Michael Eisner – Was He Robin Williams’ Genie?


“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet

As the world learned of the passing of comedian/actor Robin Williams, Disney CEO, Bob Iger (with Animator Eric Goldberg), posted a beautiful image of the Genie from “Aladdin,” made of stars in the night sky, with thoughtful words commemorating his life. During his early career, and his years of greatest success, another Disney executive always seemed to be looking for opportunities for him, and for Disney. This partnership inextricably linked Williams with The Walt Disney Company, at least in the public’s mind, more than any other studio. That executive was Michael Eisner.

If their story was a buddy film it could be called: “The Road To Superstardom.”

The two future Disney Legends began their symbiotic relationship when Eisner took early interest in Williams’ career from the time of his TV breakout role on “Mork and Mindy” in 1978. Eisner was then running Paramount Pictures, the producer of the series for ABC at the time. The show was a hit and catapulted Williams to the stature of a “household name.” But in 1980, even before the series had ended, Michael, still at Paramount at this time, had plans for Robin that involved the Big Screen.

Eisner and all of Paramount, were disappointed at losing the opportunity to produce the film version of  the Broadway musical “Annie.” So the studio searched for another comic-book property to film. The result was “Popeye,” directed by legendary director Robert Altman. Michael could easily ask, “who more than Robin seemed to be a flesh and blood cartoon character?”

Mainly to expedite the creation of the location sets, “Popeye” even became a co-production with what was then called Walt Disney Productions under CEO, and the late Walt Disney’s son-in-law, Ron Miller. The film, which had a very loose story line, was generally appreciated by critics, but was not a success with the public.

Williams’ next two films ‘The World According to Garp’ (1982) and ‘Moscow on the Hudson’ (1984) were done for Warners and Columbia respectively, but change for Disney was in the wind.

In 1984, Eisner and former entertainment lawyer and Warner Bros executive Frank Wells made the move to Disney. While it took some time for them to get Williams’ “oars in the water,” they fairly soon were able to do just that.

In 1987, in his first Disney produced film, Williams got to work “in his wheelhouse” playing an irrepressible Armed Forces Radio DJ in “Good Morning Vietnam.” He followed in 1989 with “Dead Poets Society,” a more serious role as an unorthodox English teacher who inspires his students in a buttoned down academy. Both films were released by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures and both pictures earned Williams Academy Award nominations.

When important events arose for Disney Williams was generally recruited to be a part what ever was going on. So when Eisner wanted star power for two new theme park attractions he looked no farther than his old friend.

Robin Williams as the Time Keeper

One show was for the new Disney/MGM Studios and the other for the opening of the Euro Disney Resort. The Studio Tour attraction was part of “The Art of Disney Animation” pavilion in which the comedian led guests through the animation process via video screens and a film titled “Back To Neverland.” Williams starred with fabled newsman Walter Cronkite. America’s Most Trusted Man turned out to be a good straight-man for Williams, who plays a tourist turned into an animated Lost Boy from Peter Pan. In the other show for what later became known as Disneyland Paris, he voiced the lead character “Timekeeper ” in the time-traveling attraction “Le Visionarium: Un Voyage à Travers le Temps”. That show opened the new resort in Paris, and was eventually exported to Tokyo Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort with the name “Timekeeper.”

His next release, though not a Disney product, cemented Williams’ ability to “open” a family event film. Steven Spielberg actually began developing “Hook” (1991) as a co-production between Paramount and Walt Disney Productions in the early 80s, but by 1985 he abandoned the project. In 1989, Spielberg returned to the project as the director, picking Williams as Peter Pan, Julia Roberts to play Tinker Bell and Dustin Hoffman as the titular character. So, in this case, even when Williams made a high-profile film for another studio, due to the subject matter, it was perceived by many as a Disney film. Critics paned it. Ticket sales were good, but lower than expected.

This set the stage for what was to be arguably Williams’ most remembered role of all – that of the Genie in the animated feature “Aladdin” (1992). The combination of Williams’ rapid-fire, stream of conscience delivery and animator Eric Goldberg’s sinewy animation, in the style of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, was unlike anything seen before or since.

Williams did the film’s voice work for $500-a-day, in gratitude for Eisner’s green-lighting Dead Poets Society the small “art film” that payed dividends to Disney and to Williams’ career. Eisner reciprocated by buying Williams a Picasso.

Aladdin, where Williams voiced the Genie, is still one of the top performing animated films of all time. It still has a presence in Disney Theme Parks and has recently spawned a hit show on Broadway.

With the beloved film Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) for 20th Century Fox, Williams proved he could still bring in the families and still touch hearts with his unique comedic style. He also acted as a producer on the picture, which was filmed near his home in Northern California.

In 1997 Williams did two last films for Disney. The first, a big budget remake of Walt Disney’s “The Absent Minded Professor” (1961), this time titled “Flubber” (1997). The film, produced and co-written by John Hughes, was a comedy and special effects showcase and performed well for the company. Critics were not impressed.

The other film , the drama “Good Will Hunting,” would gain him great critical aclaim, and finally, the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  Williams played a psychologist who helps a janitor at M.I.T. who has a gift for mathematics, but needs to find direction in his life. This film was also generally the public’s introduction to another set of film world buddies: Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

Williams continued giving voice to animated characters and playing in popular live-action franchises until the end of his life. He also along the way played darker characters in several films to much acclaim. At the time of his death, stories were circulating in media about the possibility of a “Mrs. Doubtfire” sequel.

Michael Eisner resigned from The Walt Disney Company on September 30, 2005.

Robin Williams Died August 11, 2014 Tiburon, California


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