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- September 13, 1982
- Vol. 18
- No. 11
So Long Mork
In the World According to Robin Williams, It's Time to Drop Out of Mork's Orbit
In retrospect, Williams, 31, might even say that he earned too much money; he certainly admits that life got a little out of hand after ABC's Mork & Mindy rocketed him into the celebrity stratosphere in 1978. His body ballooned ("vodka and lime juice" says Williams), and his marriage to dancer Valerie Velardi, 32, yo-yoed. "I used to go to two or three clubs a night and then go to four or five people's houses, just keeping going, going, going," says Williams. "Maybe get a little sleep, but that didn't matter. The myth of living fast, dying young affected me, but I've come out on the other side of it."
The change, he says, began more than a year ago, when he started filming his current movie hit, The World According to Garp. "Garp was a very relaxing and humanizing experience—it mainly forced me to slow down," says Williams. Things slowed further when ABC and "the God Nielsen" scrapped Mork & Mindy in May, depriving Williams of his accustomed $40,000 per week income but allowing him to make plans to abandon L.A. and settle this fall into a 600-acre ranch he recently bought in the wine country north of San Francisco. The biggest jolt to Williams' "Mondo Hollywood" life-style, however, was the death last March of fellow comic John Belushi, of acute intoxication from cocaine and heroin. Williams had been with him the night he died.
"I didn't find out until the day afterward," says Williams. "They told me on the set after taping was finished, because they didn't want me to know before." He and actor Robert De Niro reportedly had been partying with Belushi on the Sunset Strip, but Williams says he will not comment publicly on the evening's events until a police investigation, with which he cooperated, is completed. "Then I'll be open to discussing the whole thing," he promises. "If I had known something was going on, I would have helped him. But nobody knew—myself included."
Williams says he was particularly saddened because "I was just getting to know the man. We'd been on the acquaintance level until about four months before. Then he started coming by the Mork & Mindy set because he was writing with Don Novello [Saturday Night Live's Father Guido Sarducci], who's a friend of mine. The best day was when John came by the set and we sat and watched Jonathan Winters, just like two little kids. That's when I felt a kindred spirit with him—that he loved Winters too. Some people came up to him and he said, 'Shhhhhh,' and just watched."
Williams is still obviously shaken by the tragedy, and his own lingering notoriety. "It was hard being on the road, wondering when someone was going to yell out that thing," says Williams of his just completed 35-city tour. It only happened once, and "the audience dealt with that person in a wonderful way," says Williams. "Everybody yelled, 'Shut up!' To have one putz screaming out in the back, trying to get his rocks off, trying to cut the pins from me..." Williams' voice begins to rise, then he relaxes. "It's a strange thing—a beast. But it's something I have to deal with, and I'll keep on dealing with it."
The success of Garp helps. Based on author John Irving's darkly comic 1978 best-seller about a writer's attempt to make sense of life's tragedies, the film has earned respectful reviews and admirable box office returns. It also brought Williams a welcome chance to play straight drama. "I look back now and see how lucky I was, after the last hectic years in Hollywood, to have it come along when it did," says Williams. "It was like going from Marvel Comics to Tolstoy. The hero, T.S. Garp, is like another side of me—the nonperforming side. It was a process for me of mentally stripping away, getting back to what I was doing six years ago when I was an acting student at Juilliard." It helped that director George Roy Hill had no tolerance for Williams' legendary improvisational shenanigans. In one scene, when Garp's wife announces she is pregnant, Williams was to draw a baby's face on her stomach with a marking pen, but began to go too far. "I wanted to say, 'Oh, looky, our baby has a beard,' " says Williams. " 'Hold it, jerk,' snapped Hill. 'We want to keep the PG rating.' " When Williams was funny, he recalls, Hill would say, "Okay, that's a joke. Let's go back behind to the next level and find out what's behind it." Within Garp, Williams found touches of himself. "Sometimes T.S. stands for Too Sensitive," says Williams. "Things affect him—and things affect me. He's also a mother-man. The film is full of people wanting to be mothers."
So it is with Williams. "After doing this movie, I want a family—real bad," says Robin. "One really good thing about this film was tapping into that, working with all those children ...I'm serious." And also apparently successful. Valerie just went in for a pregnancy test, and the result was positive.
Any kid of Williams' is certain to have an extraordinary childhood—perhaps as unusual as Robin's own. The child of a Ford Motor Company executive and his wife, Williams had the run of a 30-room mansion on 20 acres in the Cadillac of Detroit suburbs, Bloom-field Hills. Solitary but "not unhappy," he grew up calling his parents "Sir" and "Ma'am" and playing for hours with toy armies in the mansion's basement, staging wars and sending soldiers to detention camps. When he was 17, his parents moved to California's mecca of mellow, Marin County. "It was very much of a shock," understates Robin. "I went from an all-boys private school where we had to wear ties to a school where even socks were optional. Did Marin broaden my horizons? It put them into hyper-space." He studied drama for three years at the local two-year college, later earned a scholarship to New York's Juilliard School (where one of his roommates was Christopher Reeve) and made a name for himself performing in San Francisco comedy clubs like the Holy City Zoo. An ABC audition channeled him to Mork & Mindy, and on Sept. 14, 1978 he voiced the "na-noo, na-noo" heard round the world.
Starting this fall, he'll move out of L.A.'s Topanga Canyon (but will keep the house and his Hollywood apartment) and up to his Sonoma Valley ranch, hard by director Francis Ford Coppola's winery. The spread came complete with a two-bedroom ranch house, pond, two-mile driveway and a small herd of cattle. The last poses a moral dilemma for Williams, who does not eat red meat. "I don't want to give my cows names," says Williams, entertained momentarily by the thought. " 'Hi, Chuck. How's Ground Round? Where's Filet?' It's real sad then. I don't use them as beef, but somebody else does. To me, they just go away to camp. I feel bad about it, but they were there before, so we've kept them on."
He plans to take a year off, "just takin' it real slow," says Robin. "It takes that long to build up new material and to get the momentum going again." (Sliding into a Southern drawl, he mocks the anxiety he felt on a tour stop in Lubbock, Texas: "Boy, dere's tree thousand people out dere, paid good money. Times are tuff. You just better be one wunnerful funny sucker.") He may continue with his frequent benefit concerts (the only cause he hasn't plugged for, he says, is "Save the Shrimp"), and he admits to nurturing visions of a one-man Broadway show—"a long, long way down the line." But mostly he plans to rest amid the vineyards. "It's so nice up there," says Williams, "'cause people don't give a damn about what I do for a living. They're straight-ahead people." (He drops into a neighborly impersonation: "Hi. I'm Bob Tebers. We have a fiiine, wunnerful '48 Burgundy that I'll give you a sample of sumday—bouquet like roses thru satin, if you catch my drift.")
Williams himself is ready to drift. "It's rose-smelling, deep-breathing, waterfall country up there. We've found a couple of beautiful arrowheads and some old grinding stones on the land. At night you can see hawks and eagles. That," shrugs Williams—once Mork from Ork and, he swears, retired nighthawk extraordinaire—"is living."
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