January 1999
By James Kaplan
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor Jennifer Crandall


For years, the actor-man-child’s life was a welter of easy drugs, adoring audiences and accommodating women. Now he’s married and a father –and still willing to dance with the devil.


“I don’t stand out here,” says Williams of San Francisco. “There’s enough strange people.”

Robin Williams is contemplating the wonders of fatherhood ‑ specifically, a recent milestone for him and his 15‑year‑old son, Zachary. "There was a weird, interesting moment about seven or eight months ago," says Williams, speaking with an unexpected gentleness. "Zach had his first formal. I gave him a tux jacket, but he had his pants and camouflage Dr. Martens ‑[proudly] 'You're my boy.' But then this girl came to pick him up. It was like a wonderful kind of sad but happy moment, because as I walked away, they hugged and kissed, and it was like, 'This is it. It begins.'"

There have been many beginnings in Robin Williams' 47 years. The latest chapter takes place in San Francisco, where Williams lives in a rambling, Mediterranean‑style house with his second wife, Marsha, 41, their two children, Zelda, 9, and Cody, 7, and Zach, who lives part of the time with Williams' first wife, former dancer Valerie Velardie. The house has sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge and is packed with art and toys, some belonging to the children and some to Williams, who has his own room filled with action figures of every description. His home is a retreat and a museum and a playhouse all at once. It exudes a serenity that reflects the satisfaction the actor seems to have found in his work over the past few years: He won a best-supporting‑actor Oscar for 1997's Good Will Hunting and saw the huge success of 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire, which also marked Marsha Williams' debut as her husband's producer and business partner.

San Francisco is more than home to Williams ‑ it is the best place in the world. The only child of Robert Williams, an automobile executive for Lincoln Mercury who died in 1987, and Laurie, a homemaker, Williams spent part of his childhood in Chicago, where he excelled at sports and academics. But when his father took an early retirement in 1967 and moved the family to Marin County, Calif., the young Williams found his calling; he took up theater and was voted "most humorous" by his Redwood High School class.

"Ever since I came here when I was 16, it just felt so free," Williams recalls. "It's a combination of the mountains nearby, the ocean ‑ all that. And the people. It's a very strange and kind of eclectic place. I don't stand out here ‑ there's enough strange people.

"It was annoying living in L.A.," he continues. "There was always this sense of wondering where you were on the food chain on any given day. Here, most people don't give a s‑‑‑. If you're doing great, it's nice; if you're not, they don't care. It's a great city for me to walk around. I can go anywhere. I ride my bike across the bridge and go for 30 miles over Marin. I don't get hassled."

There was a time when Williams' life was anything but serene. After majoring in drama at the Juilliard School, in 1976 Williams stormed into stand‑up, fairly quickly becoming a comic in a class with Richard Pryor and George Carlin. With a gift for mimicry and improvisation that verged on demonic possession, Williams could even approach the artistry of his idol Jonathan Winters ‑ a man whose genius took him, once or twice, over the edge into mental illness.

Williams' own version of hell has been extensively chronicled. His spin‑out years (drugs, drinking, living in oblivion) lasted from the late '70s, when he shot to overnight fame playing the manic, speaking‑in‑tongues alien Monk from the planet Ork on Mork and Mindy, until the early '80s, when a death (his friend John Belushi's, by a fatal overdose), combined with a birth (Zach's), scared him clean and sober.

There was still more hell to pay as Williams divorced Zach's mother in 1988, got sued by girlfriend Michelle Tish Carter for allegedly giving her herpes (he countersued for extortion, and the two eventually settled out of court), then married Marsha Garces, Zach's former nanny (which meant fending off accusations that the two had become involved while Williams was still married to his first wife ‑ a charge he denies).

Billy Crystal knew Williams in his early, wild days, but they didn't become close friends until Crystal, a family man, saw they had something in common. "Robin was in New York shooting Moscow on the Hudson [in 1983)," Crystal recalls, "and we both worked the Comedy Store one night. Zach was an infant, and he was crying, and Robin was having a little trouble quieting him down. So I showed him a technique from Dr. Spock ‑ massaging the back of the baby's skull. I remember we talked about babies that night ‑ it wasn't like frantic comics trying to top each other."

Crystal says the friendship "has really intensified over the last five years. As you get older, things get more important. Since Marsha and he got married, I don't know if he's quieted down ‑he's just himself better."

The myth about Marsha Williams, the daughter of a Filipino father and Finnish mother, is that she is a strong woman who took a wobbling man in hand and saved his life. She disagrees. "Robin's very generous -he loves to give credit to others," she says. "Was he troubled? Absolutely. Was he actually in danger? I don't think so. Robin has a great sense of self‑preservation.

