Spring 1991: Robin Williams was suited up in green tights and hanging from a wire when he got the call.
It was then Disney Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg on the line. Realizing that Robin is busy filming Steven Spielberg's big budget Peter Pan update, Jeffrey apologized for the intrusion. But the Mouse had a real problem with an animated film they then had in the works. So Katzenberg was wondering if Williams -- who was well known in the industry as a big-time toon buff -- might drop by Burbank and offer his opinion of the project.
Given that "Hook" was already running weeks behind schedule, Robin should have said "No." But Williams had a soft spot when it came to the Mouse.
After all, Robin pretty much owed his film career in the 1990s to Disney. After starring in a string of cinematic stinkers like "Club Paradise" and "The Survivors," Williams virtually couldn't get arrested in Hollywood by the mid 1980s. Then there was the very public collapse of his first marriage as well as rumors of drug and alcohol addiction. Things were looking pretty bleak for the comic back then
But -- in 1987 -- Disney decided to take a chance on Robin. Figuring that the failures of his earlier films were due mainly to a poor marriage of performer and material, Disney sought to create a movie that would be a showcase for William's gift for comic improvisation.
Katzenberg & Co. spent weeks looking for just the right piece of material for Robin. Finally -- when Disney learned that Paramount Pictures had just put into turnaround a script about an Armed Forces Network disc jockey and his adventures during the early days of the Vietnam War -- Jeffrey knew that they had found the perfect vehicle for Williams. So the studio quickly snatched up the rights to "Good Morning, Vietnam."
Williams -- who was grateful for any opportunity to work at this point in his career -- jumped at the chance to appear in this film. He even agreed to Disney's less-than-generous financial terms, getting half of his usual $2 million paycheck to portray DJ Adrian Cronauer.
In the end, Disney's gamble on Williams paid off handsomely. "Good Morning, Vietnam" proved to be a huge hit at the box office in the Winter of 1988. Both critics and audiences loved Robin's performance. The role even earned him his first ever Academy Award nomination for best actor.
Disney decided to build on Williams' success in "Good Morning, Vietnam" by starring the comic in another film for the studio, 1989's "The Dead Poets Society." Directed by noted Australian film-maker Peter Weir, this coming-of-age drama was also proved to be a huge hit with the movie-going public. Williams' performance as devoted teacher John Keating earned Robin his second Oscar nomination as well as established him as a gifted dramatic actor.
Thanks to these two films, Robin Williams' movie-making career came roaring back to life. All because Jeffrey Katzenberg had decided to take a chance on a semi-washed up comedian.
Which is why Robin Williams thought he would be forever grateful to the Mouse...
Or so he thought.
Anyhow, due to this sense of personal and professional obligation, Robin agreed to drop by Disney Studios on his very next day off from "Hook." Less than a week later, Williams found himself in a meeting with Katzenberg as well as Disney animators John Musker, Ron Clements and Eric Goldberg.
Jeffrey thanked Robin for dropping by, then explained Disney's dilemma: Feature Animation had just had one of its latest projects, a new musical version of "Aladdin," spin into the dirt. The film's screenwriter and lyricist Howard Ashman had tragically died from AIDS a month or so earlier. The "Aladdin" script Ashman had left behind had a lot of interesting things in it. But -- structurally and story-wise -- it was a mess.
Katzenberg then explained to Williams that the studio was thinking of junking Ashman's screenplay. They'd hang on to most of Howard's wonderful lyrics. But -- beyond that -- Disney was thinking of taking this animated musical in a whole new direction.
That said, Jeffrey directed Robin's attention to a nearby TV monitor. There on the screen was an animated Robin Williams -- doing a routine from his 1979 "Reality ... What a Concept" album. The cartoon Williams announced that "Tonight, I'd like to talk to you about schizophrenia." The toony Robin then grew a second head, which quickly told the first head to "Shut up! No he doesn't!"
