12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

Flight of the Conchords's Bret McKenzie Is Rebooting Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

The Jim Henson Company
The Jim Henson Company

Emmet Otter may not be Jim Henson's most iconic character, but he holds a special place in the hearts of fans who grew up watching his holiday special in the 1970s and '80s. Soon, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas will be charming a new generation of viewers. As Variety reports, a reboot of the made-for-TV film is in development, with Flight of the Conchords's Bret McKenzie attached to write the script and the songs.

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas premiered on ABC in 1977. Based on the children's book of the same name, it follows a young otter named Emmet and his mother as they enter a Christmas talent competition hoping to win the cash prize. It's one of only a handful of Jim Henson-directed movies that doesn't star the Muppets.

Following the success of Emmet Otter's theatrical re-release last year, a reboot of the story is in the works. It will be a collaboration between the Jim Henson Company, the Pacific Electric Picture Company, and Snoot Entertainment. In addition to his roles as screenwriter and song composer, McKenzie also has the option to direct. Whether he'll take that job hasn't been announced.

Bret McKenzie is best known for making up one half of the New Zealand musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, but he also has experience writing songs for puppets. He served as the music supervisor for 2011's The Muppets and received an Oscar for the song "Man or Muppet" the following year.

[h/t Variety]

12 Wild Facts About Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
20th Century Fox

Lovable outlaws, buddy comedies, and Westerns have always been a part of the cinematic landscape. But it was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that first combined those elements into a box office smash, setting the tone for the dozens (hundreds?) of action comedies that have followed. It also put Robert Redford on the A-list (Paul Newman was already there), and introduced audiences to the bizarrely anachronistic pop song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” Here are a dirty dozen facts about one of our favorite movies about bad guys, which was released 40 years ago.

1. “Most of what follows is true” isn’t true.

That disclaimer at the beginning of the film, a variation of the familiar “based on a true story,” is tongue-in-cheek. The reality is that much of the lore surrounding Butch and Sundance was difficult or impossible to confirm or debunk, so screenwriter William Goldman (who’d primarily been a novelist before this) just went with it. In fact, that’s why he wrote a movie instead of a book: he was interested in the story, but he didn’t want to do the laborious research into day-to-day turn-of-the-century frontier life that a novel would require.

2. Paul Newman was in from the beginning, but finding his co-star took some work.

Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
20th Century Fox

When he wrote it, Goldman had in mind Newman—then perhaps the biggest movie star in the world—and Jack Lemmon, who’d done a 1958 Western called Cowboy and seemed like a good fit. Lemmon turned out not to be interested, and numerous other candidates were approached, including Steve McQueen (see below), Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando. Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, suggested Robert Redford—then a stage actor who’d been in a few films but was considered something of a lightweight. Woodward, Newman, and director George Roy Hill all pestered the reluctant 20th Century Fox bosses until they conceded to casting Redford.

3. The president of 20th Century Fox could have lost his job for buying the screenplay.

Not because he bought it, but because he paid $400,000 for it. Richard Zanuck, son of Fox co-founder Darryl F. Zanuck, was authorized to spend $200,000, and later had to justify to the board of directors his decision to spend twice that much, especially since $400,000 was more than anyone had ever paid for a screenplay before. (That’s about $2.8 million in 2019 dollars, a figure that has been paid plenty of times.) The price turned out to be worth it, as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the top-grossing film of 1969. But despite that and a few other hits, Fox was hemorrhaging money due to expensive flops like Dr. Dolittle, and Zanuck was fired in 1970.

4. Steve Mcqueen dropped out over billing.

If Newman was the biggest movie star in the world at the time, Steve McQueen was right up there with him. The idea of casting not one but two mega-stars as Butch and Sundance made perfect sense, but there was a problem: whose name would go first in the credits? Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck later said that he proposed an unusual arrangement where half the prints of the film would list Newman first, the other half McQueen, but McQueen (or his representatives) wouldn’t accept anything other than top billing across the board. And that was that.

5. It was titled “The Sundance Kid And Butch Cassidy” until the casting was settled.

Once they’d settled on Redford as Newman’s costar, a new (minor) issue arose. Newman thought he was playing Sundance in what had heretofore been known as The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. It turned out Hill, the director, actually wanted him to play Butch, and Redford to play Sundance. No problem; Newman was fine with the switch. But now they had a situation where the character being played by the less-famous actor came first in the title. The obvious Hollywood solution: reverse the title. “The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy” sounds weird to us now (as does the notion of Redford being significantly less famous than Newman), but there you go.