"I'm very direct, very practical," she continues. "With someone in his position, a lot of people are not honest. I was one of the people who could be absolutely honest about how much he should be thankful for, as opposed to whatever he felt was missing in his life."

Marsha Williams' take‑charge, no‑nonsense personality has grated on some in Hollywood and caused many to snipe that she rode her husband's coattails to success. It's a charge that still bothers Robin Williams, who disputes it quietly but passionately. "She found the material, found the writer, then put together the crew, everything" he says of Mrs. Doubtfire. "Harvey Fierstein said the greatest thing. Some guy asked him a question, being very snide about Marsha. He said [mimics Fierstein's gravelly voice), 'When you make a movie that makes a half‑billion dollars, you call me.'"

"Marsha's very creative but also very organized ‑ she helps manage Robin's life," says Tom Shadyac, who directed Williams in this month's Patch Adams (produced by Marsha Williams), in which Williams plays a misfit medical student who has an unconventional approach to healing. "Robin is ultimately a child ‑ he gets paid to play for a living; he plays a lot in his real life. Marsha sort of focuses the energy. She picks the material, helps him to use his time. They make a really nice team."

Williams these days often speaks very softly, unashamed to be serious. The inevitable speaking‑in‑tongues riffs are hilarious when they come but lack the forced, desperate feeling they've sometimes had in the past. And the unavoidable question arises: Has gaining control of his life made him lose some of his edge?

For the first 10 or 15 years of your career it felt as if your talent was breathtaking but always threatening to veer out of control.

Yeah! Literally, it's like possession ‑ all of a sudden you're in, and because it's in front of a live audience, you just get this energy that just starts going. Performing in front of an audience, I still get that feeling of. There are no boundaries. I just did a benefit the other night in Vegas, and it was wild because I hadn't been on in front of a large group of people in along time. And people said I came out like a f‑‑‑ing rodeo pony. I remember talking about Viagra for a moment. I said, "With Viagra you're basically hard for four hours ‑ what do you do after the first hour? At that point do you climax for 30 minutes?" And I had a bottle of water, and I started spraying like a Lawn‑Boy, and all these people who'd paid like $40,000 for a table were going like this {holds up hands ‑ I was just spraying them all. And people said it was just insane. People were laughing, but it was like, I mean, you'd kicked into that gear. Even I went like, "Whoa! We're back!"

But you did go, "Whoa!" Is there more restraint now?

There's a bit of restraint. Maybe now there's this kind of creature going, 'are you going to be comfortable if you go too far?" But there's still a part that goes, "No. Go!"

Where does the restraint come from?

From [having] three children. You wonder, would I do something that would embarrass them? Not myself ‑ I gave up on that concept a long time ago. But there's also that thing ‑ it is possession. In the old days you'd be burned for it. (In a medieval judge's voice) "You must now die! Strap him up! Come forward! He is no longer one of us!" But there is something empowering about it. I mean, it is a place where you are totally ‑ it is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where you really can become this other force. Maybe that's why I don't need to play evil characters [in movies), 'cause sometimes onstage you can cross that line and come back. Clubs are a weird kind of petri‑dish environment. I mean, that's where people can get as dark as they can in comedy ‑in the name of comedy, be talking about outrageous stuff and somehow come out the other side. I mean, that's one place where you really want to push it. The people I've ad­mired ‑ Jonathan [Winters], in his best days, was out. Gone. But the price he paid for it was deep. Look at Richard (Pryor). I saw Richard preparing for Live on the Sunset Strip. He would do stuff that was so amazing and a lot of it he never did again. In those days, it was part medication, part him.

Do you ever feel that your wild years were in some way necessary to where you are now?

I don't know if they were necessary. But I'm not gonna say that some of those times weren't fun. To say, "Oh, it was all awful" bulls‑‑‑. Or you wouldn't have done it. Would I have liked to have some of that time back? Yeah. But in a weird way, all that stuff allows me to appreciate what I have now. But yet, you went through it all, and when you came out the other side ‑ you don't remember a lot of it. People come up to you and say, "You remember that time you tried to diddle my cat?" "No, I don't." "Yeah, you cleaned him, too." So I remember some of it. Some of it I don't. Some of it I know that I blocked, just 'cause I went, "Oh, my God. How pathetic was that?" Now I look back and go, "Oh, OK. We learned a lot." That's why I can sit down with my 15‑year‑old and say, "Yes, I understand the desire. I know the gravity of that." But I also believe that he is in some ways much farther along than I was. Zachary is emotionally more together on many levels.

Do you talk to Zach about drugs?

