In most cases, stardom brings with it a certain shelf life, which could last decades, but even the biggest celebrity in the world will experience a time when the spotlight inevitably begins to dim as audiences move on and tastes change. That’s what producer/manager David Steinberg is pushing back against when it comes to the life and legacy of the late Robin Williams.
Working with Robin for over 40 years, David is particularly pleased that their relationship transitioned from professional to personal, the two becoming great friends in the process. This he chalks up to the fact that they respected each other’s opinions, were always honest with one another, and had a connection through humor.
“Sometimes I overstepped my bounds,” David admits, “but Robin knew underneath it all that my intentions were always honorable. That I was always looking out for the best for him in the same way I knew that Robin was going to give 100 percent to anything he committed to, and he was going to work his ass off and be truly and totally honest in what he did.”
In a way, he finds himself in the position of historian when it comes to Robin, explaining, “When I think that some people who really left an imprint might not be known in 10 or 20 years, I want to do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen. That message of love and honor and honesty that Robin lived by is something I want to do my best to pass on to other people. There was a comedic bravery and genius that he had that people can only learn from.”
This, he feels, is epitomized by the recent release of Robin Williams: Comic Genius, a 22-DVD collection that spans over 50 hours and essentially captures all aspects of his career, including episodes of Mork & Mindy, the show that launched him into the stratosphere; memorable talk show appearances, a collection of his USO shows that he performed around the world, interviews with friends and family, James Lipton’s 90-minute interview with him on Inside the Actor’s Studio, the acclaimed 2018 HBO documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, and much more. The collection is available exclusively at RobinWilliams.com.
“I put together a timeline for this,” David says. “It has so many moments where you get to see that he is a genius at work with his meteoric responses to everything. Jesus, Robin was the greatest non-filtered comedian of all time. He never worried about what he said, because he never had bad thoughts. His thoughts all came from an honorable place, and he spoke with a certain purity. He wasn’t a manipulative person who was looking to grab credit for himself.”
Born July 21, 1951, in Chicago, Robin Williams got his start performing stand-up comedy in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, although he didn’t become a household name until Mork & Mindy debuted in 1978. That sitcom, from Garry Marshall (producer of, among other things, The Odd Couple and Happy Days), cast him as the alien Mork from Ork, who meets a human named Mindy (Paw Dawber) and ends up living with her for his own protection. They develop a friendship that, over the course of the series, turns into romance. From out of the gate, the audience loved it and Robin was transformed from a standup comic to a phenomenon in what would appear to others to be overnight.
“Here’s what you need to understand,” points out David. “Robin was famous from the very beginning when he just worked up in San Francisco and nobody knew who he was. He was just the comic that everyone wanted to see, and when he became famous, it just meant that more people wanted to see him. And on a personal level, money didn’t change his life, because he always did what he wanted to anyway.”
Still, anyone who has seen Robin perform, even in his earliest days, can’t deny that he is energy unleashed when on stage and in front of a crowd. But television, particularly back then, could be very confining to a performer and it would seem that after a year or so of that he would be frantic to get out of there. David counters, “It wasn’t an issue, because he was getting to do what he wanted. The scripts were basically written, but he improvised most of that stuff, so he was still getting the opportunity to be a standup comic. It was just another place where he got to be Robin Williams and it opened up other things for him, like the movie world. If he had never gone on to be a movie star, then it might have felt confining. But he earned the right to do pretty much whatever he wanted.”
Things got off to a less than auspicious start when he made his big screen debut in 1980’s Popeye, portraying the spinach-munching title character. The film was not a success critically, and despite pulling in almost $50 million (which meant a lot more nearly 40 years ago) it wasn’t considered a success. He fared a bit better with the critics (but not the audience) in 1982’s The World According to Garp, which provided him the opportunity to show a more dramatic side of himself. This was followed by the comedies The Survivors (1983), Moscow on the Hudson (1984), The Best of Times, Club Paradise and Seize the Day (all 1986) — none of which lit the box office on fire. Things really didn’t change until 1987 and director Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam — and even then to many it was an unexpected turn of events.
Mork & Mindy had ended five years earlier, Robin hadn’t proven himself a box office draw, and it was a time when there was a definite line in the sand between “TV actors” and “movie actors,” which was not an easy one to cross. “When that film was being made,” says David, “Disney was not inclined to put his picture on the poster, because they were afraid it would not help sell it. Ultimately we fought the fight and changed it.”
And the results speak for themselves. Good Morning, Vietnam, which is set in Saigon in 1965 and sees Robin as Armed Forces Radio Service DJ Adrian Cronauer, scored with the critics and the box office, pulling in $124 million. It launched Robin into a true movie career with hits like Hook, Aladdin (where he voiced Genie), Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Insomnia, Night at the Museum, and many more. “Good Morning, Vietnam,” David reflects, “was a door-opener, and then Robin got offered everything.”
As successful as his movies became, there was a balance struck for Robin in that he had all of those concert specials he performed, essentially returning him to his roots as often as he could. “Exactly right,” he says, “because they were totally under our control. They allowed him to delve into his mind and let him be Robin Williams and explore that gift that he had; that mental dexterity and physical dexterity that was second to none as a comedian. People loved his honesty and they believed in him as a comedian. I think that’s because of the honesty he had on stage. He never went after other celebrities to try and make himself more important by bashing them. Robin went after bigger things that were wrongs in everyone’s life.”
Sadly, there were “wrongs” in Robin’s personal life that he himself couldn’t really deal with. Having spent many years fighting depression, and suffering from “diffuse Lewy body dementia” (which brings with his anxiety and paranoia on top of the depression issues), on Aug. 11, 2014, Robin Williams committed suicide, much to the shock of family, friends, and the outside world.
“Robin was always working on himself from early years,” David emphasizes. “Any failure he would take on himself. But he was worried about it and was trying to make himself better. He also knew that, physically, he was slowing down. There were things going on inside of him that were out of his control. Did he think about those things? Sure, but his concern for other people and doing whatever he could for other people never diminished.”
The reaction to Robin’s death was swift and global, with a genuine outpouring of grief and love by fans everywhere. “I think Robin would be shocked at the level of love that was displayed,” closes David. “I have not witnessed anything like it. However you loved John Lennon or Princess Diana, there was no social media then, so having that pumped up the level or world awareness for Robin. Again, he would be shocked, because he never looked in the mirror and saw a movie star.”
Robin Williams: Comic Genius is currently available from Time/Life.
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