Will & A Way
Robin Williams had the ability to morph on stage in millisecond intervals with such a slicing proficiency that audience member’s heads wouldn’t just spin, they’d almost helicopter off and land at his feet; a bestowal more apt for the ripping comedian than a bouquet of roses. In 1991, directors John Musker and Ron Clements were gathering the elements necessary for a Disney cartoon version of the Aladdin tale, and one vital piece of the puzzle would be an actor who could play the transmutable Genie. They wanted Williams, and their plan would require a bit of work and some convincing.
Musker and Clements presented animator Eric Goldberg with a snippet from Williams’s brilliant Live at the Roxy, where he rifles off a few lines pretending to be a man with a mental disorder: “I guess I should talk for a moment about the very serious subject of schizophrenia.” “No, he doesn’t” “Shut up, let him talk!” They asked Goldberg to use the audio and animate the Genie character around it, and he did, creating a blue Genie who grows another head to argue with.
At the same time, Disney was busy procuring the comedian and actor for the animated role, but Williams turned it down, citing differences in business approach — he did not want to be part of a marketing machine. “I don’t want to sell stuff. It’s the one thing I don’t do,” he told New York Magazine in 1993.
Williams initially sent the script back without even reading it, but when he received Goldberg’s animation, he changed his mind. “Robin totally got what kind of potential animation had in utilizing his talents,” Goldberg told the LA Times in 2014.
Williams had a few caveats before he would sign on to do the film.
We had a deal. The one thing I said was I will do the voice. I’m doing it basically because I want to be part of this animation tradition. I want something for my children. One deal is, I just don’t want to sell anything — as in Burger King, as in toys, as in stuff.
There were specifics in Williams’ agreement with Disney. The Genie was not to take up more than 25 percent of the film’s posters. His voice was not to be used as marketing tool for products inspired by the film. Also, he agreed to only take the union standard for the gig: $75,000. Williams, who had already made a few pictures with the media giant, agreed on a handshake deal, and the project was underway.
Williams, Goldberg, Musker, and Clements went to work. The amount of voice work he was supposed to record began ballooning from less than a dozen hours to more than 30. Williams was loose, improvising and tossing out comedic grenades like an MLB pitcher in the trenches of war. Supervising animator, Goldberg, recalled Williams’ knack for riffing off-script.
Did I see Robin doing any improvisation? That would be like saying did you see the pope wearing his vestments? He turned into a game show host, an evangelist. Out came all the celebs — Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Wayne, George C. Scott. We took the stuff back to Burbank and went … ‘Oh my God, this is gold… Will they let us put this in the picture?’
Williams himself also seemed pleased with the process and the developing product. “I was improvising, and the animators came in and laughed, and it just grew. In times like this, when there’s so much crap running around, it’s great to laugh and be free.”
Aladdin released in November 1992, and it was met with critical and commercial success. On a budget of $28 million, the film would net $504 million worldwide, making it the 26th highest grossing animated feature ever. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning two of them. When the home video was released in 1993, it sold 15 million units within its first month and stimulated consumers to buy other Disney video releases. The media juggernaut knew they had something special on their hands, and Williams was awarded a Golden Globe for special achievement because there was no category to nominate voice acting.
Things seemed poised for a fruitful relationship between the comedian and The Mouse, but unfortunately, the marriage would sour. “I felt wonderful; that’s why I did it,” Williams told New York Magazine. “And it was such a pleasure when it came out and people said ‘I loved it as much as my kid did.’ But then some things happened later on.”
In a 1993 interview with NBC’s The Today Show, Robin Williams aired his grievances with Disney’s handling of Aladdin‘s marketing campaign. “…All of a sudden, they release an advertisement — one part was the movie, the second part was where they used the movie to sell stuff. Not only did they use my voice, they took a character I did and overdubbed it to sell stuff. That was the one thing I said: ‘I don’t do that.’ That was the one thing where they crossed the line.”
Williams’ gripes seemed to have some validation. Remember his caveat that advertising was not to have the Genie take up more than 25 percent of the film’s posters?
Disney went on the offensive, claiming that the comedian and actor was upset that he only made $75,000 from the feature when the film went on to become a $500 million hit.
Every single piece of marketing material involving Robin Williams was run by Marsha (the actor’s wife) and Robin Williams. We did not use his voice in any way that he did not contractually agree to. He agreed to the deal, and then when the movie turned out to be a big hit, he didn’t like the deal he had made.
“Money’s never been the reason for me to recommend anything,” Marsha Williams told New York Magazine in 1993. “Unless the entire country collapses, we’ll have as much as we’ll ever need.”
Disney attempted to extend an olive branch to Williams in the form of a $1 million Picasso painting, but he was resolute that the gesture would not smooth things over. “On Mork & Mindy, they did Mork dolls — I didn’t mind the dolls; the image is theirs. But the voice, that’s me; I gave them myself,” Robin said in the same interview. “When it happened, I said, ‘You know I don’t do that.’ And they apologized; they said it was done by other people.”
For the 1994 sequel, The Return of Jafar, Williams refused to sign on to reprise his iconic character, and Disney replaced him with Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson. While Williams thought about creating a copy of the Picasso and burning it on TV, Disney hired Joe Roth as its new CEO and one of his first orders of business was to make a public apology to him in the LA Times.
Robin complained that we took advantage of his performance as the Genie in the film, exploiting him to promote some other businesses inside the company. We had a specific understanding with Robin that we wouldn’t do that. (Nevertheless) we did that. We apologize for it. There is no question in my mind that we need to apologize (to Williams) . . . for not defusing the issue in the media that (his motive) appeared to be about money. I’ve known Robin for years and know that none of these issues are ever about money. They are simply about principle.
Although Williams claimed that Disney apologized to him privately in 1993, it was this public apology by Roth in 1994 that persuaded him to work with the studio again. Dan Castellaneta had already recorded the Genie’s dialogue for the third installment in the Aladdin series, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, but Disney replaced him with Williams. “It’s a good feeling because I’ve done good things there,” he told the LA Times about working with the studio again. “I wasn’t trying to shake anybody down.”
The cultural impact of Robin Williams elastic and dynamic performance in the Aladdin series may never be topped. It’s too good, and that he was able to continue the role before his passing probably gave him the kind of childish joy we felt when we watched his powers flourish. The Genie represented more than a friend or companion. He represented an idea that no matter how bad things get, how terrible the odds may be, there is someone watching, hoping, and praying you’ll make it through the fire. Robin Williams embodied that idea, if only for a few hours, and it immortalized him.