received actor's scale. He regards it as one of his finest efforts.

But the film that really jump-started his career was "Good Morning, Vietnam," a box-office El Dorado that raked in $123.9 million domestically. As radio deejay Adrian Cronauer, Williams was finally able to improvise entire monologues during the broadcast segments, which he did to dizzying effect.

But it took "Dead Poets Society" in 1989 to firmly establish Williams as a serious actor, partly because he turned out to be a box-office force in Europe (the film culled $140 million overseas and $94.6 million at home). In Japan, whose rigid school system echoed the film's, lights were kept low for five minutes after screenings to give the audience time to compose itself. Williams' overseas appeal meant he was getting dramatic scripts that could be expected to recoup costs in Europe's art-film market.

With "Dead Poets," whose free-thinking prep school teacher urged his charges to "seize the day," Williams was able to make good on John Houseman's activist acting lessons. Indeed, outsider hero roles have had particular allure for the actor. In 1990's "Awakenings," Williams played a dedicated, dithering doctor who briefly resuscitated post-encephalitic patients in a sort of mental limbo in the face of his naysayers.

Williams reverted to type with Parry, the homeless schizophrenic and erstwhile medieval scholar of "The Fisher King"--perhaps the quintessential Robin Williams role. The film was an urban myth that blurred the line between genius and madness, that called on Williams' qualities of innocence and gentleness and that challenged his audience to find dignity among the downtrodden.

Along those activist lines, Williams is contemplating playing Harvey Milk, the murdered San Francisco supervisor who was the city's first public official to acknowledge his homosexuality. "The range of homophobia in America is so huge," Williams says, "plus he was an amazingly charismatic and dynamic man. Very complex."

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