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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 .

Williams is confident and self-assured these days, bereft of the demons he once exorcised on comedy stages (where he now makes only periodic forays). It's a transformation many credit in part to his second wife, Marsha, 35, a Wisconsin-born artist. (They met when she joined the Williams household as an au pair for Zack.)

Meeting Williams, it becomes clear why the far-reaching course of his career and his desires have sometimes been so sharply at odds with people's expectations of him. There is, of course, the hilarious, brilliant, zingy, laser-quick Robin Williams, the accessible but sophisticated jester who will suddenly metamorphose into a stinging parody of Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Swaggart.

"It's as if he was momentarily possessed, speaking in tongues from wherever great comics and comic writers go when they leave. He is their medium," Peter Weir says.

But there is perhaps a more pronounced side of Williams that is deeply serious and thoughtful. At one point, he reaches into his shirt to reveal a Coptic cross on a chain, which has, almost metaphorically, been hidden for most of the day. It is a symbol of the divine spark that he believes powers his own creativity.

"Whether it's something in nature or the creation of a piece of music, there are times when you say, 'There's something behind all that,' " Williams says. "It's quite beautiful, and at times you think there's also a dark side, something quite evil."

Williams subscribes to no particular organized religion and says his upbringing was similarly unstructured, although his mother, Laurie, his own comic inspiration, is a Christian Scientist. "I used to joke and say she was a Christian Dior scientist. She only wore certain makeup," he says.

These days he's thumbing through the Koran because he wants to see what lies beyond the Western interpretation of Islam as "religion with a Smith & Wesson clause--if you kill a nonbeliever, you get right to heaven."

Far from a recluse, Williams et al. live mainly in the middle of the city, on an unassuming Presidio Heights street; they're renting the tawny-shingled home while their bay-front house is renovated. And if others of his ilk prompt everyman to admire and desire them, Williams seems to inspire something else, that elusive grail of actors everywhere--the sheer, unadulterated affection of his public.

In fact, for the past few hours, they've been peppering him with hellos with almost rhythmic regularity, greetings Williams returns in courtly fashion. Even as he hunkers down on a log in Golden Gate Park, a dark-haired woman, surprised at her celebrity find, plops her son next to Williams for a quick picture. Then she hurries off, leaving him again to explain why he keeps returning to roles like the unevenly received Parry of "The Fisher King" that nevertheless show compassion for the dispossessed.

"You've got to try and help in some way," he is saying as the shutter clicks behind him. "People forget that Christ hung out with lepers and sinners, thieves. He preferred to be with them than the people in the temple. There he found salvation, in those acts of compassion. The moment you serve the grail, it's yours for all eternity."

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