Getting Into Character For Hook Took Its Toll On Robin Williams

The film career of Robin Williams took a few years to take off, if you'll forgive the Peter Pan pun right away. Having established a name for himself on the stand-up comedy circuit, and with a high-profile role in 1978's "Mork & Mindy," Williams made his starring debut in Robert Altman's unappealingly odd 1980 film adaptation of "Popeye." Next, Williams starred in "The World According to Garp," a near-surreal adaptation of a John Irving novel. It wouldn't be until 1987 that Williams would have a proper hit in Barry Levinson's "Good Morning, Vietnam," a biopic of the wartime DJ Adrian Cronauer. In Cronauer, Williams found a foil. Although the real-life Cronauer was not a subversive quipster like Williams, the actor took the opportunity to apply his trademark improvisational shtick to a man who occupied a unique place in the history of the Vietnam war (Cronauer did pioneer the phrase that would become the film's title). Two years after "Vietnam," Williams would cause a stir with his performance in Peter Weir's "Dead Poets Society" about a freethinking teacher who sought to break the surly bonds of academia by teaching poetry with passion. 

Both "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Dead Poets Society" garnered Williams Academy Award nominations. It was then that Steven Spielberg stepped in.

"Hook," a riff on J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan story, followed a grown-up Peter (Williams), now named Peter Banning, years after he had left Neverland and moved to Earth to raise a family. In so doing, he lost his memories of being a flying, un-aging imp. When Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps Peter's children, Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) must bring the adult Peter back to Neverland to rescue them. The bulk of the movie is devoted to Peter remembering his youth, learning to fly, fight, and crow, all with the help of the Lost Boys. "Hook" was not beloved by critics, only holding a 29% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was, however, a massive success, earning $119 million domestically. The film also has a cult of passionate defenders, all of whom were nine years old in 1991. Happy 40th birthday, "Hook" fans!

While "Hook" would eventually turn Williams into an A-list bankable star, the comedian himself was presented with a unique acting challenge with Peter Banning: He was required to play an uptight, regular adult. 

Peter Banning, attorney at law

In all his previous roles, Williams played an "extreme" character of some kind. Even in "Dead Poets Society," Williams' character, John Keats, was the "wild" teacher, inviting his students to stand on their desks, go outside, experience life on a more active level. Many of his other roles permitted Williams to joke and improvise as he would during a stand-up routine. Peter Banning was different. Peter was defined by his disconnect from the whimsical. He had forgotten how to use his imagination (in the kid-friendly sense of the words), preferring to approach life in legal terms (Peter had become a lawyer). 

This meant that Banning was strictly forbidden from being funny. He had to be annoyed, flustered, confused, and angry. He may had once been Peter Pan, but now, after untold centuries as a youth, he had become the complete opposite. In a 1991 interview with the Boca Raton News (archived on the Robin Williams Fansite), Williams shared what a challenge it was: 

"The hardest part was playing the grownup Peter Banning, the Type-A, bottom-line lawyer who has forgotten he was once Peter Pan ... [Be]cause normally I want to be as inventive as possible, to try everything under the sun. And this is not about that."

Williams also became very frank in that interview, explaining that a role requiring him to become a child again allowed him to reconnect with his own young children (his oldest was eight years old at the time): 

"I went through that in my own life, with my son. I had a therapist say, 'Basically the only therapy I can offer you right now is to play with your child,' because I had been using work as a buffer."

Spending all your budget on defense

Williams had an interesting political analogy for focusing his energy when playing Peter Banning: 

"It's like a country that spends its money on defense. If you spend all your energy on trying to find a funny line, your character tends to be sacrificed ... I've been to the shtick wing of the Betty Ford Center."

Eventually, Peter Banning does learn to use his imagination, learning to fly, swordfight, and crow. But most important, he learns to be both Peter Pan and a father. A Pater Pan, if you will. Williams was relieved to finally let loose in the action scenes of "Hook," even if it also didn't allow for much in the way of improv:

"Stage fighting is such a blast. Afterwards, you think 'I'm a great fencer,'" Williams said, even if the fighting was completely choreographed. The actor added:

"It's very hard to improvise with blades. The hardest part was to get the innocence of it. Like when I see my daughter, who's 2, who sees a Christmas tree, to get that face. To lose the fact that you're 40 and get to a point that's 10 or 11."

Williams would eventually win an Academy Award in 1997 for his role in Gus Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting," wherein he also played a helpful teacher. "Hook" often plays on the midnight circuit, and is widely beloved by many. Williams' final role was voicing a dog in Terry Jones' 2015 film "Absolutely Anything."