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Robin Williams talks 'Mork,' 'Crazy Ones' and walking the cat
The Oscar winner talks about the strangest audience experience ever
It's been a long time since Robin Williams had a sitcom to call his own ('Mork & Mindy' went off the air in 1982), but this season the Oscar winner is back with 'The Crazy Ones' (debuts Thurs. Sept. 26 at 9:00 p.m. on CBS). On the show, he's the wacky, unhinged owner of a powerful ad agency with Sarah Michelle Gellar as his long-suffering daughter and partner. I joined a handful of reporters to talk to Williams during press tour, and while at 62 (and seven-years sober) he's no longer a frantic force of nature, he still has the quick wit and wry perspective that has been so effective in both television and film, comedy and drama. He discussed why he's never been offered a second sitcom until now, why he left Los Angeles and what it's like to walk a cat. Really.
You talked about that decision to go back to series television during the panel. Is it really a whole new experience now?
Robin Williams: Yeah. I mean first of all, with "Mork & Mindy," literally, it was like there was no pilot. It was a direct on-the-air; me as an alien, Pam as a nun. And there's no "okay." They had a commitment; they just put it on. I was the luckiest guy in show business. I was pretty much on everything but skates at the time. It's pretty crazy -- drinking, a lot of drugs, everything. The first year was like, wow! Not while I was doing the show, [but] the moment we finished, bang, crazy. But this time, to be back and present and be part of the process and really trying, you know, to contribute [is great]. I mean, with "Mork & Mindy," they would just take my stand-up and do the episode. With this, it's creating the character. If there are moments to riff on, great, but to see if I can really try to, you know, be part of the process [is the goal]. [It's] much more participatory.
I assume you've gotten a lot of offers to do a TV series over the years since "Mork & Mindy."
Williams: None. Over the years, no. What I did was a lot of guest stars like on "Law and Order: SVU," Homicide," I did "Louie," "Wilfred." Was always the guest star in stuff, [but] no offers at all.
What? Nobody's ever offered you a series?
That's hard to believe. Were you even interested, though?
Williams: I wasn't looking for 'em. Maybe that's why they weren't offering. I didn't put it out there, going, you know what would be great?
So, did you put it out there this time?
Williams: "Frontier Proctologist"! No, can't do that. I don't know. I never put it out there, I guess, because for a long time there were enough movies coming through the pipe. Then it was like, if ever I needed to go out and make money, it was either a movie [or] standup. Basically, those are the alternatives.
How did this come to be, then?
Williams: They came to me, which is kind of wonderful. The agent said, "David [E.] Kelly." I went, "Serious, a regular gig?" "Yeah, you get to do a pilot." "Okay."
You had no hesitation?
Williams: No. I met him, I talked to him, and it was like okay, I'll do this. When I met with him... he's a tough gig because if you get this from him [looks expressionless], that's the equivalent of 'Ah!" He was a tough audience, but he's a really sweet man, great history of the characters in dramas and comedy. When I met him I went yeah, it's worth taking the shot.
What do you think the chances are that you would have made a "Mork & Mindy" now, when your personal life is watched and people care that you're on drugs?
Williams: I wouldn't have made it past day one… with TMZ, the idea that everybody has a cell phone. In those days, people knew, kind of, but it was like, oh no, I wouldn't [tell]. I mean, look what happens now within seconds! The moment you're out there... "How you doing?" "Good." "Want to tweet that?" No, it would be insane. I'm just now starting to use Twitter. My son works for a social networking company in San Francisco, and even I'm like, what are you doing? What does it do? He sells content to Android phones. What? I have a BlackBerry. I feel like a poor, sad bastard, like, here's your BlackBerry, oh you poor bastard. You poor sad fucker. That's my CrackBerry phone. Please help.
You've been based in Northern California for a long time, but have you relocated to Los Angeles now that you have a series commitment?
Williams: No, no. I'll do the work and go home. I'm kind of like a hired gun. I still want to live up in San Francisco.
And why not L.A.?
Williams: I don't do very well here, because I once got stopped by a cop here and he handed me a script.
Williams: No, for real. And then one time I parked my car and the parking lot attendant said, "Sorry about your opening weekend." At that point, I was going, everybody knows how you're doing. This was before the social network. This is just from reading Variety. So… when I got stopped by the cop and he gave me a script, I was like whoa, I can't do this.
Now, obviously you've been stone cold sober for a really long time...
Williams: Seven years now.