Yeah. I have a very honest discussion with him ‑ it's also about alcohol. Alcohol is more pervasive among his generation than even drugs. I say, "Listen. I know you're around it." And, "If it ever happens, if you get loaded, number one, don't get in a car with someone who's loaded. Call, and I'll come get you. No questions asked."

But you're not saying, "Don't"?

I mean, it's real hypocritical to say [in a testy father's voice], "Don't." I'm also not going to say, "Here's heroin, son. Enjoy. This is a clean rig." No. I know, bottom line, his own sensibility. It's almost like a reaction ‑ he knows how out there I was.

He does know?

Yeah, I mean, he's read old interviews. He knows that there was a time in my life where, yeah, I did all that s‑‑‑, and yet it's not something that appeals to him.

But as you've said, at the beginning it was partly fun for you. Isn't that something that has to be broached with your kids?

Yeah. I think you have to be real honest and say, "If you smoke pot, be careful. Number one, because still, in many places, you will do time. Number two, do not operate heavy machinery. Unless it's a video camera. Number three, if you are ever in a place where you feel like you're out of control, call me. I will come get you. And talk you down or take care of you, and just offer you a safe place to be. I know you know the consequences of it.”

But kids feel invulnerable.

They feel invulnerable. Because 15 is that time of total empowerment, where suddenly you're breaking away, and it's like, "I can do anything I want." Whether it means driving a car loaded, or anything. Same thing as unprotected sex. That's just as dangerous as any hard‑core drugs. I mean, I understand avoiding or saying no to sex. But it exists as a force of nature when you're 15 or 16.

One would imagine you as a dad who'd be very forthright with his teen‑age son about sex. Are you as embarrassed as everybody else?

Yeah, it's a difficult question, because it's intimate. Number one, you don't want to be in their business, but yet you want to be honest, straightforward, and say, "Listen, I know that there will come a time when you will be ready to. There will be a point when you will have more semen than the 5th Fleet." I haven't said that to him. [Mimics an exasperated Zach) "Dad." "It's just a joke." "You bastard." But you want to be real straight about that and give him the facts and say, "I want you and the person you're intimate with to be protected in that case." But [are you] saying, "You kids go upstairs ‑ here"? No. The bottom line for a 15‑year‑old ‑ they just want you to be straight with them. You see yourself, but you also see someone else. You see the part that is you, but then you realize, this is another person that you love with all your heart and you want to protect. But you still want to allow them to be a human being. To have choice. To be able to say no. To say yes. To sample and go, "This is stupid." Yeah, my past was wild for a while. I said [to him], "Yes. I can tell you flat‑out. You wanna know what it feels like?" But the one thing that is also interesting to a 15‑year‑old ‑ he wants to know who I am beyond all that. My parents. My family. That oral tradition. They need that as much as all the other stuff.

There's always been a kind of conventional wisdom about your upbringing ‑ rich kid, big house, distant father distant mother. But your father, in particular, seems to have been more complicated than that.

Yeah ‑ very ethical man. I mean, he wasn't distant. Literally, because of his work, he was away a lot. But once he retired, I really got to know him as a man, and that's probably why I love [San Francisco] more than anything else, too. Because in his soul or his heart, he knew this is where he wanted to be. And in my soul and my heart, I knew this was a special place.

Does your mom still live around here?

Oh, yeah. She's still in the same house I grew up in. She comes over every Sunday.
Or Saturdays, depending. It's been wonderful to see ‑ her grandchildren have really gotten to her in ways that have been amazing. She's just blossomed. They've hit her in ways that I think no one could even predict ‑ even Freud.

Did you truly spend most of your time by yourself as a kid? Did you not have a lot of kid friends?

Well, there was a wonderful period when I was between about 9 and 12, when I lived in Lake Forest, Ill. That time was great 'cause there were friends ‑ kids on bikes, going from yard to yard.

In addition to being voted most humorous in high school, you were also named least likely to succeed. Why?

'Cause I was so quiet and kind of shy ‑ until senior year, and then I started to play. It happened coming to San Francisco ‑ maybe something snapped. That performance thing started to kick in just a little bit. I owe this place kind of the gift of opening the box -the Pandora's box. The box was kicked open at that point ‑ bang! Once I came here, it kicked out a lot of kind of old preconceptions. And then all of a sudden it was: Now anything is possible.

A number of your recent movie roles seem to be characters who are coming to terms with their life. Are you consciously trying to do more of these films now that you've hit middle age?

