Williams stands up, puts on `sinister' face

Actor: Robin Williams picks up a comedy tour and shakes his do-gooder image to take on darker roles in three movies.

March 20, 2002|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARK CITY, Utah - Fresh off a day of skiing, Robin Williams plunged into a free-association downhill before a recent interview. Then the questions began, and he cut as sharply to the answers as if he were in a slalom.

Williams is in a busy creative period, having benched his sappy persona from such films as Patch Adams and What Dreams May Come. In addition to his standup comedy tour that comes tonight and tomorrow to Constitution Hall in Washington, he has three new movies coming out, which show a more sinister side.

However, "sinister" wasn't the first word that came to mind at the Sundance Film Festival this winter, as Williams sashayed into a back-alley office that was so cold you could almost see his breath. Partly, he was fueled by appearances at the Film Fest, but the 50-year-old comedian also was riding the energy of change.

For every free-form riff about, say, Stephen Hawking's bawdy birthday party ("he had a laptop dancer"), Williams offered morsels on his busy 2002. He is performing live schtick on the road for the first time in 15 years, partly because of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's a lot of talking about that," he said. "Wet burka contests. It's a full gamut, what we've been through, the security measures. It's freeing, performing standup. Comedy in movies is the toughest of all."

His cinematic makeover, however, jumps far beyond punch-lines and pratfalls. Death to Smoochy, opening March 29, is the first of three films in which he plays a possible killer. Williams calls Death to Smoochy a "kick-out, nasty comedy," so his portrayal of a fired children's show host who seeks revenge on his replacement, a Barney-like rhino named Smoochy (Edward Norton), isn't such a departure.

But Williams gets many shades darker in Insomnia, opening May 24. He portrays a psychotic murder suspect tracked by Al Pacino's cop in a small Alaskan town. "Mr. Method Meets Wild Boy," Williams said.

The topper is One Hour Photo, which does not yet have a release date. As a photomat clerk who takes far too much interest in his customers, Williams is a polyester-wearing nebbish who roils on the inside. His performance may throw his fans. "People won't ask for autographs so much," he said. "That'd be great."

Williams' desire to act in a low-budget movie shocked the first-time director, Mark Romanek. "I didn't have qualms about his ability as an actor," he said. "My concern was, can you take one of the biggest stars in the world and turn him into a small, bland man?"

Williams has performed pernicious roles before, such as a terrorist bomber in The Secret Agent in 1996, but they have been overshadowed by the manic image that made him famous when he starred in the '70s sitcom Mork and Mindy. He became known as a guy who always had a seemingly spontaneous quip for just about any situation. (At Sundance, he saw fur-wearing Hollywood types and commented: "I saw a couple wearing the entire food chain.")

So maybe One Hour Photo isn't such a surprising career choice. Although many directors have let Williams run with the material, his favorite film parts are more self-contained: the professor in Dead Poets Society (1989) and the shy researcher in Awakenings (1990). (Surprisingly, he didn't include his Academy Award-winning turn for best supporting actor as a psychologist in Good Will Hunting (1997).)

And recently, the comic had been coasting on a run of icky-sweet do-gooder roles. Even with the box-office success of his portrayal of a clowning doctor Patch Adams (1998), Williams, who has trained at Juilliard, did some soul-searching. "I'm just trying to get different colors going," he said.

Romanek thinks Williams was attracted to his film because he was running out of challenges. "He just found something that turned him on," he said.

This time, Williams said he will hit the road without the cocaine that was part of his journey decades past. He trained for the grind the old-fashioned way: cycling by day and polishing his routine by night at clubs near his San Francisco home.

"It's a bit like being in Switzerland during a nuclear war," said Williams, who lives with his second wife, Marsha Garces Williams, and their two children. "The business is kind of at a distance. I can make raids, go to L.A., but I'm not surrounded by the constant `How am I doing?'"

Williams is probably gauging himself anyway. His drive to make people laugh goes far deeper than anything Patch Adams could diagnose. "It's offense and defense," Williams said. "It's a seduction, and `Get away from me.'"

Williams live

Where: Constitution Hall, 1776 D St. NW, Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. today and tomorrow

Tickets: $75, $95

Call: 202-432-7328

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