One of the first male adults to play Peter Pan, Robin Williams never even saw a "Peter Pan" production until he was 38. That was last year, when he was preparing for his role in "Hook," the Steven Spielberg movie opening Wednesday.
Williams' confession horrifies a journalist attending the "Hook" press preview roundtable interviews. "What kind of a childhood did you have?" she exclaims.
"I lived in Detroit," he replies, "in a big house with no TV. We just had books. I'm sorry."
At that he flies off into some of the famous shtick that makes a reporter nervous about getting things straight by referring to Robin Williams as a grownup in the first sentence of a story.
"I'm sorry? I'm apologizing to a journalist?" He fakes sobs. "We only had books." He is practically weeping now. "Forgive me. We were so poor we only went to Europe in the summer."
Williams, the pride of the Detroit County Day School, grew up in the Detroit area, where his father was a General Motors executive.
He's as hard to pin down in an interview as Peter Pan himself. Almost any question from the reporters serves as an escape into some Never Never Land of characters, voices and conversations with himself. The tape of the session is even more staggering on the replay.
He does Peter Pan as Mick Jagger, as David Bowie, as Marlon Brando. He does John Sununu. He does rap. "Yo yo, yo yo." He does the stunt man who stood in for him when Peter Pan was shot from a slingshot and sent flying 100 feet into an airbag. "Take care," he says to him.
The hardest part of the movie for Williams wasn't wearing a harness and getting rigged for flying, painful as that was when he was cinched and hauled aloft.
The hardest part was playing the grownup Peter Banning, the Type A, bottom-line lawyer who has forgotten he was once Peter Pan.
"That character is the antithesis of who Robin is," says director Spielberg. "It was a real challenge for him."
"Yeah, because normally I want to be as inventive as possible, to try everything under the sun," says Williams, "and this is not about that."
Peter Banning was fading from his children, says Williams, who is the father of two boys and a girl. "I went through that in my own life, with my son. I had a therapist say, 'Basically the only therapy I can offer you right now is to play with your child,' because I had been using work as a buffer."
Williams says that like Peter Banning, he did some "emotional repair" and that the "Hook" script appealed to him for that reason.
He says he's more relaxed now, less driven to hyperactive performance both on camera and in real life.
"It's like a country that spends its money on defense," he explains with unexpected candor. "If you spend all your energy on trying to find a funny line, your character tends to be sacrificed."
But then he's off again: "I've been to the shtick wing of the Betty Ford Center."
Williams' restraint as Peter Banning was rewarded when he was set free in Never Never Land, which he describes as "this great playground with all the flying and fighting."
He's particularly enamored of swordplay. "Stage fighting is such a blast," he says. "Afterwards, you think 'I'm a great fencer.'" But it was completely choreographed, wasn't it? "Yeah," he admits with a sigh. "It's very hard to improvise with blades."
"The hardest part was to get the innocence of it," he says. "Like when I see my daughter, who's 2, who sees a Christmas tree, to get that face. To lose the fact that you're 40 and get to a point that's 10 or 11."
But the fact is that Robin Williams is feeling not very young but very old this morning after the movie screening.
A new baby, Cody, and a daughter with nightmares kept him up all night. "It's exhausting," he admits.
Like the character he plays in "Hook," Williams is finding that fatherhood makes you grow up in a hurry.
But like that character, too, the unique exhilaration never disappears altogether.
"You just know when he's there," says Julia ("Tinkerbell") Roberts, about her co-star. "There just seems to be more oxygen in the room -- or something."