Robin Williams Tries Another Serious Role in "Awakenings'

Chuck Davis Published: January 17, 1991
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ROBIN Williams is a funny guy, but he's not afraid to go out on a limb and try to be serious.

He was nominated for an Academy Award for a "serious" role in "Dead Poets Society." He very well may be nominated again, this time for his "serious" role in "Awakenings," with Robert De Niro.

"You have something like this ("Awakenings") come along," said Williams, "it's absurd to pass it up. When you read something that's this powerful, I'll take the chance."

In "'Awakenings" Williams plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a doctor working with chronic patients in a hospital in the Bronx. The film is based on a true story by Dr. Oliver Sacks.

"I did a lot of research ... in a mental hospital still a functioning one in Brooklyn," Williams said. "I wasn't afraid.

"As soon as you walk into the doors ... every morning we'd walk past this big door and I'd see this one guy looking through with a few teeth. He kept saying, "Do I look sick to you? Do I look sick to you?' "Sometimes, he'd be outside waiting on the porch.

"They're built like sanitariums, which is almost a redundancy. But they're in wire cages.

"So that's what you got walking in. It confronts you. You can't walk away from that going, "Whew. I'd like to split.' "It's like 45 inmates watching a Fred Astaire musical on Darvon."

In the film, Williams' character is a recluse, afraid to reach out _ until he is spurred to help these post-encephalitic patients, one of them who is played by De Niro.

"I can relate to the good doctor in some ways," Williams said. "I wasn't also exuberant. I spent about three years in an all-boys school (near Detroit). It was almost like the one in "Dead Poets Society.' Blazer. Latin motto.

"I was getting pushed around a lot. Not only was there like physical bullying, but there was intellectual bullying going on.

"It made me toughen up, but it also made me pull back a lot. I had a certain retiscence about dealing with people.

"Through comedy, I found a way to bridge the gap."

Moving to California opened his eyes, too, Williams said.

"When I came out to California to go to high school, it was 1969," he said. "I went to this gestalt high school, where one of the teachers actually took LSD one day. So you walked in and you hear (whispers), "I'm Lincoln.' " Williams did a lot of powerful acting in "Awakenings." But he also did a lot of ... observing.

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