The many faces of Robin Williams


It is hard to imagine what the world would be like if Robin Williams had followed through on an early career interest and become a foreign service officer -- maybe better, if more national leaders could laugh it up a little with the manic comic/actor. Williams is the subject of the latest "...talking with David Frost" on PBS tonight (at 8, channels 22, 26 and 67), and offers a somewhat quieter and more introspective demeanor than usual. And while Frost is not able to say much, he keeps Williams on a more or less chronological track, from early comedy club work through the series "Mork and Mindy" and on to such movies as "Good Morning Vietnam," "Dead Poets Society" and "Awakenings."

Williams, 38, says his interest in the foreign service stemmed from his fascination with languages, but that a chance to do some improvisational theater in school offered the prospect of "like, total freedom.

"It's just like jazz, when it works . . . . When it doesn't, it's like really bad piano practice," Williams says of his stream-of-consciousness style.

Media Monitor didn't count, but promotional material says that Williams manages to "do" 47 distinct characters in the hourlong interview, from President Bush to Stone Age man. The interview was conducted after the performer received an honorary doctorate from The Julliard School, Williams' alma mater.

Especially funny is the first bit he did at Los Angeles' Comedy Store club, a surfer-voiced "Two Dudes from Verona" that is astonishingly respectful of the original Shakespeare.

Yet continuing through his lapses into characterizations is an acutely introspective strain, especially when Williams talks about his father, his wife (his second) and himself.

It is easy to believe him, in fact, when he says, "I still get massively insecure" about the quality and value of his work.

Like many of the best comedy figures, Williams is also sensitive to the absurdities and challenges of the world we live in, including the drug use he managed to overcome, the mental illness he explored in "Awakenings" and the puzzle of how a supreme being -- Williams says he is "deeply" religious -- can permit the suffering of innocents.


GENERALITIES -- A production team from Maryland Public Television was scheduled today to be at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis for same-day coverage of Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's commencement address to the 141st graduating class.

Two rebroadcasts of the speech by the U.S. commander of Operation Desert Storm are scheduled tonight on MPT (channels 22 and 67) at 7:30 p.m. and again at midnight.

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