Is it hard coming back to TV and being totally present, as you said? Is it a different experience?
Williams: It's much nicer actually. I can't imagine [it] being the other way around. I'd be like a hemophiliac in a razor factory. It would be like, "No!" If I was [on drugs], I'd be like 'So, I'm doing good!' This way, you can still go through it. Even today was so surreal. You get a laugh and the people go back to writing.
How has dealing with the press changed since the '80s?
Williams: There was none back then. If it was there I'm was sure I wasn't that loaded and I missed it… I mean there was the cover of TV Guide; the cover of People and that was about it. There were three networks.
Oh, just the cover of People, that's all.
Williams: Yeah, but that was it. That was a big deal. That was all they knew. That's it, you got it, fine, good luck. And that was all they had back then. HBO was just barely starting and that happened after the first year of "Mork and Mindy" I did my first HBO [special]. And that was early, early, early days of the standup specials. I think they'd only done like a couple of ones before that.
With "Mork & Mindy," you had a studio audience, correct?
Williams: Yeah. Actually the first studio audience we had was so surreal 'cause we had an audience and they were laughing at everything. And the P.A. went and looked at them and he went and told the director, "I think you should know we have an entire audience of mentally handicapped people." And they really went okay, we're going to take a break now. They had to go out and get another [audience], 'cause they were laughing. If they had kept it it would have been the craziest studio audience. Laughing at everything like, 'Hi, Mindy' ha ha! And a laugh that was so surreal that if they had kept it it would have been the most surreal laugh track of any show of all time.
Do you miss that on this show that there's no audience?
Williams: No, I don't mind, 'cause it takes the pressure off. You don't have to jam it. The idea of it, it's like film comedy. You try it out and you get a good kind of sense of it, especially with people like [David E.] Kelly, [you find out] that this works and you can try it kind of quieter stuff. I remember on one movie, if the cameraman was laughing the camera started to shake I went, I was getting a laugh. But having a live audience, I think, is a different pressure. But as it is it's tough because it shoots five days straight, like a film. But it's like, you know, I'll see how it works. But so far, so good.
Now that you haven't done it for a while, how do you feel about sticking with one character for, possibly, many seasons?
Williams: The idea [is] that I can do it. It's exciting. And if the [writers] start to explore other aspects of the character, which I know David's capable of, [because] if you look at 'Boston Legal,' Shatner and Spader together, dude... They're great characters. Great damaged guys. Two guys who push the envelope in terms of a likable. I think with this, we've got some ideas about how we can go with it. And also talking about what we talked about the technology, phones. But the idea of like what we can talk about maybe with real products or not so real products, you know, and what you can say about it. We can even get into the idea of ad agencies and politics, whoa.
Williams: Oh, it's scary. The selling of presidential candidates, oh my God, we've seen it for the last few elections.
Do you think that will go over with CBS?
Williams: I don't know? You have to ask them. I'm not the head of the network. Do you want to touch that?
Is there anything about this that scares you?
Williams: The only scary thing is the idea of [having to] keep pushing the envelope in terms of, can we deliver over 20, even 11, episodes? Let's get that going. [Can we] deliver the same level of content in character. If they can do that, then it's great.
When you're not working, what's a typical day for you?
Williams: Reading. Riding my bike. Watching my wife paint. She's kind of amazing. She's really an extraordinary painter. Taking my crazy dog for a walk with the cat.
With the cat?
Williams: The cat and dog, they walk together. Literally walked the cat the other day. We walked the cat and another dog came by, walked past the cat, and went what the fuck? And the cat just looked like yeah, it's real. And the cat's on a leash. It was so funny. The cat just looked back like yeah, get over yourself. It's crazy shit, thanks.
Do you ever watch old episodes of 'Mork & Mindy'?
Williams: I haven't seen one, no, I never did. I had the love for the first season and the last season, 'cause Jonathan [Winters] was on it. When Jonathan was on, we went out swinging. And he was the sweetest, most wonderful man. We went out like, if we're going to die, let's die with dignity. We lost so many viewers when Jonathan was my kid. But those who watched were like, fuck yeah. They were into it. With Jonathan, we would shoot so many rolls, they'd run out of film. We were like machine gunners on Guadalcanal. The guys would be 'I'm out,' and the cameras would just drop. God, he would do 20-minute riffs. They would cut it down to three minutes. But I'm sure they have hours of us. He would do these long runs. Oh, they were great.