The genius of Robin Williams

BICENTENNIAL MEN: Robin William and Sam Neill.
BICENTENNIAL MEN: Robin William and Sam Neill.

In 1999, Robin Williams toured downunder to promote his sci-fi movie Bicentennial Man. In light of the tragic news of the actor's death, The TV Guide's Keith Sharp recalls the interview in an Auckland hotel room.

There's a scene in the 1999 Robin Williams film, Bicentennial Man, in which the robot at the centre of the story stands and delivers a fusillade of bad jokes he has learnt from his owner. Naturally, the performance is totally lacking in timing and delivery and the robot doesn't even understand why the jokes are funny. But the fact that they are was due entirely to the person confined in the robot costume.

It's the closest we come in the film to seeing Robin Williams the veteran stand-up comedian as opposed to Robin Williams the actor, and is a clear reminder that the man's unique and original stand-up comedy instincts were never far below the surface.

"It was always very free-form," said Williams of the style which first gained him wider attention in the TV comedy Mork and Mindy some three and a half decades ago. "It was more of an evolutionary thing because, working in a club with people who were slightly hammered, the idea was to not present a moving target."

He was certainly moving when he arrived in New Zealand with his family before Christmas 1999 on a joint holiday and promotional tour for Bicentennial Man; the whirlwind of proceedings commencing with a Maori welcome at Auckland airport. Williams had been advised in advance of the traditional honour, but he still couldn't fail to see the funny side of being confronted by "a guy with a spear" as soon as he stepped from his private jet.

"But it was very touching," he said of the ceremony. "Especially when they talked about remembering the living and the dead - and I was thinking about my father and remembering that he loved to fly-fish, and I thought 'I've got to go and hit a stream for Pop'."

Before he could do that, however, Williams had movie promotional duties to perform. Co-starring Sam Neill, the film was set in a not-too-distant future, and spanned 200 years in the evolution of a robot and the family which owns him. Although one of thousands, this robot proves to be unique when it displays signs of inquisitiveness and sensitivity, and begins to question its place in the order of things.

Isaac Asimov's original story of a human creation that seeks to become human itself may seem futuristic, but it is in many ways an old-fashioned theme, echoing fantasy figures as Pinocchio, and the Tin Man from The Wizard Of Oz. Williams - long a science-fiction fan himself - was fascinated by the concept.

"It's the idea of: would robots be the ultimate minority because we would treat them as not humans, even though they start to exhibit human characteristics?" he said. "In a lot of science-fiction, when the robot gains a certain intelligence it finds us as either a threat, or redundant, and tries to kill us. Asimov went the other way and said why not find the idea that they may be benign, and they may be a positive step forward?

"The premise is that robots can be very moral creatures - and maybe even more moral than humans. And the idea of the rapid evolution of a creature going from machine to man, and looking for acceptance as man, and asking what are the boundaries of what is human, is quite interesting to talk about in a movie."

It also questions our response to machines that talk to us - from office building lifts to car computers - and once on that subject, Williams' innate sense of the absurd suddenly broke surface.

Without missing a beat, he became the voice of a Mercedes car computer and, in a comic mix of English and fluent German, the computer's polite admonishment of a driver's error grew into a Teutonic tirade against the occupant's whole performance. Seconds later, the theme had leapt to New York, where a car objected to its driver's dress sense and ordered him from the vehicle.

It's a performance which most comedians would be proud to deliver to an audience at any time, let alone off the cuff in an Auckland hotel room. I don't know if it ever made it into a stage routine but, for this interviewer, it seemed like I was being treated to a private show by the master himself and the fact that the stream-of-consciousness performance came so easily and naturally to Robin Williams was the main reason for his huge success as actor and comedian.

Because, like the robot's humanity in Bicentennial Man, Williams' genius for comedy was always just below the surface. One could only wonder at what else was going on down there.