As Robin Williams’ widow Susan has requested, I’m going to honor the late, incredibly-gifted comedian and actor by remembering Robin for his amazing life and career — and not by the way he died.
Born at Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital (now Rush Medical Center) in Chicago in 1951, Williams’ early years were spent in Lake Bluff and Lake Forest, where he attended Deerpath Junior High. Williams then moved on to the Detroit suburbs, where his father was a senior executive at the Ford Motor Company — and then later San Francisco, where he graduated from high school
Over the years, in interviews for various films he made, Williams occasionally would elude to his Chicago roots, usually — as he did in our chat about “Bicentennial Man” in 1999 — by slipping effortlessly into an authentic “Chicawgah” accent.
Without missing a beat, the actor went into something of a little skit — making rapid-fire references to all things Chicago, including deep dish pizza, Second City, Marshall Field’s, Michigan Avenue and the Water Tower, “as opposed to that temple to shopping that most people think of today when they hear of the Water Tower in Chicago,” said Williams with a wink.
Then, without barely taking a breath, he would assume the persona of a snobby, North Shore resident, tweaking “old money” folks and dropping names like “Mummy” and “Muffy” and “Binky” in his satirical riff.
During my interview with him for “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Williams admitted that he reached back to those “old W.A.S.P.’s [White Anglo-Saxon-Protestants] on the North Shore,” to help him find something of the accent he developed for his “Mrs. Doubtfire” character — “laced heavily with that of an Irish or Scottish nanny I once knew.”
An early interviewing lesson I learned from talking to Williams was quite simple: Just get the hell out of the way! The actor’s brilliance was like a beacon that would explode out of his very being. You just had to ask one question and Robin would take it and run for the hills.
Within mere moments, Williams could touch on a litany of subjects that would be all over the map — but in typical Williams-esque fashion, it all would both make a bizarre sort of sense, plus would leave you shaking with laughter.
The only time I recall Robin Williams doing an interview with me where he was totally serious was during a conversation about “One Hour Photo,” that dark and disturbing film in which he played a strangely-obsessed man who worked making copies of people’s photographs. It was then that Williams explained how he understood that character due to his own struggles with depression.
Sadly, that was in 2002 — more than a decade ago. Tragic that in the ensuing years, Robin could not successfully find a way to overcome his demons.
†Of course, we cannot ever forget the genius of Robin Williams’ humor. In chatting with Sun-Times TV critic Lori Rackl last summer (promoting his CBS sitcom “The Crazy Ones,” which only lasted one season), Williams quipped, “My mother’s idea of natural childbirth was going without makeup.”
Speaking of “The Crazy Ones,” Williams told Rackl about coming back to Chicago for a tour of the Leo Burnett advertising agency, where the firm’s executive creative director John Montgomery came up with the idea for the series. On the show, Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar as a father-and-daughter executives working at a fictional Chicago ad agency.
As for his character, Williams described him this way: “Things that have happened in my life, in real life, like rehab, divorce, and all that stuff, they’ve kind of built into the character of this character. He’s had a kind of an interesting life, to say the least, you know, just like myself. I went to rehab in wine country just to keep my options open.”
Along with being impressed by the many Clio awards [the ad world’s Oscars] on display at Leo Burnett, Williams also joked about the time he spent meeting the lower echelon of Burnett staff members. “As you get down to the lower levels, there’s more of the social networking side,” Williams told Rackl. “It’s a totally different energy. They’re like, ‘Oh, you have a Blackberry, how sad for you.’
“I’m like, ‘Sorry, It’s old school.’”
Robin Williams may have considered himself “old school,” but to his enormous legion of fans that giant of the entertainment world will always be as current and contemporary as anyone.