I've always gotten kind of a nice mixed bag of things ‑ children's movies, which I enjoy doing; serious dramas; outrageous comedies. It's nice, because it doesn't seem to be any one particular category that they send the majority of stuff from. [But] once I did Dead Poets Society, it opened up a certain category. I think there's a very conscious choice when something affects me like that ‑ when you have characters who are trying to connect with others. There's also a conscious choice [about what] I haven't been able to do. The only movie I ever did with an automatic weapon was The Survivors, and it was a comedy. I don't think I'll ever be able to blow someone's head off. The only adventure I've ever done is really Jumanji which was, you know, virtual animals ‑ running from a rhino. It was a teamster with a stick at the time.

But wasn't 'Jumanji' also about childhood's end?

Yeah. There was a time I kept being classified as the man‑child type. I said, "OK, we've got to veer away from it." That's why doing Good Will Hunting ‑ he's still a compassionate character, but he's tough. He's damaged. There's a filial relationship with the boy. I wanted to play a character who was darker and tougher and, right off the bat, kind of violates a clinical relationship.

You're not looking for different roles at age 47 than you were at age 37?

No. The same drive is there. I mean, now it's kind of tempered with: When you're 47, you're just more comfortable with who you are, and you start to say, "This I could pull off; this I can't." I still am drawn toward [movies} like Awakenings, which to me was a prime example of what I ideally would like to do more of. I still would like to play a flat‑out villain. I did it once, in a movie that no one saw.

Which one?

The Secret Agent. I played a character called the Professor, who's a chemist who totally despises people ‑ he's just lethal. And I found out later that Theodore Kaczynski loved that book, and particularly that character, which is a little frightening. But it was the only time I played a character ‑ there was nothing redeeming about him. I came home one night; I scared the s‑‑‑ out of Marsha. She said, "We need to let that go now"

Could you give me a sense of your professional partnership with your wife?

It's basically I trust her taste implicitly ‑ she is the producer. She's the driving force. It isn't like I'm going (in Goofy's voice], "Uh, yup, sweetheart, that looks good." It's really just going, here is a woman who has instincts on that level. Just like when you're working with a director, you say, "I surrender this to you because I believe you know." There will still be things where she will say, "I don't agree with you. I don't think this is right for you, but go ahead."

Can you name an instance in which that happened?

What Dreams May Come. She didn't want me to do it, because she said, "There's certain traps ‑it goes in certain areas that are emotionally dangerous for you. They could be construed as sentimental." But I said, "I really want to try this." She said, "I understand. Good luck." And it was the hardest shoot I have ever done. On any movie. Because of having to fight through that stuff and find a way to inhabit it and not just be overwhelmed by it. She saw that coming. She said, "Listen, man, this is gonna be hideously hard. It's up to you." ['What Dreams May Come' was underwhelmingly received by both critics and audiences.)

People say that she saved your life, but surely you brought something important to her, too.

I think what she got was the interaction. God, man, I think maybe it comes down to laughter. When she does laugh, it's like this great thing where you just go, "Wow. [Whispers, awe‑struck) I got Marsha to laugh."

She's a hard laugh?

Oh, man. The world's toughest. But when she does, I know I've really hit something good. 'Cause she really forces me to find new stuff, and that's wonderful.

Speaking of trying to find new material... It feels as if we're beyond parody at this point with the Bill Clinton‑Monica Lewinsky affair. Have you ventured into any of this?

Yeah, you try. You try and get near, but what can you do? You know ‑ talk about her as a humidor? No. You know, what is it, like Federal Attraction? I mean, you want to get really honest and say [mimics Clinton), "Yeah, Ah glazed her like a jelly doughnut." At what point could you even imagine or talk about this in terms of comedy, when the bounds are gone? All bets are off. Everyone's talked about it from every extreme. Outrage is gone at this point. I mean, what can you do? Take a dump in a tuba? The Norman Rockwell vision of the presidency is dead. Where's that painting? [In a New England voice) "Uncle Fred, gettin' trim behind the barn!"

When you work with younger actors like Matt Damon, are you ever tempted to give advice?

No. No. When you're working with someone like Matt, it doesn't apply, because he already has more chops or, if not, as many as I do. The moment you say [in a wise old actor voice), "You know, I've really done a lot-“ "What about Popeye?" "I'll be right back. We have to go to lunch."

And advice about life?

If they would ask, if I could offer advice, I would. But to immediately start saying [in an old fart voice), "You know ‑ be careful! Be careful where you go with that, ya little hunk of joy! Yeah, I see you there; you're with 'Winona!" [In a toothless lecher's voice) "Hah‑yah-yah‑yah! God damn! You and Winona! Jesus! Well, I'll only advise you, my friend, it doesn't get any better! You got yourself a winner there, boy! Who's that? You were with Minnie too? Oh, dear Christ! Do you have any photos?"

James Kaplan is the author of the novel 'Two Guys From Verona.'