Detroit News - April 5, 1996
Robin Williams: His Voices, His Faves, His Forearms
Jules Feiffer: As the guy who wrote the screenplay to your first movie, Popeye, I have to ask: Did you read comics as a kid?
Robin Williams: Oh, yes, I collected all the Sergeant Rock comics. I had a lot of war comics, and I also had the Classic Comics, like A Tale of Two Cities.
JF: But not the funny stuff?
RW: No, but I loved Warner Brothers cartoons. My love of them drove what I did with the genie in Aladdin, which was basically to make a Warner Brothers cartoon in Disney drag.
JF: You were doing Warner Brothers for Disney?
RW: Yeah, like those wonderful Warner Brothers cartoons where all of a sudden Bugs is with James Cagney, or he's running from Peter Lorre. That's why, in Aladdin, I did Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro and William F. Buckley. I threw in everything. I think they just wanted me to do a straight voice, but the first day I said, "Can I try something?" And they said, "Oh, all right."
JF: Are you telling me that when they originally asked you to do it, the genie was straight?
RW: Oh, very much. I said, "Let's try and push the limits." And they had this wonderful head animator, Eric Goldberg, who drew my character. And when I started to push the limits, he took it further. At one point I did a merchandising spiel, and he started to draw Disney characters being sold. It was the first time they'd made fun of themselves.
JF: And it really was an improv?
RW: An extended improv that became more and more fun, and then they just kept saying, "Hey, this works." They throw in an idea, you throw it back, the collaboration. But I was just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the iceberg was those guys who draw. They act with a pencil. Eric Goldberg took what I gave and went further.
JF: Have you seen any of South Park?
RW: Oh, man. There are some that are brilliant and others you just go, "Oh, wow!" I saw one that was hysterical. It was Jesus and the devil wrestling. That was the first one I ever saw. It's almost like, I don't know, like Quentin Tarantino. …
JF: It's like a kid's version of Tarantino, isn't it? And have you seen Daria?
JF: Daria is a teenage girl that my 13 year old, Halley, watches. And you know, like all of these shows, it's terribly dry. What these seem to be are comic books on the screen. Hardly any animation at all. They've got radio scripts and radio voices. But they're intelligent and they psych out what young people feel; it's the way kids really think.
RW: Have you seen Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist? That's Jonathan Katz, and that's stand-up, basically, put into a wonderful character who captures Katz's own wonderfully neurotic character. It's magnificent.
JF: You believe in these characters a lot more than you believe in characters in most sitcoms.
RW: It's true. The animated cartoons are free to explore one character an episode, or two. They can be more focused. Even Rugrats, for little kids. It's wonderful because it takes a little kid's view. Then, at the extreme adult end is Japanese manga animation. Some are very violent, some are pornographic, and some are very beautifully drawn, like Akira or Ghost in the Shell.
JF: I don't know how the Japanese are able to do this. With comic-book cartoonists there's some wonderful draftsmanship, but none of it has the delicacy or finesse of the manga artists; they use a technique that was used in the 12th century. I was in Japan a year or so ago. They work out of a factory that's like a huge motion-picture studio, with this mass assembly line of artists all doing this extraordinary work. I mean, you might think it's one or two geniuses, but they all do it.
RW: They must because I just saw a big full-length one. This one is very popular in Japan right now; it's an epic called Princess Mononoke. It's an amazing combination of motifs: feudal Japan with firearms. It's animation, beautiful and very layered. The plot itself is almost Greek in its sophistication.
JF: I want to get into Popeye and how you figured out the character, how you took him off the paper I wrote on, and turned him into what he was.
RW: The first preparation was watching all those old Max Fleischer shorts. They were incredible because of the mumblings. The stuff that he would mumble was amazing. You know, about Olive Oyl's figure: "I've seen better lumps in oatmeal."
JF: The mumbling becomes part of the character. But what did you do to get that squinty face?
RW: That reminds me, a manager who no longer works for me was watching the dailies and he said to me, "Why can't you open up your other eye?" I said, "He's only got one. Hence the name. It's not Popeyes." By the way, was it actually ever in any of the comic books how he lost his eye?
JF: No, we never know why he's lost his eye. Elzie Segar, who created it, was such a strange character--maybe Popeye was born with one eye. Didn't Popeye's Pappy have one eye, too?
RW: You're right. So it's a genetic thing. Did they both have the same eye?
JF: The same eye and the same corncob. He was born with that, too.
RW: Both from the shallow end of the gene pool.
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