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  • Robin Williams on His Life, His Work, and His Struggle With Sobriety

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  • Longtime Parade contributor Dotson Rader interviewed Robin Williams twice, for cover stories in 1998 and 2013. These quotes from those interviews paint a poignant, fascinating picture of the late comic (and dramatic) genius, in his own words:
    ON HIS PARENTS AND HIS UPBRINGING
    “I basically started performing for my mother, going, ‘Love me!’ What drives you to perform is the need for that primal connection. When I was little, my mother was funny with me, and I started to be charming and funny for her, and I learned that by being entertaining, you make a connection with another person.” (1998)
    “My mother [a former model] was a Christian Scientist. She was very stylish and wore makeup, and I used to kid her and say she was a Christian Dior Scientist. She was very religious and optimistic that humanity is essentially good and heading someplace wonderful. I always think of her as a combination of Tennessee Williams and Neil Simon.” (1998)
    “My father [an executive with Ford] had been in the Navy during the war. He was on a carrier as a radar control officer when a kamikaze hit the deck and blew apart the control room. Guys around him died. He left there in really bad shape. He wasn’t religious, but he was a very ethical man who believed there’s a lot of bad out there, and he’d seen it. He always made sure I was protected. As a little kid, I was fascinated by everything military. At some point, my father sat me down and said, ‘Listen, war is not dulce et decorum est, it’s really quite brutal. War isn’t like the movies portray it. People die alone and miserable.’ He was honest with me, because he wanted me to be safe. After that, I gave away all my toy soliders.” (1998)
    “I took an improvisational theater class [at Claremont Men’s College], and it was that moment when I found my bliss. … When I told my father I wanted to be an actor, he said, ‘Fine, but have a backup plan, like being a welder. You may have a dream, but protect yourself financially.’ ” (1998)
    ON TALENT AND THE CREATIVE PROCESS
    “The essential truth is that sometimes you’re worried that they’ll find out it’s a fluke, that you don’t really have it. You’ve lost the muse or—the worst dread—you never had it at all. I went through all that madness early on.” (1998)
    “I couldn’t find any acting work [after studying at the Juilliard School]. But I needed to perform, so I started doing stand-up. After a while you realize that Juilliard training is a tool. The ability to project and enunciate worked great, even in comedy clubs, because I wouldn’t use a microphone, and I had a voice that could kick the crap out of the back of the room. For me, comedy starts as a spew, a kind of explosion, and then you sculpt it from there, if at all. It comes out of a deeper, darker side. Maybe it comes from anger, because I’m outraged by cruel absurdities, the hypocrisy that exists everywhere, even within yourself, where it’s hardest to see. I use comedy to find a way through. Performing stand-up in a small venue immediately peels away pretense.” (1998)
    “Acting is different from stand-up. It gives you this ability to enter into another character, to create another person. I’m a character actor—that’s what I want to be. There’s that movie line of Peter O’Toole’s: ‘I’m not an actor. I’m a movie star.’ But that’s not what I want to be. I’d rather explore different personas than claim only one.” (1998)
    “I write on big yellow legal pads—ideas in outline form when I’m doing stand-up and stuff. It’s vivid that way. I can’t type it into an iPad—I think that would put a filter into the process. You have to access things that normally you wouldn’t. You find things that you didn’t even know you had, whether it’s the potential for evil, or for great love, or passion that’s so powerful it’s like a force of nature. It’s depleting in the best way possible. It’s almost post-orgasmic. You come out of it drained, going, ‘Whoa! What was that?’ When you really hit it you surprise yourself, and sometimes others.” (2013)
    ON HIS SUDDEN FAME STARRING ON MORK & MINDY
    “It was surreal, more bizarre than any dream. In three weeks you go from being a nobody to people knowing you everywhere you go.” (1998)
    ON RETURNING TO TV IN 2013, STARRING ON THE CRAZY ONES
    “I’m having such a blast doing it with Sarah [Michelle Gellar]. She’s a sweet woman. And the idea of the father-daughter relationship—since I have a daughter [Zelda, an actress and a screenwriter], I’ve done the research on that. You know, pride and trying to help her along, but at the same time not helping so much that she doesn’t learn.” (2013)
    ON MONEY, DOWNSIZING, AND DIVORCE
    “The idea of having a steady job [on The Crazy Ones] is appealing. I have two [other] choices: go on the road doing stand-up, or do small, independent movies working almost for scale [minimum union pay]. The movies are good, but a lot of times they don’t even have distribution. There are bills to pay. My life has downsized, in a good way. I’m selling the ranch up in Napa. I just can’t afford it anymore.” (2013)
    “Divorce [Williams was married to Valerie Velardi from 1978 to 1988 and to Marsha Garces from 1989 to 2008] is expensive. I used to joke they were going to call it ‘all the money,’ but they changed it to ‘alimony.’ It’s ripping your heart out through your wallet. Are things good with my exes? Yes. But do I need that lifestyle? No.” (2013)
    ON HIS STRUGGLE WITH SOBRIETY
    “When the newness of fame starts to fade, the fear of it all being a fluke sits under it, and how do you deal with that? What I was using alcohol for—even drugs—was to withdraw from people. It wasn’t to enhance performance. It was to pull away.” (1998)
    “I felt so good about the first AA meeting I attended that I went out and drank the next day. And then I felt so bad that I came to the [next] meeting and said, ‘I screwed up. I can’t come back.’ A friend said, ‘Why not?’ I went, ‘I drank after the meeting.’ And he said, ‘Hey, we don’t shoot our wounded. Come back.’ ” (2013)
    “Ninety-nine percent of the people who go through [substance abuse] are trying to deal with some pain. They will say that when they did the drug, they suddenly felt okay. Then, ‘I’m not so good. I need to get back [to the drug] and be all right again.’ It builds into that cycle… The first time I stopped was because my son Zachary was about to be born. I didn’t do rehab or AA. I just stopped. [It was because of] shame. Fear. I was going to have a kid. I didn’t want to be coked out, going, ‘Here’s a little switch—Daddy’s going to throw up on you!’ I wanted to be a participating parent.
