A Comic's Crisis of the Heart
“Ladeeeeez and gemmmnnnnn! Let’s hear a greaaaaaaat big hello for—HERMAAANNNNN RABINOWITZ!”
Like a Frisbee from outer space a tomato-red beret goes whooshing through a dingy comedy cellar in Manhattan and skids to a hovering stop exactly 68 inches above a stage the size of a trash-can lid. But the man underneath the beret isn’t Herman Rabinowitz. Screeching with delight, the customers recognize—ROBIN WILLIAMS! Razor-slash mouth, nose like a tired mouse, tiny mad eyes as blue as antifreeze. And enough hair on his flailing arms to stuff an elk—he calls it “a natural sweater from the Darwin Collection.”
“MY GOD!” Robin barks like a demented seal, off and running at the mouth like a power hose at a race riot. “It’s dangerous out there. There’s a hole in the ozone and President Reagan goes: ‘We-e-ll, I guess we’ll just have to use a little more sunblock.’ ” (The imitation is purr-feet and wins a cheer.) “HA!” Robin snorts. “That’s like curing leprosy with FLOSSING! You know who President Reagan is? Walt Disney’s last wish. ‘Where would this country be,’ ” Robin-as-Prez vapidly inquires, ” ‘without this great land of ours?’ ”
Waves of laughter are coming at Robin now. He charges into them. “Now we have partial nuclear disarmament. Which is like partial circumcision. Do it or—in’ forget it!” (Wild cheering.) “Women would never make a bomb that would kill you. They’d make a bomb that would make you feel bad every 28 days.” (Men and women chuckle.)
“And then there’s cocaine. What a wonderful drug. Anything that makes you paranoid and impotent, give me more of that!” (Nervous laugh.) “And as we all know, there’s THAT OTHER THING out there. Which means we all have to use a little—condom sense. You know what a condom is? The bathing cap of love.” (Laugh.) “A prophylactic, from the Latin prophylactorum, which means: strange party favors.” (Big laugh.) “I know you hate to put it on. In the heat of passion, you don’t want to say, ‘Let’s stop and put on a balloon.’ ”
By now people are gasping, clutching their sides. Robin Williams is scorching hot—and the whole country knows it. He was hot once before, back in 1978, when he made a kook named Mork from Ork the superstar of early-evening television. But two months ago, after four movies Popeye, The World According to Garp, Survivors, Moscow on the Hudson) that frustrated his talents and two (The Best of Times, Club Paradise) that thoroughly trashed his reputation, Robin’s career was deep in the Dumpster. Only a miracle could haul it out.
Well, the miracle has happened. Robin’s new movie, Good Morning, Vietnam, is the comedy smash of the winter season. Cast as Adrian Cronauer, a GI disc jockey in Saigon who in real life (see box, p. 84) originated a timid prototype of shock radio, Robin at last has a movie script that invites him to do what he does best: water-ski his wild and hectic stream of consciousness with hell-in-a-handbasket abandon. Working in Thailand in 110-degree heat (“You could cook dinner in your pants”), he ad-libbed all the ’60s broadcast scenes, dreamed up most of the really raucous zingers (“Why did President Johnson name his daughter Lynda Bird? Because Lynda Dog would be too cruel”) and at the same time created a likable character who instinctively loves his enemies and finds humor in the midst of horror.
Reviewers flipped for the picture. TIME called it “the best military comedy since M*A*S*H” and last month Robin won a Golden Globe as 1987’s Best Actor. “Robin’s the most amazing comedian of the last 25 years,” says comedy-writer Larry (Tootsie) Gelbart. “He’s like Groucho on speed. A giant.” Jonathan Winters, Robin’s mentor and lifelong idol, flung him a hot bouquet: “He’s a huge international air show in which all the planes are supersonic F-15s.” Actor pal Mandy Patinkin sums up: “Robin’s taking on the whole human condition in his comedy, and he’s growing by leaps and bounds.”
Overnight, the public was seized by Robinsanity. Despite foul weather, GMV has raked in more than $53 million in only 32 days of general release—numbers that promise a total take of $150 million. “Move over, Eddie Murphy,” one of his managers crowed. “Robin Williams is back on top.”
Not to hear Robin tell it. “My feelings are divided,” he said last week in his normal offstage manner—he speaks rapidly, but in a quiet, sane way that would surely amaze the fans of comedy’s supreme maniac. “Sure I’m happy about the movie. But right now I’m moving through my personal life like a hemophiliac in a razor factory.”
With good reason: At 35, Robin is caught up in a private turmoil of passion and anguish. He is torn between two strong women: Valerie Velardi Williams, 36, the wife of nine years he deeply respects but no longer wants to live with, and Marsha Garces, now in her late 20s, the mistress he madly adores. Sloe-eyed, elegantly slender, Garces arrived in his life four years ago when Valerie (as she grimly acknowledges) hired her as a live-in nanny for baby Zachary, who is now almost 5.
