8/19/10 - robin williams

In today's encore excerpt - the comedian Robin Williams gets his start:

"Robin Williams was an acting student in the early 1970s at New York's prestigious Juilliard School, where his classmates were Christopher Reeve and William Hurt. As producer George Schlatter recalls, 'He didn't graduate because they asked him to leave after his junior year. They said, "No, Robin, there's just nothing more we can teach you. So you should go out and work."' Williams himself remembers the conversation with the school's founder, the esteemed director and actor John Houseman, a bit differently: 'Mr. Williams, the theater needs you. I'm going off to sell Volvos.' ...

"Robin Williams was born in Chicago in 1952 and was raised in a well-to-do suburb outside of Detroit, Michigan, where his father was a busy senior executive with the Ford Motor Company. Neglected by his family, Williams grew up in a thirty-room mansion, where he had the entire third floor to himself. To entertain himself, he created an array of imaginary playmates. ...

"When Williams turned sixteen, his father took early retirement and moved the family to Marin County, just north of San Francisco. 'It was mellow times,' he recalled. 'That's where I found out about drugs and happiness. I saw the best brains of my time turned to mud.' Williams returned there after leaving Juilliard and soon ventured to Los Angeles, where he did the stand-up rounds. Budd Friedman recalls, 'I put him on every time he'd walk in and people would say, "Why are you putting him on? He ain't got no act." Trust me, he's got an act. And Robin became a favorite so quickly.' George Schlatter [observed], 'He came out in overalls, with a straw hat on, barefoot-it was Jonny Winters squared, you know? And he had a pole, and he put it out over the audience, and he says, "I'm fishing for assholes." The moment you saw him, you said, "This is gonna be an important force. Not just a talent, but an important force in show business." ' Williams made his featured debut [on the short-lived revival of Laugh-In] in late 1977; his first line was 'Ladies and gentlemen, tonight I'm here to talk to you about the very serious problem of schizophrenia -- No, he isn't! -- SHUT UP, LET HIM SPEAK!' ...

"Over at the soundstages at ABC, there was a hit number one sitcom called Happy Days. Producer Garry Marshall, on a whim suggested by his seven-year-old son, decided to drop an alien from space down on Fonzie and his friends. Finding the right actor would be crucial, and Marshall called on his sister, Ronnie, who was his casting director. Marshall recalled:

'Get me Jonathan Winters, get me John Byner, get me one of those crazy guys -- Don Knotts, I'll take.' 'No, we got a guy, Robin Williams,' my sister Ronnie said. 'What he's done, Robin Williams?' 'He stands on a street corner and he does funny things and mimes and he passes the hat. That's his credit.' This is who I'm gonna see over the people I want to see? 'Yes, you gotta see him.' And I said, 'But why?' And I remember my sister said very clearly, 'You should see him -- it's an awful full hat.'

"Williams's debut as Mork from Ork whipped the studio audience into pandemonium; in the days of sitcom spin-offs, a vehicle was not far behind. Mork and Mindy was hastily arranged for the following fall. ...

"On the first day of shooting, Marshall had to contend with the fact that his star was out of orbit:

He was all set to go, I said, "All right, Robin, we have three cameramen." Three cameras for Mork and Mindy, and the average age of the cameramen is seventy-nine, eighty. And so I said, "Okay, Robin, ready, action." And he ran around, he did a very funny thing, he ad-libbed a little, he said the lines, he was all over the place, and I yell, "Cut! Great!" And to Sam, my oldest cameraman, I said, "Did you get that, Sam?" And Sam said, "Never came by here." I said, "You gotta move the camera, Sam. The man's a genius." And Sam said, "If he's such a genius, he could hit that mark right over there and he'll be on camera." So we hired a fourth camera, just to follow Robin.



Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon


Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America


Twelve, Hachette Book Group


Copyright 2008 by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon


Kindle Loc. 5003-44.
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