Barry Levinson reveals that Robin Williams was 'struggling' during making of 'Good Morning, Vietnam'

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·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·12 min read
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Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson's 1987 hit, 'Good Morning, Vietnam' (Photo: Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson's 1987 hit 'Good Morning, Vietnam' (Photo: Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Earlier this year, the internet's collective mind was blown by the viral rumor that we were denied an NC-17 rated cut of the 1993 Robin Williams favorite Mrs. Doubtfire. That bubble was inevitably burst by the movie's director, Chris Columbus, who noted that the comedian's improvised on-set riffing occasionally got R-rated, but never crossed into NC-17 territory occupied by movies like Showgirls. Likewise, Good Morning, Vietnam director Barry Levinson tells Yahoo Entertainment that there's only one version of his seminal collaboration with Williams... and it's the R-rated cut that premiered in theaters on Dec. 23, 1987. 

"It's odd in a way, because Robin could certainly go off on any topic at a moment's notice," Levinson says of the late actor, who died in 2014. "Certainly, there was more material than we could have ever possibly have used. But I don't remember language being an issue at all, to be honest with you." Much of that extra material comes from the movie's best-remembered scenes, when Williams — playing real-life Vietnam War-era DJ Adrian Cronauer — is seated in front of a microphone, tossing off one-liners and racing through hilarious impressions while his co-stars, including Forrest Whitaker and Robert Wuhl, repeatedly crack up. "I'd love to see what the heck was in those outtakes," Levinson says. "I haven't seen any of them since we made the movie."

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 11:  Producer Barry Levinson speaks on stage at HBO Winter TCA 2018 on January 11, 2018 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic)
Barry Levinson at the HBO Winter TCA 2018 press tour (Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic)

Unfortunately, the director isn't able to head to the Buena Vista archives to see if there's any X-rated material: Levinson believes that the defunct distributor — which has since been folded into its parent company, Walt Disney Studios — destroyed the negatives at some point in the recent past. "There was a period where they were getting rid of what you might call the extraneous footage. I think there's some stuff left from Good Morning, but I know that when I asked about one of my earlier films, Tin Men, they said they had destroyed everything."  

But the movie itself still exists, and will be shown as part of this year's virtual TCM Classic Film Festival, streaming May 6-9 on TCM and HBO Max. Good Morning, Vietnam is part of the "The Masters of Filmmaking" program, and Levinson will introduce the film and share recollections of its production with TCM hosts like Ben Mankiewicz. "I love TCM, because they highlight certain things in the movie to pay attention to," the directors says. "It's one of the few places that actually discusses film."

TCM has also taken an active role in the ongoing conversation about evaluating the problematic pop culture of yesteryear via series like Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror. And Good Morning, Vietnam has its own moments that play differently today. In one of Williams's riffs, the actor does an impression of a Black soldier he calls "Roosevelt E. Roosevelt." Even though Williams doesn't say anything overtly offensive, the scene could be viewed as an example of the kind of "spoken Blackface" that's proven controversial on shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy

Asked whether a moment like that would be harder to include in a contemporary version of Good Morning, Vietnam, Levinson replies, "I think it's harder to do everything right now in general. There's nothing about that scene that you would look at and say, 'Well, this is really offensive.' Adrian is trying to explain something in the context of what he's doing."

"It's hard to qualify where we are now, in terms of what's permissible or not," the director continues. "So you end up with a lot of stuff that just lacks a certain degree of playful humor. It's probably one of the great confusing eras that we've ever entered into, because so many people you talk to say, 'I don't know what you can say or can't say.' God knows I'm not going to be the expert to explain it all."

Levinson does think that Williams would have a better handle on how to navigate our current climate it terms of creating humor that's funny, without being hurtful. "He was always an extremely kind humorist. It's very seldom that you'd ever see him really attacking anything or anyone. He could talk about the absurdities of the world in a playful way with whomever he's imitating, whether it's someone Scottish or someone else. He just enjoyed characters and the nature of [their] absurdity, and he could do it in a way that even when people didn't quite understand him, they could still enjoy him. He had some connection that was beyond words at times." 

In an extended interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Levinson shared other stories about how Williams's specific genius shaped Good Morning, Vietnam, and why the comedian was "struggling" during the making of the movie. 

Yahoo Entertainment: It’s interesting to reflect on where Robin Williams was in his career at the point where you made Good Morning, Vietnam. He’d been making different kinds of movies like The World According to Garp and Moscow on the Hudson, and this one fused both dramatic moments and wild comedy, setting the tone for a lot of roles he’d do going forward.

Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson's 1987 hit, 'Good Morning, Vietnam' (Photo: Buena Vista/courtesy Everett Collection)
Williams as Cronauer in 'Good Morning, Vietnam' (Photo: Buena Vista/courtesy Everett Collection)

Barry Levinson: Yeah, he was really struggling in terms of films at that time, and was wondering if he was going to be able to make it as a film actor. I think he was nervous that this movie could be his last shot. He called me one day and said, in his insecurity, “Listen, if the radio stuff doesn’t work, I’m willing to pay for reshoots, and we can redo it.” I told him, “Robin, there’s more here than we can possibly ever use.” I was struggling to get him to believe me that we were on solid ground. So it was a time of insecurity for him, because he hadn’t had the kind of success in movies that he did when he exploded on television with Mork & Mindy. And we all felt a little pressure, because there had never been a film about Vietnam that had any humor in it. We weren’t doing goofball comedy, but he was nervous about that and the fact that he hadn’t had a breakout film.