Williams was thoroughly charmed by the footage. Animator Goldberg -- who had personally put together the test animation -- had done a masterful job of transforming Robin's comic genius into toon form. Turning back to Jeffrey, Williams then asked what it was that the Mouse wanted him to do now.
Katzenberg laid it on the line: We'd like you to join the cast of "Aladdin" as the voice of the Genie.
Williams hesitated for a moment. After all, the coming year was going to be one of his busiest ever, professionally. Once Robin finished playing Peter Pan in "Hook," he'd leap right into work on "Toys." This whimsical military satire set behind-the-scenes at a toy factory was a project that Williams was really looking forward to -- for it would re-unite him with his "Good Morning, Vietnam" director, Barry Levinson. Between all the work he'd have to do to complete these two special effects-laden films, there just didn't seem to be enough time to squeeze in an animated film for Disney.
But Jeffrey persisted. "Think of your son, Zachary," Katzenberg said, "Or your daughter, Zelda. Wouldn't they love to see their dad starring in a Disney animated film?"
That was the argument that finally won Williams over to doing "Aladdin." Since so many of his earlier films had been rated R or PG, Robin's children had yet to really see their daddy perform on the big screen. But here now was a movie that Williams could proudly take his kids to see on its opening day.
That was enough to win Robin over to the idea of doing the voice of the genie. However, this is not to say that Williams didn't have a few conditions he wanted Disney to agree to before formally signing up to work on "Aladdin." Chief among these was Robin's insistence that Disney Studio could not use his name or image in any theatrical posters, print ads, movie trailers or TV commercials to promote "Aladdin.
What was the deal here? Was Robin pulling some sort of silly star trip on the Mouse?
No, not at all. It was just that Williams' next live action film, "Toys," and the animated "Aladdin" were due to be released within weeks of one another. "Aladdin" would roll into theaters over the 1992 Thanksgiving weekend, while "Toys" would be released in December.
Robin had agreed to do "Toys" first, so Williams felt that his primary loyalties had to lie with Levinson and his movie. Disney was free to promote "Aladdin" any way that they saw fit. Just so long as they didn't create the impression that their animated film starred Robin Williams.
After all, the Genie was just a supporting role in "Aladdin." So Robin asked that all ads for Disney's film reflect that reality, and not give the false impression that the animated film somehow starred Williams' character.
Jeffrey smiled and assured Robin that Disney Studios would be happy to meet his conditions. However, the Mouse also had a few conditions of its own.
As much as Disney wanted Williams to play the voice of the Genie, the studio just wasn't willing to pick up Robin's now standard $8 million-per-picture paycheck. Since Disney would only be using Williams' voice -- which the Mouse could record in just a few quick studio sessions -- in the movie, would Robin be willing to work for a significantly smaller fee?
Like -- say, maybe -- scale? Screen Actor Guild minimum. $485 a day.
Williams' agent -- the then all-powerful head of Creative Artist Associates (CAA) Michael Ovitz -- thought the deal Disney was offering Robin was absurd. If the Mouse wasn't willing to pay for Williams' services up front, Ovitz insisted that the very least they could do was offer Robin a piece of the movie's back end.
Williams told Ovitz to butt out. After all, he wasn't making "Aladdin" to make money. Robin was making this movie so that Zachary and Zelda could see their daddy in a Disney movie.
"Besides," Williams continued, "This is animated. How much money could the movie make, anyway?"
From our position -- here in 2000, where a "Lion King" can earn a billion dollars at the box office plus a billion more off of toys, games, videos, etc. -- Williams' statement seems awfully naive. But please remember that Robin was talking to Ovitz back in the Spring of 1991. Disney's latest animated film, 1990's "The Rescuers Down Under," had just under-performed at the box office. And while it was true that 1988's "The Little Mermaid" had earned $80 million domestically, that film's performance seemed more like a fluke than the start of a trend.