More than a year ago, after many stormy scenes, Robin and Valerie signed a private, out-of-court separation agreement that provides for shared custody of their son on a flexible basis. When Robin is out of town (as he often is), the boy lives with his mother in her San Francisco apartment; when Robin is at home in another section of the city, Zachary spends as much time as possible with him. Note that when Zach is with Robin he’s with Marsha too. Robin now lives with Marsha, who is both his secretary-assistant and (as he explains with a glow you could see from the moon) “the one who makes my heart sing.”
And who is Marsha? She has persistently refused to be interviewed but friends say she is of Filipino-Finnish background, was trained as a painter, worked as a waitress and served as Zachary’s nursemaid for two years. Then about two years ago, Marsha became Robin’s secretary. When did their affair begin? Nobody’s talking.
What’s certain is that it has become a deep, intense relationship. “Marsha is Robin’s anchor,” says Pam Dawber, his co-star on Mork and Mindy. “She’s reality. Ground zero. She’s very sane, and that’s what he needs. She’s incredibly loving too. And protective. She knows who is bad for him and who is good, and she helps keep the good relationships going.” Marsha travels with Robin and serves tirelessly as secretary, adviser, hostess, mistress. She traveled with him to Thailand and, says GMV producer Mark Johnson, “she was the hardest working person on the set. She was there for him 24 hours a day. She truly loves him.”
And it’s flagrantly obvious that Robin loves her too. Last month, all through a brutal week of preparation for his appearance on Saturday Night Live, he snatched every opportunity to give Marsha a tender kiss or a hearty hug. At least once, to hell with who was watching, he cupped her buttocks and pulled her in close for the kind of kiss usually exchanged in a bedroom.
Not the least of the things they share is a boundless love for Zachary. “He’s just wonderful!” Robin sighs. “The most sobering and wonderful thing in my life. Blond. Valerie’s blue eyes. My chin. Full lips. He looks like an Aryan poster child. He has a very fertile imagination and he loves numbers. Sometimes he’s like a 40-year-old Jewish accountant. Sometimes he’s like Damien in The Omen. Sometimes he’s like an angel without wings. He knows what he’s feeling at all times. Today I took him to a diner for lunch. It was noisy and he doesn’t like noise. ‘We must come back some time,’ he said tactfully, ‘when it’s not so crowded.’ And he’s not Mr. Outdoors. When I took him camping, he said, ‘We’ve got to find a room with a full refrigerator.’ ”
How has Zachary adapted to his new role as a domestic commuter? “He’s amazingly adaptive,” Robin says cheerfully, “and we all try hard to make the arrangement work. We all love Zachary, and Zachary loves us all. Also, we’re all in therapy, and that’s helped a lot—Jesus, I should get a discount! Valerie and I have a good understanding too. The separation was difficult, but it was also gentle. Better to do that than to go at each other’s throats.” Valerie agrees. “Robin has been conducting himself very well,” she says. “We’re acting together in Zach’s interest. We separated to reexamine our lives. It’s a time for personal growth for both of us. I see another man”—journalist David Sheff—”but I live alone, and I like it that way.”
Who’s kidding who? If everybody is getting along so well, why does Robin say he feels “like Gandhi in Beirut”? The reason is blatantly obvious: Robin is standing at the apex of a triangle of tension, and in its center he sees the little boy he loves. Will the pressures of the situation rip Zachary’s young life apart? That is Robin’s 24-hour nightmare. “I’ll do anything,” he says, “to keep my son from harm.”
The problem, as Robin sees it, lies in his unresolved relationship with Valerie. “What I’m trying to do now,” he says, “is to work with Valerie to transform our marriage into a relationship in which we share Zachary and do all we can to make him happy. I expect my involvement with Valerie to go on until I die.” But post-separation involvements can be harder than marriage. Valerie, a close observer says, “can be very volatile.” And a friend adds: “She’s not going to talk about it for publication, but Valerie’s furious. What do you expect? Here’s somebody who worked for her, and now Robin’s living with her. Of course she’s angry.” Indirectly, Valerie admits as much. When asked how she feels about Marsha, she blurts: “You’re not gonna get that out of me in 100 years!”
Robin is well aware of Valerie’s feelings. “The problem is intensified,” he says, “because Zachary loves Marsha and Marsha loves the child. So for Valerie, along with the feeling that Marsha took me away, there’s the threat that Marsha might replace Zierin Zach’s affections. That won’t happen. Valerie is a very good mother. Nothing could shake his love for her. And I won’t give her unnecessary pain. A relationship as long and close as ours can’t be brushed aside. Besides, we’ve got to work together for Zach. He’s fine, except when things get tense. He doesn’t want tension.” Robin sighs. “Everywhere I turn there’s tension. I spend an awful lot of time trying to ease it.”
