How Robin Williams 'Rescued' Terry Gilliam's Adventures Of Baron Munchausen

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Terry Gilliam has almost never had an easy time making a movie. The former Monty Python member has a filmography that stretches nearly five decades, and nearly every film he has made has been a butting of heads between a director with an unbridled imagination you can't really reign in and people who would very much like to make their money back on their investment (who rarely do). Most famously, there was the saga of trying to get "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" made that took nearly 30 years. The documentary "Lost in La Mancha" chronicles the crumbling production in the year 2000, and it would still take over 15 years after that film's release for "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" to be a completed picture. Gilliam makes films like no one else, and while we can marvel at their visual ingenuity, they rarely make for sturdy commercial prospects.

This is a problem because his expansive vision needs a budget to accommodate it, and studios and investors don't want to cough up a bunch of cash for something they won't get back. Nowhere is this more evident than his 1988 legendary box office bomb "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," a movie whose $23.5 million budget grew to a reported $46.6 million that only made $8 million at the box office. Gilliam's imagination ran amuck, and the money folks were pleading with him to include a big-name star to perhaps inject it with some commercial prospects, as the movie's lead was English theatre actor John Neville. If he could get a name, he could get some more money for the movie. Well, the name he got wasn't just big. It was seismic. He got Robin Williams to play the small role of the King of the Moon.

Introducing Ray D. Tutto

A year before "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" came out, Robin Williams starred in "Good Morning, Vietnam," a movie that earned him his first Oscar nomination and was the fourth highest-grossing film of the year. It was the film that took Williams from being the electrifying standup comic and wacky sitcom star to being a full-fledged movie star who would dominate Hollywood. Eric Idle, one of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cohorts and an actor in "Baron Munchausen," was a friend of Williams, acting as the bridge to get the megastar to agree to be in the film. Another Python member, Michael Palin, had already been cast as the King of the Moon, but if Gilliam wanted that money, Palin would have to go.

Of course, Robin Williams and his representation knew that asking someone of his stature was a money play. In the biography "Robin" by Dave Itzkoff, Gilliam recalls that "At the time ... his managers, I don't think really were overjoyed to have him jumping out of other, higher-paid jobs to do this." Williams isn't one to turn down the opportunity to work with someone as out-of-this-world creative as Terry Gilliam, and the King of the Moon character allows him to go completely wild in the way only he can, with Gilliam saying, "At least half of his dialogue, if not more, was him ad-libbing."

While Robin Williams "did rescue the film" in production, it did not save the film's commercial prospects like the studio hoped, as there were two major stipulations that needed to be agreed to for him to sign up. First, he was to be credited by the name Ray D. Tutto instead of Robin Williams, and he could not be in any of the marketing material for the movie.

Robin doesn't like being advertised

Robin Williams has a bit of a history of signing onto projects hoping his fame won't be milked for profit. A few years after this, he would have a massive battle with Disney about how they marketed him and the Genie for "Aladdin," as he agreed to do the movie under similar terms of not being in advertising. Obviously, Disney did not hold that promise. His managers felt the same way about him being used as a marketing tool. During the negotiations for Robin Williams to join "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," Terry Gilliam recalls in "Robin:"

"[H]is managers [said], 'We don't want you pimping his ass.' They thought we would sell the film on Robin Williams's name. That's what they were frightened of. And we never, ever advertised Robin. Had more people known he was in it, it probably would have done better business when it came out."

Kudos to Columbia Pictures, because they basically stayed true to their word. The trailer for "Baron Munchausen" only features two shots of Robin Williams and never displays or says his name anywhere in it. The poster doesn't even feature an image of his character.

Although Robin Williams was brought in as a budgetary necessity, he and Terry Gilliam clearly had a good working relationship. Gilliam's next film was "The Fisher King," and he brought in Williams to play one of the film's leads, a man who believes he needs to find the Holy Grail, which earned him another Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Both of these men had larger-than-life expressions of their creative selves and probably found a kindred spirit in each other. Even if "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" wasn't a success, there was still light to be found within it.