Father Figure

Originally published on May 4, 1997

NEW YORK--Father's Day is probably dear to the heart of Robin Williams, as fatherhood changed the actor's life.

Fathers' Day, on the other hand, is a new comedy starring Williams and Billy Crystal that the filmmakers hope will change your life--at least for 90 minutes worth of laughs.

In Fathers' Day, which opens Friday, Williams plays a rumpled, cringing, neurotic wannabe writer, an endlessly depressed guy. He's single.

Crystal plays an uptight, successful lawyer on his third wife (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). He has no children.

As it happens, both men end up on the road together chasing down a runaway teenager that each has been led to believe he may have fathered.

The boy's mother--played by Nastassja Kinski--lies to both characters about paternity to get their help in finding her boy. Fathers' Day is an American remake of the French farce Les Comperes, but only insofar as director Ivan Reitman needed an excuse to get these two comics together in the same movie.

The picture is mostly laughs, spliced with philosophical bits about being a parent.

Being a parent in real life seems to be a role Williams approaches with passion. Formerly furry, furtive and frenetic on the big screen and in real life, the actor cut back to just furry after the birth of his first child.

For starters, impending fatherhood prompted him to overcome a fairly hefty drug and alcohol problem, but that's old news.

Before one's children are born, Williams opines, one has a different imperative.

As for his character in Fathers' Day, Williams says, "He needs that kid. This is a man who is too introspective."

Beat. "Like an ant proctologist."

Too introspective may not be the descriptive that springs to mind when Robin Williams' name comes up.

Though toned down these days--to the point where his entirely lovable side is finally visible to all--Williams still tends to sprinkle his conversation with moments of physical comedy and comments from imaginary third parties.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose work became the basis for the film Awakenings, probably summed up Williams' frantic style of self-expression best when he described the actor, and quite seriously, as having some sort of voluntary Tourette's Syndrome.

You get this sort of thing: Asked about future film projects he immediately says, "Gandhi On Ice, with Tonya Harding."

But these days, with his personal life in order and his career on a seemingly permanent 'up' trajectory, Williams is an older, calmer, wiser version of himself.

The subject matter of Fathers' Day leads our conversation into parenthood in real life, and at one point the actor notes, "Having children is a very conscious choice." Then he looks into his lap, and adds, "Isn't it?"

Williams isn't asking us; he's asking his penis--which is practically another member of this or any other conversational circle that involves him.

Gosh--did we say member?

Williams has a rep for--to be crude--dick jokes. Later in the day, when Billy Crystal is asked whether the duo would ever make another movie together, he deadpans, "Yeah. The Search For Curly's Crotch."

At any rate, back to fatherhood--Williams has three children: Zachary, who is now 14; Zelda, seven, and Cody, five. Zachary is his son with first wife Valerie Velardi; Zelda and Cody are the children of Williams and his current wife, Marsha Garces.

And yes, his kids think he's funny.

"They laugh at me just over the sheer amount of fur I have."

The actor himself was an only child, not a family situation he would recommend. "You want to be alone? You'll get a fertile imagination!" he says in a huckster's voice.

"The tradeoff is affection!"

And having three children? "Sometimes," he sighs, "you're almost like the plate-spinner on The Ed Sullivan Show."

In Fathers' Day, he and Crystal help the runaway teenager out of a spot of trouble with some drug dealers. Maybe he talks to his own teenager about some of the trouble he got into as a young guy?

"Trouble?" he asks, innocently. "You mean do I talk about things like the time I did mescaline and came home and my mother was a lizard?"

Beat. "No."

The interview is interrupted by a strange beeping noise.

"I'm getting a fax!" shouts Williams, who then stands up and squats slightly with happy expectation, as if the fax might be arriving via his bottom.

Meanwhile, Williams has been called the Funniest Man Alive, and he's asked how he feels about that honor. He laughs out loud. "Guys in the street yell at me, 'Hey! you're not funny!' Funniest Man Alive--that's a great thing," he roars, in gleeful exasperation.

"Why didn't they just paint, kick me in the ass! on my back?"

He continues, quietly, "The whole thing has been like wearing fiberglass underwear--a strange sensation. As a comic, I can't take that seriously."

Okay: What makes a comic funny?

Beat. "Big pants."

For him, says Williams, acting is "joy. And inhabiting other people." That joy thing is unusual in a comic--on their own time, many turn out to be mean, angry, maladjusted people.

He isn't angry, says Williams. "Maybe because I'm one of the luckiest people on the planet." In the voice of an angry God, he asks, "What have YOU got to be pissed about?" and answers himself, in an aggravated voice, "I'm so damn happy."

He makes a gesture as if to sum up his life and starts off saying, "As a whole," and then stops and shakes his head and murmurs and corrects himself cheerfully:

"As a hole."

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