The struggle is far from over. “To live in this gray area,” Robin said recently, “is hard for everyone concerned. People have to get on with their lives.” Is he thinking about divorce? The question makes both Robin and Valerie nervous. “We haven’t discussed divorce,” they say hastily, using exactly the same words. Does he want to marry Marsha? This question makes Robin even more nervous. “That definitely hasn’t been discussed,” he says. “The idea hasn’t even come up.” Well then, is reconciliation possible? Apparently not. Robin is much too much in love with Marsha, and Valerie says: “I’m too immersed in my own life now to think about that. I’m grateful for the breathing time.”
So is Robin. “Valerie and I have had a tumultuous relationship, back and forth, for a very long time,” he acknowledges. “We went through amazing times. Horrible times.”
They met in 1976 in a San Francisco tavern. He had cut loose from the Juilliard School of Drama in his third year and was working as a bartender while getting his comedy act together. She was working as a waitress while taking a graduate degree at Mills College. They formed a union of opposites. She was raised in New Haven, Conn., the daughter of an Italian contractor. He was raised in suburban Detroit, the son of a Ford Motor Company executive (who died last October). She grew up with two brothers and a sister. He was a solitary child who, as he says, “was raised by a black maid and spent most of my time alone in a huge house, playing with toy soldiers—I had 20,000 of them.” He was dazzling, elusive, a hummingbird on the wing. She was fiery, strong-willed, a spirited filly who loved to kick up her heels.
Valerie helped Robin polish his routines and then persuaded him to strut his stuff in L.A. Within months he got his big break: On an episode of TV’s Happy Days he stole the show playing a herky-jerky, happy-go-wacky extraterrestrial, a hyper hybrid of Peter Pan and Daffy Duck. ABC promptly offered him his own show, Mork and Mindy, and from Day One ratings rocketed. All at once the lonely little boy was the King of Komedy. Mork’s mug was on every magazine cover, and his nonsense noises (“Nanoo nanoo”) were on every child’s lips. The world was suddenly Robin’s playground and he ran wild. Beautiful women flung themselves at him and he seldom ducked. “For many years,” he admits ruefully, “I was addicted to women, as if to a drug. That’s over now. But looking back, I find it humiliating. Degrading. I’m ashamed.”
Valerie—in retrospect—is less inclined to condemn. “Very attractive women throw themselves at men in his position. You’d have to be a saint to resist. Besides, neither of us was prepared for the sudden life shift. But I admit the other women were harder to take after I’d had a child.”
Alcohol and cocaine became more alarming addictions. “Cocaine for me,” Robin says now, “was a place to hide. Most people get hyper on coke. It slowed me down. Sometimes it made me paranoid and impotent, but mostly it just made me withdrawn. And I was so crazy back then—working all day, partying most of the night—I needed an excuse not to talk. I needed quiet times and I used coke to get them.”
Six months before Zachary was born, Robin quit cocaine and alcohol—cold turkey. “No visit to the Betty Ford Center, no therapeutic support,” says a friend. “He just quit, and he hasn’t touched drugs or drink since.” Valerie adds: “Robin has an incredibly strong will. He didn’t need help. He has inner resources and he used them.” What made him quit? Two events: Valerie became pregnant with Zach, and John Belushi was blown away by a speed-ball just a few hours after Robin snorted a line of coke with him at the Chateau Marmont.
“The Belushi tragedy was frightening,” says Robin. “He was the strongest. A bull with incredible energy. His death scared a whole group of show business people. It caused a big exodus from drugs. And for me there was the baby coming. I knew I couldn’t be a father and live that sort of life.”
Robin’s life now is altogether different. All that centrifugal frenzy is splurged into his work, and he is building a new world with Marsha and Zachary in the quiet eye of his creative storm. He chuckles when friends say he’s more centered (“Sounds as if eventually I’ll be just a dot”) but admits they’re right. “He’s discovered that he doesn’t need to be on all the time to be close to people,” says his good friend Christopher (Superman) Reeve. “He used to think his gift was all he had to give.”
Robin’s new happiness is nourishing his art. “I take more down time,” he says. “Catatonic time when I’m absorbing information. People say I’m absorbent—makes me think I’m a giant Tampax.” His judgment of people and projects has also improved dramatically. In the past, he admits, he ignored advice and made “pigheaded decisions.” Now he listens, evaluates and makes constructive choices. Good Morning, Vietnam was one of them. Another will bring him to Broadway this fall in a Mike Nichols production of Waiting for Godot, with Steve Martin.
Last week, after a month that included an exhausting press tour for his picture, five comedy club sessions, the Saturday Night Live appearance and his 10th HBO comedy show, Robin was in San Francisco, blissfully flaking out with Marsha and Zachary in his unpretentious garden apartment. “In the morning,” he says, “I often watch TV with Zach. They show those wonderful old Warner Brothers cartoons. To hear a child laugh like that—to see him watch Wile E. Coyote! My God, it’s something incredible! Sometimes while the cartoons are showing, I do wacky voices—you know, the way I do in my act. Sometimes he likes that, but sometimes he says, ‘Daddy, don’t use that voice. Just be Daddy.’ And that’s what I want to do. Just be Daddy.”