The arc that Adrian Cronauer has in the movie isn’t entirely dissimilar from his Dead Poets Society character two years later. You can see the seeds of that performance in what he’s doing here.

Yeah, that one is more of a drama, but I think he went into it was a lot more confidence after making Good Morning, Vietnam.

Watching the movie again, I found myself really noticing Forrest Whitaker and Robert Wuhl in the radio scenes, because their reactions seem so genuine. And I’m sure they really were reacting to his jokes in the moment.

Yes, what you see on film is what happened on set. The camera was drifting and picking up things, because it was important to see their reactions to him. It made it more cohesive and more real. There needed to be a looseness to those scenes, and they had to feel spontaneous, but we also had to hold the story beats together. I’ll give you an example of why Robin was so great. We were doing a scene in his English class, where he’s teaching the Vietnamese students. It was stiff and I didn’t believe it — there wasn’t any spontaneity. I said, “All right, let’s take a break,” and went outside in the one hundred degree heat. [The film was shot in Thailand, which stood in for Vietnam.] I saw Robin on the porch and he was sitting in a shaded area with a lot of the extras from the class. They were all laughing as he was talking to them, and I could see them enjoying themselves.

Williams is the head of the class in a scene from 'Good Morning, Vietnam' (Photo: Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Williams is the head of the class in a scene from 'Good Morning, Vietnam' (Photo: Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

When we came out of the break, I went over to Robin and said, "Look, what you were just doing was so much more alive than what we're doing. So here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to give hand signals to the camera guys, and you just start talking. Wander around, pick up the main points of the scene, but let’s not be bound by the script.” Because the key to Robin as a person, and in the film, is that he’s able to relate and connect with people. He was a warm person who could have conversations that would draw everybody in. So I would give a hand signal, he’d talk to someone in the class and we’d build those scenes out of those conversations.

That also happened in the softball game scene. I didn’t want to explain how to play the game; one of the Vietnamese actors was holding a melon, and he asked me, “I’ve seen a softball, and this is not that.” I said, “Listen, I’m not in charge of the equipment — Robin is in charge of the equipment.” And he said, “Well then, I shall speak with him.” I indicated to Robin that he was coming over, and then I gave a hand signal to the camera guys and they filmed it as it was going on. And what he's talking to Robin onscreen is literally for real: he doesn't think that the equipment is correct for what we're going to do and that's just a real sequence. But it also serves the film, because you're getting the personality of these people, as opposed to lines that they’re trying to say. It was Robin's ability to connect to people that I think really served the film. Otherwise, I do believe it would have been much more of a mechanical piece of work.

Apparently, there was supposed to be a sequel called Good Morning, Chicago that would have taken place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. What happened to that film?

I can’t remember the specifics anymore. Robin and I were talking about it, but I don’t know exactly what happened. In this business, a lot of things you talk about never happen! I would have liked to have revisited the character, although I don’t know what setting it would have been in. The Chicago convention would have been interesting. It’s a character you could have taken down the road and played with more, for sure.

Speaking of never-made sequels, did you ever consider making a follow-up to Wag the Dog? That film was so prescient at the time, and it would be fascinating to see what the characters would make of our current political climate.

Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro in Levinson's 1997 satire, 'Wag the Dog' (Photo: New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection)
Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro in Levinson's 1997 satire, 'Wag the Dog' (Photo: New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection)

I can say this: the initial reaction at that studio when we did that film was not exactly positive. It was like, "Oh boy, we have a satire here." They were not so thrilled about it. [Laughs] So the movie came out and did well, but I don’t think anyone was like, “Oh yeah, we’ve got to do more of this.” That never came up, at least to me. But it was a fun piece to work on, and it turned out great. It’s nice when you do something that people continue to reference in some fashion. Sometimes you hit on things that have a little staying power.

It’s also the 30th anniversary of Bugsy this year, which is famous for being the movie where Warren Beatty and Annette Bening met. Did you have a sense of the chemistry they’d have when you cast them?

Annette Bening and Warren Beatty met and fell in love during the production of 'Bugsy' (Photo: TriStar Picturs/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Annette Bening and Warren Beatty met and fell in love during the production of 'Bugsy' (Photo: TriStar Picturs/Courtesy Everett Collection)

I’ve told this story before, but it's true: I met Annette for lunch, and afterwards I called Warren and said, "Look, I met with Annette Bening. I think she's really terrific and you should meet her." So he met her, and the next day he called me and said, “I’m going to marry her.” That was the first line out of his mouth! I laughed and said, “All right, let’s make a deal with her,” just ignoring that comment and taking it as “Yeah, she’s great for the role.” Then we made the deal and during the course of the movie they get closer and married sometime during post-production! It's all pretty funny. 

After Good Morning, Vietnam, you collaborated with Robin again on Toys in 1992. What’s the thing you miss most about him now?

He was an incredibly special talent, and also a very special individual. Even if he had never been in movies, you would have a great relationship with him if you met him. I always remember the days where we’d be sitting around, just talking about things. The curiosity that he had, and his sensitivity to things in life in general is what made him that special in that regard. And there are a couple of moments of his in the movie that I think are extremely effective. I really like the scene with the Louis Armstrong song, “It’s a Wonderful World.” At the end of it, there’s a quietness from him that allows for this introspective moment. I know some people might say, “When is that? What is he talking about!” But that’s the moment that sticks in my head.

Good Morning, Vietnam is currently streaming on HBO Max; the TCM Classic Film Festival runs May 6-9 on TCM and HBO Max.

Related: Robin Williams’ suicide highlights Parkinson’s struggles

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