6. They had to change the name of Butch and Sundance’s gang to steer clear of Sam Peckinpah.

In real life, Butch and Sundance’s crew of bandits were collectively known as the Wild Bunch, and were so named in Goldman’s script. But as the film was going into production, Fox execs became aware of a Warner Bros. property called The Wild Bunch, written and directed by Sam Peckinpah. It wasn’t about the same guys, but it was a Western, and the story bore some coincidental similarities. What’s more, WB was rushing to get it into theaters before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. So calling anybody “the Wild Bunch” in the Butch and Sundance movie was out of the question. Fox’s solution was to rename them the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, after a place in Wyoming that Butch (and other bad guys) sometimes used as home base.

7. Newman did his own bicycling stunts—because the stuntman couldn’t.

The studio sent a guy who practiced Butch’s showing-off moments for days ahead of time, but when it came time to shoot it, he couldn’t stay upright. Newman ended up doing most of it himself, which looked better on camera anyway. (The one shot he didn’t perform—the one at the end where the bike crashes through a fence—was done by cinematographer Conrad Hall.) Director Hill was duly annoyed by the waste of money on the bike stuntman.

8. Newman got mad at Redford for doing his own stunts.

To be fair, Redford’s stunts were a lot more dangerous. It was the scene where Sundance leaps onto the top of a moving train and runs stealthily across the cars. It wasn’t that Newman was jealous of Redford’s derring-do—he was concerned for his safety. “I don’t want to lose a costar” is what Redford recalls Newman saying. Chastened (and touched), Redford agreed it was a selfish move on his part, and he refrained from risking his life after that.

9. Katharine Ross was banned from the set for being too helpful.

Katharine Ross and Paul Newman in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' (2019)
20th Century Fox

The 29-year-old actress, an Oscar nominee for playing Elaine Robinson in The Graduate, played Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place. In real life, she was dating (and would soon marry) cinematographer Conrad Hall, and that’s how she got into trouble. Ross was interested in photography, and while observing a scene that she wasn’t in, she asked Hall if she could operate one of the cameras. There were several cameras in use for this particular scene, so it didn’t matter (to Hall, anyway) if one of the less important ones was operated by an amateur, just for fun. Many crew members felt otherwise, and director Hill was furious when he found out. He sent word to Ross back at her hotel that she was no longer allowed on the set except when she was working. “It became a very difficult shoot for me,” she later said. “In fact, it took me a long time before I even wanted to see the film.”

Ross and Hall were married in 1969, the same years as the film's release, and divorced in 1974. Ten years later, Ross married fellow actor Sam Elliott; the couple is celebrating their 35th anniversary this year.

10. The film had to endure additional editing because it was too funny.

One of the complaints some critics had about the movie was that the glib, humorous tone felt anachronistic. They should have seen the earlier cut, which was even more uproarious. Zanuck later recalled that test-screening audiences found it too funny, funnier than the studio had in mind. They wanted it to be an amusing Western, but not an all-out comedy Western (a genre that tended to do poorly). The film was sent back for re-editing to take a few laughs out and make the whole thing feel a little more respectable.

11. There was a super-posse in real life, but with a very different outcome.

The film depicts several of the best lawmen teaming up to hunt Butch and Sundance as a group (which could actually make for a very interesting movie on its own). For a 30-minute chunk of the film, our heroes are on the run, barely staying a step ahead, ultimately escaping by leaping into a river and then moving to Bolivia. That’s all an embellishment of the truth. There was a super-posse, but they didn’t engage Butch and Sundance in much of a chase: as soon as Butch and Sundance heard who was in the group, they fled, knowing they’d never be able to beat them. The hunt was over before it started.

12. They wanted to shoot some of it on the set of Hello, Dolly!

The script called for a sequence where Butch, Sundance, and Etta go to New York before heading for South America. Recreating turn-of-the-century New York would be prohibitively expensive—but as it happened, 20th Century Fox had another movie in production for which just such a set had been built: Hello, Dolly!, the movie version of the hit Broadway musical. Maybe the Butch Cassidy team could borrow it for a few days? But Fox’s Zanuck nixed it for general cost-cutting reasons (and possibly because the Hello, Dolly! team objected). Instead, Hill created a montage of period photographs with the actors pasted in.

Additional Sources: DVD interviews and features Paul Newman: A Life, by Shawn Levy American Film Institute

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