Williams had no idea that Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" was lying out there in the bushes, getting ready to change forever the way people viewed animation. When that film hit theaters in November 1991, it racked up great reviews and huge box office numbers. By the spring of 1992, that movie would gross over $140 million as well as earn the first ever "Best Picture" nomination for a feature length animated film.
$140 million seemed like an extraordinary amount for an animated film to make. But "Aladdin" -- with its $217 million gross -- did better than "Beauty and the Beast." And 1994's "The Lion King" -- with its $350 million -- did even better than that.
But Williams had no idea that any of this was going to happen. He had no clue that animation was about to become really big money for the film industry. Robin just wanted to make a movie that he could take his kids to see.
But -- more importantly -- Williams wanted to pay Katzenberg & Co. back for all the kindness Disney had showed him in the mid-1980s. If the Mouse hadn't taken a chance on him and "Good Morning, Vietnam," Robin's film career might still be on the skids. So, if the Walt Disney Company wanted to keep costs down on "Aladdin" by only paying him scale for his recording sessions, that was okay by Robin.
So Williams agreed to Katzenberg's proposal -- working for scale -- provided, of course, that the studio honored Robin's request to keep his names out of all the "Aladdin" ads.
Robin kept his end of the bargain. Over the next 18 months, while working on "Hook" and "Toys," Williams would slip away for a day or two every month for recording sessions on "Aladdin." At each of these session, he'd start off with just straight readings of the scenes he was given from Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot's screenplay. But -- once those sequences were recorded -- Robin would begin to ad-lib additional dialogue for each of these scenes.
Musker and Clements loved the material Williams was inventing for the Genie. So much so that they began reworking "Aladdin" so that the Genie went from a minor supporting role in the film to a part that was almost as big as the title character's.
This is where things started to get difficult for Katzenberg. All the test screenings Disney Studio held for their still-in-production animated film showed that "Aladdin" was going to be a huge hit. Maybe even bigger than "Beauty and the Beast."
But -- when they polled the audience after each test screening as to who their favorite character in the film was -- Disney found that the audience just loved the Genie. The very character that Jeffrey had promised Williams that the studio would do nothing to promote.
Now here was Katzenberg's dilemma: How could he honor his agreement with Williams and not mention his name in any of the film's ad, yet still somehow clue people in to the comic's incredible vocal performance in the movie?
A last minute re-negotiation of Disney's deal with Williams made Katzenberg's job somewhat easier. Jeffrey convinced Robin that -- since the Genie was featured prominently in 25% of "Aladdin"'s running length -- the character should be featured in 25% of every movie trailer, print ad, TV commercial and lobby poster for the film. After getting Katzenberg's assurance that all this revamped advertising would not give the audience the false impression that Williams' character was the star of the movie, Robin okayed the change.
But -- as soon as Williams got his first glance of the original theatrical poster for "Aladdin" -- he immediately regretted changing the terms of his deal with Katzenberg. Sure, the Genie was only featured on 25% of the poster. But his big blue face was the largest image on the thing. His smiling mug towered over the film's title, while infinitely smaller images of Aladdin and Jasmine riding their magic carpet appeared toward the bottom of the poster. While Williams' name was nowhere to be found on the poster, it was clear to Robin that Disney was trying to get across the message that his character was the biggest thing in "Aladdin."
Williams complained loudly to Katzenberg's office about the imagery used in the "Aladdin" movie theater poster. Jeffrey apologized, but pointed out that he had honored the exact conditions of their deal. Robin's name WAS nowhere to be seen on the poster. More importantly, the Genie's image did only took up 25% of the surface space of the poster. Katzenberg had honored the language of their agreement, even if the poster's imagery totally violated the spirit of their deal.
