ROBIN WILLIAMS is wearing a T-shirt that says "Look Don't Stare," but it's hard not to.
Moments after sitting down to promote his new movie, "The Fisher King," his quiet persona switches into untamed hobgoblin, and Williams becomes a manic creature, all strange voices, wired mannerisms and lethal observations.
Take, for instance, his off-the-cuff riffs on the following topics:
On Julia Roberts' breakup with fiance Kiefer Sutherland: "Why'd it fail, babe? Come on, tell me. And can I have the gift back? Honey . . . do you think you can fit into this red nightie?"
On his alarm clockish 2-year-old daughter Zoe: "She smacked me on the head to wake me up this morning. 'Noooo, noooo, leave me alone . . .' Back when I used to drink, I'd wake up the same way. But she's no angel. She has this scream that makes cats even want to kill her. (Williams suddenly impersonates two Uzi-wielding Jamaican tabbies.) 'Kiiiill her, mon. Stop her.' And she knows she has this power, because I've seen her practicing. She's like Damian . . . "
Suddenly, without warning, Williams segues out of his interior monologues. His eyes regain their focus, the beads of sweat on his brow begin to evaporate and he becomes positively sweet and benign, licking the wounds he has just created. For instance:
"Of course I gave Julia a gift. She didn't give it back, no, but nobody wanted to bother her. Because the bottom line is she's only 23. She's only 23 . . . "
"I think the way Robin works is that he channels," says Shirley MacLaine of Williams' gift of popping in and out of varying personas at ease. "The Fisher King" director Terry Gilliam has another take: "I'd say it was just talent."
No one would argue with the latter perception. At the age of 39, Williams has cleaned up his act, gone cold turkey on the drugs and alcohol that used to fuel his caffeinated comedy and has become one of Hollywood's most sought-after leading men. He has two Academy Award nominations on his resume (for "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Dead Poet's Society"), and according to Hollywood insiders, another probably on the way -- for either "The Fisher King" or the forthcoming Christmas blockbuster "Hook," in which he plays Peter Pan to Dustin Hoffman's Captain Hook.
His clout in a town fond of a flavor-of-the-month mentality is, according to "The Fisher King" producer Lynda Obst, absolutely enormous. "All we had to do to get this movie off the drawing table is attach his name to it," she says, awe-inspired. "He's that big."
But up close and personal, Williams is anything but. He speaks slowly, softly, and blushes at the slightest prying question. His mannerisms, capped off by his look -- tousled unkempt hair the consistency of terrier fur, wide blue eyes, a quivering thin-lipped smile -- give him the aura of a 10-year-old. But ask him if he thinks genius is almost always touched by madness, and he becomes suddenly adult, as if overcome by another of his spirits -- this one decidedly intellectual and emotional.
"I do think that's true," he says directly and with much passion. "I get tiny touches of both once in a while. But it's nothing compared to what this friend of mine went through. He was an actor, I knew him in college. And he was truly brilliant. A real genius. But he had times where his sensitivity was so great that he would pass over into madness. Eventually, he ended up nude walking down the streets of Napa and was taken to a mental hospital. I thought a lot about him during the making of this last movie. He's a lot like Parry."
Parry is Williams' character in "The Fisher King," a former professor of medieval history who loses his mind when his girlfriend is shotgunned to death before his eyes in a restaurant by a psycho. Numbed by pain, he drifts in and out of catatonia and eventually becomes a street person, one whose superior knowledge of mythic folklore inspires, provokes and touches a yuppie turned dropout (Jeff Bridges). Their unlikely friendship -- and Williams' blossoming from a deranged hobo into a Don Juan -- propels the film, which is part comedy, part drama.
Most of the big juicy moments in the movie are Williams' as he drifts in and out of insanity and pathos. It's a schizophrenic kind of performance -- both over the top and surprisingly low-key. And while Williams gets the girl and lots of laughs, his admirers point toward his quiet moments in the film as a signal that a new serious actor -- one with the skill of Robert De Niro and the heart of Charlie Chaplin -- has arrived on the scene.
"Robin," says director Gilliam, "is finally starting to recognize the power of being quiet."
He wholeheartedly agrees. "I am learning that, definitely," he says. "I mean, look at 'Awakenings' -- I was real still in that -- you won't find a more still performance. With this movie, and with 'Hook,' where I play the first half of the film completely straight, I've learned about the power of not doing a lot. The tendency I had in a lot of movies I was not proud of [such as "Survivors" and "Club Paradise," bombs which have been mysteriously left off his current resume] was to constantly look for the joke, instead of just creating a character, which is a deadly thing to do."
The thirst for yuks, Williams explains, is something that was born from pain. "That's what this movie is about -- doing things to cope with the demons inside of you -- and I understand that totally," he says. "I used to do comedy, stand in front of 10 people in a run-down club, just so I wouldn't have to deal with my life. It was when 'Mork and Mindy' was going down the tubes, when my film career in the early '80s stalled and I had to deal with things I didn't want to deal with. It is just like Lenny Bruce said: 'The audience is a great fix.' "
It was his second wife, Marcia, his son by his first marriage, Zack, and his daughter Zoe that turned his life around, he says. (Another child, Cody, is due in November, "one without a Z name.") He points to "The Fisher King's" most touching scene, one where Parry serenades his geeky girlfriend (played by Amanda Plummer) with a five-minute speech about love being total acceptance. That monologue, he says, eyes shining, was among the most heartfelt of his career.
"When you have someone who accepts you for what you are, for every fault and bad habit and yet loves you no matter what, that frees you," he says. "That's what I have with my wife and my family, and that's what allowed me do to this role, to take this kind of chance. That's what calmed me down."
To add layers of twitchy richness to his portrayal, Williams visited several mental hospitals and homeless shelters near his San Francisco home. "I wanted to find out why Parry wouldn't want to be there. And as a result, I saw a lot of awful places because this country doesn't provide adequate funding for hospitals and shelters. These places are like Dante's Inferno with green paint. It's deeply mood altering to walk into one. You can't tell what the people have been through because they are so medicated."
With the one-two punch of "Awakenings" and "The Fisher King," Williams has crafted for himself an enviable niche -- playing characters composed of both chaos and cheer.
And what led him to the decision to play serious on screen, if not in real life? Williams said one of the turning points for him came when he started to read his son bedtime stories in a series of strange comic voices and the child balked.
"He said, 'Do it for real, don't use voices,' " remembers Williams. "To which I said to myself, 'Huh -- 7 years old and already the kid's a director.'"