    “Cut to about 20 years later: I’m in Alaska [shooting The Big White] and I think it is okay to drink again. The movie was interesting, but I was worried. My film career was not going too well. One day I walked into a store and saw a little bottle of Jack Daniel’s. And then that voice—I call it the ‘lower power’—goes, ‘Hey. Just a taste. Just one.’ I drank it, and there was that brief moment of ‘Oh, I’m okay!’ But it escalated so quickly. Within a week, I was buying so many bottles I sounded like a wind chime walking down the street. I knew it was really bad one Thanksgiving when I was so drunk they had to take me upstairs.
    “It was not an intervention so much as an ultimatum [when he went into rehab in 2006]. Everyone kind of said, ‘You’ve got to do this.’ And I went, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ ” (2013)
    ON HIS CHILDREN
    “My kids bring me a real sense of my responsibility.” (1998)
    “I have to give credit to my ex, Marsha; she did the majority of the work on the [parenting] level. She really tries to ground them and protect them, but not overly so. There were three years [drinking] when I was pretty out. Now I really have to be there for them. The most important thing to say is ‘If you need me, I’m here.’ Zelda’s acting in small movies and writing, which is wonderful. Cody is doing music production. Zachary’s married and working. When he graduated from NYU, it was one of the most moving days of my life. I was so proud of him. Because I don’t have a college degree.” (2013)
    ON HIS THIRD WIFE, SUSAN SCHNEIDER, A PAINTER WHOM HE MARRIED IN 2011
    “[We met] in an Apple Store. I was wearing camouflage pants, and she said, ‘How’s that camouflage working?’ I said, ‘Pretty good, because you noticed.’ I had this weird feeling, so I said, ‘I know this sounds like a horrible pickup line, but I feel like I know you.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, me too.’ And then we realized we had a common theme in sobriety.” (2013)
    ON THE VAGARIES OF FAME
    “When you’re hot, people throw themselves at you. I once got stopped by a cop: ‘Hi, Mr. Williams. I’m not going to give you a ticket, but I do have an idea for a film.’ [And when you’re not hot], people walk away from you.” (2013)
    ON HAVING NO CAREER REGRETS
    “Sometimes over things that I did, movies that didn’t turn out very well—you go, ‘Why did you do that?’ But in the end, I can’t regret them because I met amazing people. There was always something that was worth it.” (2013)
    ON GIVING BACK
    “I want a world without all the wealth going only one way. I do Comic Relief because I want people to know—and my children to know—that there’s an entire culture of homeless people out there, not bums. I can’t stand to see people isolated and alone, especially children. I live a certain lifestyle, and yet I go, ‘Wait a minute! Maybe five blocks away there is someone living in a Hefty bag. It could be me. It could be my children.’ ” (1998)
    “I do [USO tours] because it’s like the real version of Good Morning, Vietnam, meeting people and seeing what I can do to help. They’re the best audiences I’ve ever had. The most powerful experience is visiting the wounded in hospitals. A friend of mine’s doing a program in San Francisco at a veterans’ hospital, getting them to do improv comedy as therapy. And it’s really helping. Comedy can be a cathartic way to deal with personal trauma.” (2013)
    “I’m just trying to get across the idea of compassion, connection as a way of life. I guess I am an optimist about the future, but a cautious one. It’s my mother saying, ‘People are basically good.’ And my father in the background going, ‘There are still those who would throw you under a speeding bus for a nickel.’ My doing [dramatic] movies I my way of saying, ‘The goodness of man,’ while my comedy is saying, ‘Yeah, but watch out.’ ” (1998)
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