Robin Williams in
World's Greatest Dad
Robin Williams in
World's Greatest Dad
Robin Williams' name has been synonymous with laughter for more than 30 years, since he famously shot to stardom on TV's Mork and Mindy. But it's impossible to define him as a typical comedic actor. While Williams has gone for the belly laughs in films such as Mrs. Doubtfire, he's also starred in a string of more serious films, including The World According to Garp, The Fisher King, The Birdcage, Dead Poets Society, and Good Will Hunting, which earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. (He even played the role of Osric in Kenneth Branagh's film version of Hamlet.)

Williams' new film, World's Greatest Dad, written and directed by fellow comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, shows both sides of his persona. It's a twisted and amusing dark comedy about a high school poetry teacher who finds his life blossoming after his son's accidental suicide. "People ask me, 'Why did you do this movie?" says Williams. "It's because I thought it was really interesting. Of course, a lot of times it's been for the other reason: to make a lot of money!"

The scene in which Williams' character, Lance Clayton, finds his son's body is a literal shock to the system for the audience -- and it wasn't easy for the actor either. "I think I had the closest thing to a nervous breakdown on film," he says. "But it was comfortable, because I was with a friend I could trust. If you feel comfortable that's how you make interesting work." While the film often rides the line of absurdity, reality is where Williams found the inspiration for that pivotal scene. "I've been watching a lot of documentaries," he explains. "And you realize that some of the most powerful responses are non-verbal and so silent and so painful."

The actor knows about pain: in early March, Williams suddenly postponed upcoming performances of his touring one-man show, Weapons of Self-Destruction in order to undergo heart surgery. Williams' stand-up routines are distinctively high-energy -- it's like watching a comedy rocket ricochet across the stage -- and the star was definitely feeling the drain. "Just before I had the surgery, I was starting to feel run-down," he admits. "I'd finish a show, come off stage, and go 'when's my next day off?' That's not a good sign."

Luckily for his fans, the tour resumes at the end of September -- with HBO scheduled to broadcast a performance in December -- and Williams promises that the audience will see the results of a successful surgery. "I just started doing 90-minute shows in comedy clubs to see if I could go the distance, and the good news is the new valve is wonderful," he says. Moreover, Williams says the hiatus is leading him to consider new opportunities in his career. "I want to work on stuff that's interesting and with people I enjoy being with, because you realize your window is a little shorter than you think it is. You come out of something like this surgery, and it's 'You 2.0.'"