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Robin Williams made transformation look effortless

August 12, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT
The death of Robin Williams, beloved American comedian and actor, has sparked an outpouring of shock and sadness. Jeffrey Brown joins A. O. Scott of The New York Times and Budd Friedman, founder of Improv Comedy Club, to look back at the “exuberance, sweetness and generosity” of William’s talent.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we’re joined now by Budd Friedman. He’s the founder of the Improv Comedy Club in Hollywood, where Robin Williams often did his stand-up comedy act as a young man. And A.O. Scott, who followed Williams’ movie and television careers as The New York Times’ chief film critic.

Well, Budd Friedman, what do you remember of those early performances?  What did you see in the young Robin Williams?

BUDD FRIEDMAN, Founder, Improv Comedy Club: Well, I guess what is memorable.

I have never forgotten his first time on stage. He just knocked me out. just He went all over the place physically and mentally. And it was a joy to behold. And he became a regular at the Improv from the very first time he set foot on stage or into the audience, because he go right into the crowd and tear them apart.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that improvisational skill that — was the show different every night? Did it look like he was working at it? Or did it just flow from him? What could you tell?


BUDD FRIEDMAN: He never looked like he was working at it.

As a matter of fact, my favorite story, I was courting this young lady about 34 years ago. I was crazy about her, and I thought, she’s got everything I need and she’s not in show business. And our first date, we went to see Robin at the club. And she watched him and then she said, you know, I think I could do this.

I said, be a stand-up? She said, yes. I said, oh, God. And the next night, we went back again. She saw Robin again. And then she turned to me. And very wisely, my wife, Alex — then became my wife — said, maybe I can’t do this, because she realized he made it look so easy, he was having so much fun up there, that he thought anyone could do it, but obviously not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tony Scott, he was a man of many voices and characters all at once, it seemed, and yet he evolved into an actor who could take on a role and create a character. How did he do that?

A.O. SCOTT, The New York Times: Well, it was fascinating to watch, because, as Mr. Friedman said, he was just this kind of — it was like turning on a faucet or a fire hose, all of the voices and the ideas and the jokes that would just come out seemingly effortlessly.

I was watching on YouTube earlier today some of his Johnny Carson appearances, where Carson would be just feeding him cues, and he would do impressions and improvisations and ideas.

I think what you see in some of his serious roles, including some very, very dark ones, like playing a killer in “Insomnia” with Al Pacino, or a serious, sensitive role like the psychiatrist in “Good Will Hunting,” is that you feel some of that exuberance and some of that manic energy being held in check.

So you feel like the person that you’re watching, the character that he’s playing, but also the actor himself, has this enormous energy, this enormous vitality and liveliness that is just under the surface. And you never know from scene to scene whether it’s going to peak out or it’s going to pop out.

So part of the pleasure of watching him in those more serious, more restrained roles is that feeling of that spirit in there that could burst out at any time.

JEFFREY BROWN: You also wrote in your appreciation today he often played sly, sad or surprising versions of himself, but he was rarely arch or insincere.

A.O. SCOTT: Well, there was a lot of self-awareness. If you listen to his stand-up routines that you can get on the Internet or, you know, watch some of the specials, there’s a lot of commentary on what he’s doing, on how the comedy is working, which is, you know, what we like to call these days meta, the sort of self-awareness.

But it was never cynical, it was never arch, there was never any distance from the material. There was a kind of exuberance and sweetness and generosity always in what he was doing. He was just — when you watched him performing, you got the sense of someone just who was having fun and was inviting you to have fun along with him.

So it wasn’t — it wasn’t a kind of satirical or a pointed or a harsh kind of humor. It was just he had all of this energy, all of these voices, all of this inventiveness that he almost couldn’t help but share.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Budd Friedman, speaking of how he did it, you have watched a million comedians, I guess. What do the great ones have?  What did he have?

BUDD FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, he was able to transform himself, talking about movies, into the part.

Even though I knew I was watching Robin, I believed he was that person, the psychiatrist, the deejay in Vietnam. He always made it real. And when you — you really can’t compare him to anyone else, for perhaps the improvisational skills of Jonathan Winters, who was his mentor, his idol, but Jonathan couldn’t do a movie role the way Robin could.

So I think Robin just sat there by — out by himself as far as all-around performers are concerned.

JEFFREY BROWN: Budd Friedman, he also still battled depression, and now we have this very sad ending. There’s the trope about the comedians being sad underneath, right, about feeling doubt all the time.


JEFFREY BROWN: Did you ever see that in him?  Do you think that’s real or overplayed? What…

BUDD FRIEDMAN: I never saw it in Robin.

Granted, I didn’t see him much — I didn’t see him at all in the last year, but I never saw him depressed. If he was — you know, if — after a show, he might have a little letdown, but then, boom, he’d pop up again. But the idea of all comics being, I would say, suicidal or dark, I just don’t agree with that.

I think there are — you know, unfortunately, this will certainly add to that thought, but I don’t think all comics are like that at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Tony Scott, we’re remembering that because of the sad ending, but we’re also remembering the generosity. We mentioned in our setup he often played for the troops. He helped a lot of people, including Jonathan Winters in the last few years.

A.O. SCOTT: Yes, he was extraordinarily generous.

And you got the sense that he would — I mean, he worked a lot. He was in tons of television shows. He showed up on “Louie.” He showed up on “Homicide.” He was in movies, some good, some bad, big Hollywood movies, indie movies.

And the sense that one always got wasn’t of a soul in torment, but of a person who just really enjoyed what he did, who got and gave enormous pleasure from the impulse to perform that he had.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tony Scott, do you have one that you will go back to for — to recommend to us or that you will go back to, to remember him?

A.O. SCOTT: There are a few.

I would go back and look at clips of some of those “Tonight Show” performances, guest appearances. I think he was the greatest late-night talk show guest in history.

In film roles, I’m very fond of “The Birdcage,” with him and Nathan Lane as a gay couple. And that’s one where he’s playing the more restrained, the more uptight person in this partnership. And the two of them are wonderful together.

And also a movie — Paul Mazursky, who recently passed away — “Moscow on the Hudson,” terrific movie, playing a Russian emigre, a wonderfully soulful and funny and original and humane performance. And you believe through the entire movie that he’s Russian.

BUDD FRIEDMAN: Good choices.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, A.O. “Tony” Scott of The New York Times and Budd Friedman on the life and work of Robin Williams, thank you both so much.


A.O. SCOTT: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: A real loss.

We have listed Robin Williams’ entire filmography in the order they were ranked by movie lovers. See if you agree, and then let us know your top 10, on our Art Beat page.