I ONCE had the privilege of interviewing Robin Williams.
It was for Happy Feet 2 – not a great film by any stretch, but it offered the perfect excuse to discuss the way animation gave him the freedom to let his talents flourish on the big screen with the same kind of manic intensity it had on the stand-up stage.
Williams, it turned out, had found his comedic voice as a kid doing impressions of the old Looney Tunes characters and illustrated how his adolescent brain had started working out what was funny by singing me a few lines of Bruce Springsteen’s Fire in the style of Elmer Fudd.
I sat there with a goofy grin on my face, but it struck me how often straight comedy films had proved too constrictive for Williams – failing to harness what made him one of the fiercest, funniest and most inventive comedians of his generation (see his 1986 Live at the Met show to get a true measure of just how wide-ranging his skills were).
With his seminal turn voicing the genie in Aladdin, though, he found a perfect vehicle for his subversive, stream-of-consciousness sensibility. He let rip and the animators went nuts. In live action films, that’s the sort of energy that could become broad and tiresome, which is why Williams was always more satisfying in dramatic roles or roles in which his wild, chaotic and, yes, zany side were tempered with heavy dramatic incident (or vice versa).
Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society, Good Will Hunting, Insomnia, One Hour Photo and, recently, World’s Greatest Dad, showcased a brilliant and nuanced dramatic actor, one who could feed off the chaos of life and turn it inwards as much as outwards.