Fearing that featuring his character so prominently in the movie's posters and ads would sink "Toys" chances at the box office, Williams asked that all the original "Aladdin" advertising material be recalled and new posters be issued. Katzenberg again said he was sorry, but there was no way that was going to happen. Disney had already spent millions launching "Aladdin." Any changes in advertising imagery would just have to wait till the film's secondary release, when the studio would create new ads and posters ... maybe.
Robin was furious at the way he felt Jeffrey had mislead him in regard to the way Disney was advertising "Aladdin." And this would not be the last time Williams and Katzenberg would clash over the way the studio chose to hype the the film.
Just after "Aladdin" opened, Williams was driving through downtown Los Angeles and was shocked to see that many of the city's bus shelters featured huge blue posters of the Genie. No other characters from "Aladdin" were featured in these enormous public advertisements. Just the Genie.
When Williams called Katzenberg to complain about the bus shelter posters, Jeffrey apologized profusely. "Obviously, there must have been some sort of mix-up," the then-Disney Studio head said. "I'll have them removed immediately."
So all 300 of the LA area "Aladdin" bus shelter posters were recalled and destroyed. It was only later that Williams learned that thousands of these huge blue Genie posters had been created and had been installed in bus shelters all over the country, where they remained up for the entire time "Aladdin" was in theaters. Only the big blue Genie bus shelter posters that were in areas where Williams was likely to see them had been removed.
This was typical of Katzenberg's abuse of his "Aladdin" advertising agreement with Williams. Time and again, Jeffrey would pay lip service to Robin -- saying that he was doing everything he could to make sure that Disney's marketing department honored their deal concerning all aspects of the advertising on "Aladdin." But, once that phone call was over, Katzenberg would then turn around and tell the studio's marketing guys that they could do whatever they wanted to help promote the film.
Just as Williams had feared, the Thanksgiving release of "Aladdin" totally over-shadowed the December release of "Toys." Sure, this Barry Levinson film's chances for success at the box office were hobbled by the vicious reviews this limp comedy received. But -- had it been the only Robin Williams film in the marketplace that holiday season -- "Toys" might have still done some business.
Unfortunately, for Christmas 1992, movie-goers had two Robin Williams films to chose from. 99.999% of the holiday audience opted to go see "Aladdin." So "Toys" sank like a stone, barely taking in $23 million (which was less than half of the film's production costs).
As "Toys" sank and "Aladdin" soared, Williams just didn't know what to think. On one hand, Robin was thrilled at "Aladdin"'s amazing success. Week after week, it was number 1 at the box office. On the other hand, Robin felt incredibly guilty, thinking that Disney's relentless advertising of "Aladdin" had snuffed out "Toys" (a film his friend Levinson had labored for 15 years to get made) only chances of ever finding an audience.
Then there was the performer's ambivalence toward all the praise Williams was receiving for his work in "Aladdin." Time and again, people would come up to Robin and tell him his performance in the animated film was his best thing he'd ever done. Initially, Williams enjoyed these compliments -- until he realized that people were saying that his very best work was in a cartoon, a medium that only made use of an actor's voice, not his face. This is the sort of thing that can really start to bug a guy who studied at Juilliard.
Williams' ambivalence toward "Aladdin" became public knowledge in February 1993, when he received a certificate of special achievement for his work in the film at the Golden Globes. As he went up on the stage, the clearly uncomfortable Robin didn't know what to say about this alleged honor. He jokingly asked the celebrities and foreign film critics assembled for the ceremony, "Is this like a coupon I can turn in to get a real award?"
Oddly enough, it was Disney's attempt to capitalize on Williams' win at the Golden Globes that proved to be the final breaking point between the Mouse and Mork. Katzenberg okayed a brand new series of print and TV ads for "Aladdin." Each of these clearly mentioned Williams' name, prominently playing up the award the Foreign Film Critics Association had honored the comic with.
