There was a little bit of worry on my part before interviewing Robin Williams. Would I get the manic performer -- currently promoting his voice work in 'Happy Feet Two' -- that we see so often on late night television talk shows? Would I ask my first question, then receive one prolonged answer that ate up our entire allotted time? Thankfully, for the purposes of a print interview, that Robin Williams did not show up. The Robin Williams that did show up was a reserved (at least, reserved as far as Robin Williams goes), poignant and surprisingly nostalgic actor who gave Moviefone a tour of some of his memorable early roles -- including the story of how the origin of Mork has everything to do with 'Star Wars.'
In 'Happy Feet Two,' Williams reprises his dual roles as Ramon and Lovelace in director George Miller's (yes, the guy who directed 'The Road Warrior') animated warning about the dangers of climate change in the Arctic. Williams spoke about his voiceover work and why 'Happy Feet' was only the second (after 'Robots') animated voice-work that he's done since 'Aladdin.' He also shared thoughts on topics as wide-ranging as 'Mork & Mindy,' 'Popeye,' 'The World According to Garp, 'One Hour Photo,' and Albert Brooks' revelation that he was offered 'Dead Poets Society.'
Oh, yeah, and then there was the time that he saved Jerry Reed's life on the set of 'The Survivors.'
I'm going to admit up front: Warner Bros. didn't have any New York City screenings before I spoke to you, so I haven't seen the movie yet.
Oh, you haven't? Oh, I'll tell you. We'll walk you through it.
It's in 3-D this time. And there are shrimp. Actually, they are krill -- micro shrimp -- which is Matt Damon and Brad Pitt. So, that alone, you're going, "Oh, I'm in for that." Will and Bill, the krill.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but the first 'Happy Feet' was your first animated voice work since 'Aladdin.'
Yeah, 'Aladdin.' Actually, the first animated voice was 'Ferngully,' I did Batty Koda. Then I did 'Aladdin.' [Note: Williams also voiced a role in 'Robots.']
I feel that after 'Aladdin' you were in high demand for your voice work, what was it about 'Happy Feet' that made you want to do it again?
The main thing is George Miller. I mean, this is the guy who did 'Road Warrior' and then 'Babe.' I went, "This is an interesting, man." He sent the script and he was initially offering three characters. I tried doing three voices, and one of them was a Scottish older penguin that was like [in a Scottish accent], "I tell ya right now!" And then they said it sounded like Mrs. Doubtfire on steroids. So I went, "All right, lost that one." And I settled for the two. In the first meeting with George, I went, "Oh, this will be fun." It was because he records everybody in the same room so you get to riff together, which is really great.
I can only assume that being together in the same room makes a huge difference.
Oh, totally. It's much more fun. Most of us would say that when we finished a day of work, we sweated through our shirts and stuff because you get so excited and playful with each other. Plus, the guys playing the amigos are these great Chicano comics -- these guys are really great comedians.
Do you feel that you set the trend of well-known actors doing animated voice work with 'Aladdin'?
I think it just opened the door. The trend ... I mean, now it's pretty much a given they're going to hire a comedian, but they are kind of back to just using actors, which is wonderful. For a while, it was like: get a comic for a cartoon -- boom! -- you're done.
Albert Brooks recently said that he turned down 'Dead Poets Society.' Did you know that?
Are you serious? I didn't know that. That would have been pretty wonderful. I'm going, "Do the remake!" That would be wonderful. God, that's great. Why didn't they go with him? That's pretty wild. I heard initially that it was supposed to be Alec Baldwin. Are you sure he was not kidding? I don't know, it's weird to think that. It's like hearing about Woody Allen in 'Lord of the Rings' [in a Woody Allen voice], "Um, Frodo, that would be interesting, but not yet now." That's a great idea.
To be fair, I do think people enjoyed your performance.
Oh, that was one of the greatest experiences. It was, once again, working with a great Australian director. With Peter Weir, man, he just creates this environment where you have to do your best.
Something I've always wondered: When you were first approached to play Mork, did you ever ask yourself, "Wait, 'Happy Days' is a sitcom about family life during the 1950s, why is there going to be a space alien?"
