Robin Williams, Juilliard trained but not contained, prowled the stage consuming everything in sight — set, fellow actors, the audience — and reflecting it back with an immediacy that took your breath away. In 1988, Mike Nichols teamed him with Steve Martin to play the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot. The cast included F. Murray Abraham and Bill Irwin (and a very young Lukas Haas); the stars suggested Broadway, but in fact the venue was the tiny Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center. The casting of the leads was inspired, and Nichols’ idea was to push Samuel Beckett’s great bleak bedrock of postwar drama into the dessicated American West. And, mostly, to let Robin Williams do his thing in the role made famous by another seat-of-his-pants comedian, Bert Lahr. He seemed to take flight.
“He was so good in that show that he made Beckett’s lines seem like ad libs,” recalled Gregory Mosher, who produced the revival as director of Lincoln Center Theater. For their efforts, they were pretty well savaged by critics (not that it mattered at the box office), with Williams taking the brunt of the heat: “The most frenetic horseplay belongs to Mr. Williams, who at one point regurgitates the theme music of television’s Twilight Zone as if he were still playing his old sitcom character of Mork,” Frank Rich wrote in The Times. “A brilliant mimic, the actor never runs out of wacky voices, but where is his own voice?” And then the ax fell: “There’s more humor (and heartfelt agony) in the famous Richard Avedon photographic portrait of Bert Lahr’s Estragon than there is in a whole night of Mr. Williams’s sweaty efforts to keep us in stitches.”
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Mosher recalled that “the night after the opening, I went to see him in his dressing room — he was alone, of course, and sad. ‘Do you think we let Mr. Beckett down?’ he asked. That’s all he cared about – did we let Mr. Beckett down? And of course he was working with Steve Martin and Mike Nichols – three of the funniest people in the world. Most comedy comes from anger, but Robin really was funny out of gentleness and love, and that’s rare. And wonder. That’s what he shared with Jonathan Winters. My first impression of him was not that he was funny, but that he was sweet.”
My own first impression of Williams was that he was sui generis, that no matter what the trend was in comedy, he was a force unto himself. He had teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal for Comic Relief, the raffish comedy showcase to raise money for the homeless that Michael Fuchs took under the HBO wing. In 1990 I hung out with them one day preparing for that year’s telecast. Funny and iconic in their own rights, neither Crystal nor Goldberg could keep up with Williams. Like his revered mentor Winters, Williams free-associated at the speed of sound.
“On Tuesday, Mr. Williams, inspired by some bit of dialogue, took off on a solo flight familiar to anyone who has seen him perform,” I reported in the Times. “He began by turning the name Radio City Music Hall into an obscenity and ended some minutes later with Mr. Crystal begging, ‘Let me read my lines. Just once.’ ”
Aside from his HBO stand-up specials, it would be 23 years before he returned to a stage role, this time on Broadway in 2011 playing the title role in Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo. Like Godot, it was one writer’s surrealistic response to the horrific reality of mankind’s capacity for self-destruction. Williams — his now-lined face elongated by an unkempt beard and costumed in tatters retrieved as if from a trash bin — played the starving tiger witnessing the Iraq War from his battered cage. Prowling again, Williams was more feral than feline. He exuded — he practically sweated — malaise, despair. “Cruelty echoes all around me, even in this ruined garden,” the tiger confided to us. That garden, like Iraq itself, seemed unsalvageable.
The play was a commercial flop, and that year Williams was one of the stars the Tony nominators ignored. Appearing on Broadway in an abstract but unequivocally anti-war play was a choice that had more to do with championing a writer and a cause than with drawing the spotlight to himself. It was generous — sweet — and unforgettable. In the end, the dead tiger was still speaking to us, in flights of language Williams understood as second nature, commenting on the ravaged world, a funny-sad, skeptical guide through the chaos.