As the then-head of Disney Studio, Jeffrey thought that he was just doing his job by okaying these ads. After all, the Golden Globes are considered by many in the film industry as a prelude to the Academy Awards. If Williams' work as the Genie in "Aladdin" had been honored by the Foreign Film Critics Association, maybe the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences could also see their way clear to honoring Robin. Maybe they could even give him a special Oscar for the best vocal performance in an animated film. Hey, stranger things have happened.
However, when Williams saw these new ads, he finally blew his top. This was the last straw as far as the comic was concerned. Robin had deliberately asked Katzenberg to keep his name out of any "Aladdin" advertising. Now here was his name prominently displayed in ads throughout the trades as part of Disney's Oscar campaign for the film.
Robin phoned Katzenberg and told the studio chief that he had repeatedly broken his word to the performer. As a result, Williams felt that he could no longer trust any executives associated with the Mouse Works. Robin then vowed that he would never again make another film for Walt Disney Studios.
Jeffrey -- who was in the middle of orchestrating a million dollar ad campaign that would hopefully help "Aladdin" win a few Oscars -- was horrified by what he called "Mork's melt-down." Sure, maybe Katzenberg had gone back on his word a few times concerning the film's advertising. But couldn't Robin see that Jeffrey had only done this because he had the movie's best interests at heart? With a domestic gross of $217 million, "Aladdin" was then the highest grossing picture in the history of Walt Disney Studios. Wasn't Williams thrilled to just to be a part of that enormous success?
Williams was not. In fact, Williams was beginning to feel like a really big *** for having agreed to work for scale on "Aladdin." In addition, many of Robin's friends in the industry began bad-mouthing the Mouse for not belatedly cutting Williams in on a chunk of the animated film's enormous success. A very popular joke in Hollywood at the time went something like this:
Q: Why won't the Mouse write Robin Williams a check for his work in "Aladdin"?
A: You try holding a pen with only four fingers.
Q: Why won't the Mouse write Robin Williams a check for his work in "Aladdin"?
A: You try holding a pen with only four fingers.
Katzenberg tried to make amends with Williams by sending him a Picasso. Jeffrey made sure that word got out that Disney had spent over $5 million to purchase this belated "Thank You" gift for Robin. Imagine Katzenberg's embarrassment when it later became common knowledge among industry insiders that the studio had picked up the painting at an estate sale for less than $750,000.
In spite of the lavish gift, Robin still refused to have anything to do with the Mouse. For years, he wouldn't look at the scripts the studio sent him. He returned all invitations to the company's premieres and/or theme park events. Things looked pretty hopeless...
Until Joe Roth replaced Jeffrey Katzenberg as the head of Disney Studios.
Just like he used to have for Katzenberg & Co, Williams had a soft spot in his heart for Joe Roth. Why for? Because -- before going over to Disney in early 1992 to start up Caravan Pictures -- Roth had been in charge of film production at 20th Century Fox. One of Joe's last official acts as head of that studio was greenlighting production of Williams' Christmas 1992 hit, "Mrs. Doubtfire."
Why would this make Williams feel grateful toward Roth? Because "Mrs. Doubtfire" was the first film produced by Marcia Garces Williams -- Robin's wife. Marcia had long been the butt of many cruel jokes in Hollywood, given the unusual way her relationship with Robin began. (Garces had originally been hired by Robin's first wife, Valerie, to act as a nanny to their son, Zachary. Williams and Garces had an affair that eventually led to the end of Robin's marriage to Valerie. Garces then became Williams' personal assistant before finally marrying the comic in 1989.) But "Mrs. Doubtfire" finally dispelled all those rumors about Marcia being Yoko to Robin's John Lennon.
That film's big box office gave Marcia huge credibility in Hollywood. All the cruel jokes ended -- all because Joe Roth had greenlighted production of "Mrs. Doubtfire."
Once Joe Roth took over production at Disney Studios, he learned that Francis Ford Coppola was readying a film, "Jack," that would be perfect for Robin Williams to star in. So Joe had the script messengered to Williams' home in Sonoma Valley.