Do you know why? Where that came from? It came from Garry Marshall's kid who saw 'Star Wars,' and he went to his father and said, "Dad, why can't they have an alien on 'Happy Days'?" And Gary was like, "I don't know, it will be weird." But I think he did it as kind of a shout out to his son, as a one-off thing, and, I guess, just because it was just so strange. Me acting off of Henry, and Mork is there to kidnap The Fonz. It got a huge reaction. The only reason it went on the air as a series was that Paramount had a contractual deal with ABC, where they had an on-the-air twelve-show commitment, with no questions asked. I guess they had another show that fell apart, so they threw this one together: an arraigned marriage of me with 'Happy Days,' which tested very well. And Pam Dawber was on a sitcom -- she played a nun, I forgot the show -- so it was basically an alien and a nun in the photos that they had. And they said, "This is a show!" Because they had to do it and they put it on the air, never thinking that it would last more than twelve episodes.
I had no idea that Mork had anything to do with 'Star Wars.'
It's all real. I went to the meeting with Garry and I kind of did the thing where I started doing a voice. I came into the room and immediately sat on my head, rather than, you know ... he said, "Make yourself at home," so I sat down and put my head, ass up, thinking, Well that's a good way to start with him. And then he said, "Well, it's be great. You won't be doing Shakespeare, but it will be fun." And he was right. The first year was crazy.
There are three films that I remember fondly from my childhood that I'd like to get your reaction all these years later, if that's OK.
The first one is 'Popeye.'
Right. Crazy-ass movie. Amazing people to work with. Literally, near the end of the movie ... the studio had pooled all of the money, so all the special effects people left. It was Ed Wood the last weeks of the movie. Shelley Duvall was in a pond, basically, with an octopus with no internal mechanism, having to drape it over her body like a feather boa. I'm in the water and I'm kind of like sitting there. And, eventually, Robert Evans, who is there, is kind of wandering around going, "How do we end the movie? How do we end the movie?" And I joked, "We could walk on the water like Jesus." And he's like, "That's the way! That's how we'll end the movie!" That's how we'll end the movie!" It was just, you know, we're there on Malta, which is a very small island in-between Italy and North Africa, and it was some of the worst weather they had had in 60 years. So it was a pretty crazy experience. But! I got to work with Robert Altman and I'll never forget that. It was amazing.
The second one is 'The World According to Garp.'
Working with George Roy Hill, one of the sweetest, toughest directors you'll ever work with. And he was the one that initially said ... I wanted to improvise. So I tried improvising and he went, "No! You don't need to do that. Just stay with the lines. Commit to the character and the lines as they are and I'll think you'll find a lot more." And he was right. And it began me acting in the idea that you don't have to riff in order to be a funny on that level. Just commit to the character. He was a great director for me.
And the last one, 'The Survivors.'
Oh, God! That was fun! Working with Walter [Matthau], man, I had a blast.
And Jerry Reed was in that, too.
I think I saved Jerry Reed's life. Because I knocked on his trailer and he wasn't answering the trailer. So, all of a sudden, I was just going to go get him for the take -- or to ask him some advice -- so I knocked on his trailer, he didn't answer the door. So I opened the door and I went in and he was really groggy. I went, "Hey, man, you OK?" He went, "No, I got a really awful headache." It turned out his trailer had carbon monoxide leak and if he had stayed there another five minutes, he would have died. So, I think I may have saved his life, so that's not a bad thing.
A few years ago you were getting a lot of critical acclaim for darker roles, like in 'Insomnia' and 'One Hour Photo.' Will we see you do anything like that again?
I'd love to. I loved playing those characters. You can explore characters that normally do prison time. 'One Hour Photo,' especially. To play that guy was really, really a joy. And to really just examine this deeply disturbing behavior, which, now that the Internet exists, the idea of those photo booths and one hour photo shops ... I would talk to the guys who ran them and they'd say, yeah, they would take pictures of really strange photos out of the group of pictures and print one for themselves. Like if it was some weird lady in a thong. I said, "Wow, that's real?" Yeah, unless you check your negatives against your photos, you'll never know. So it was like, "Really?" it's so disturbing on that level. It was great to do.
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