Williams quickly returned the script, along with a note that explained that -- while he would love to do a film with Coppola -- he was no longer willing to work for the Mouse.
Joe then personally called Robin and asked why he didn't want to work for Disney anymore. Williams went into a long involved explanation of how he felt he had been betrayed by Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Roth then pointed out that Katzenberg no longer worked for the Walt Disney Company. Robin went on to say that -- since many of the people who had helped Jeffrey pull a fast one on the comic were still working for the Mouse -- even with Katzenberg gone, Williams just didn't feel comfortable coming back to for Disney.
But Joe wouldn't give up. "What if the company publicly apologized to you?" he asked Robin.
Williams hadn't expected something like that. And he was floored when Joe Roth then held a press conference in 1986, where the then-studio chief explained to the media how the Walt Disney Company had wronged Robin Williams. Roth then went on to offer a public apology for all wrongs previous company executives had committed against the comic.
Roth followed up on this press conference by taking out full page ads in many of the industry's trade papers, explaining that the Walt Disney Company was sorry that it hadn't honored its agreement with Robin Williams.
Robin was flabbergasted that Joe would go to all this trouble to try and right Katzenberg's wrongs. He gladly accepted Roth's apology as well as his invitation to come work at Disney on Francis Ford Coppola's "Jack."
In fact, Williams was so thrilled at Joe's efforts on his behalf that he even agreed to once again provide the voice for the Genie in a direct-to-video sequel to the original "Aladdin" movie, 1996's "Aladdin and the King of Thieves."
In turn, Disney was so thrilled to have Robin back as the Genie that they threw out all the recordings Dan Castellaneta (the Genie's voice for the "Aladdin" TV show as well as the film's first direct-to-video sequel, 1994's "The Return of Jafar") had already made as well as the third of the film that had already been animated.
With Williams once again on board, the animators started from scratch. All the extra effort proved to be worthwhile. Immediately upon release, "Aladdin and the King of Thieves" became the number 1 best selling video in the country.
Will Disney's renewed relationship with Robin Williams last? So far, things still seem to be on track. Williams actually made two films for the Disney Company in 1997: a remake of Fred McMurray's "Absent Minded Professor" comedy called "Flubber" that was Walt Disney Pictures' big Thanksgiving weekend release for that year; as well as "Good Will Hunting," a drama produced by the company's art house subsidy, Miramax Pictures. Williams' performance as the depressed therapist in that film actually earned him a "Best Supporting Actor" Oscar at the 1998 Academy Awards.
But there could be storm clouds on the horizon. Williams is said to be upset at how Disney handled his last film for the company, 1999's "Bicentennial Man." First the studio announced the project with much fanfare -- heralding it as the long awaited re-union between Robin and his "Mrs. Doubtfire" director, Chris ("Home Alone") Columbus. Then, well after pre-production is underway, the Mouse abruptly canceled the movie, saying that the film's projected production budget was too high.
Embarrassed by Disney's behavior but still anxious to make the movie, Williams and Columbus shaved $20 million or so off the film's production budget. With these cuts in place, Disney then agreed to put "Bicentennial Man" back into production. The film was finally released Christmas Day 1999 and quickly flopped.
Williams reportedly is upset with the way Disney opted to advertise the film as well as the financial restrictions the Mouse placed on Robin and Columbus while making the movie. The comic feels that the $20 million worth of scenes he and Chris cut out of the script to get the film greenlighted again may have destroyed the "Bicentennial Man"'s chances of ever winning over an audience.
Equally troubling to Williams was Joe Roth's decision earlier this year to step down as head of Disney Studios. Who's running the show at the Mouse Works now? One of Jeffrey Katzenberg's former lieutenants from Disney Feature Animation, Peter Schneider.
Taking this into account, it may be a very long time before Robin Williams ever again makes a movie for the Walt Disney Company.
Oh well. It was fun while it lasted.