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‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ turns 30: the highlights and shadows of Robin Williams’ role that defined his comedy success

Chris Columbus, director of the film, remembers in an interview the ‘master of improvisation’ and intends to pay tribute to the film and the actor in a documentary: ‘There is something special and magical about how he worked and I think it would be fun to delve into it’

Jesús Delgado Barroso
Señora Doubtfire Robin Williams
Robin Williams in a scene from 'Mrs. Doubtfire' (1993).Archive Photos (20th Century-Fox / Getty Images)

The comedian and actor Robin Williams brought laughter and tears to an entire generation during the 1990s. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), a film in which he played the role of a strict but affectionate housekeeper, was without a doubt a resounding success that transcended global borders. Williams played the role, despite the adversities and addictions that plagued his life at the time, by putting aside the devised script and becoming a master of improvisation during the filming of the movie, which brought in more than €400 million. In the year of its release it was only outdone by Jurassic Park (€1 billion). This is what its director, also an avowed admirer of the American actor, explained on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Mrs. Doubtfire’s debut on the big screen: “It took me three months to rewrite the script. I sent it to Robin and he said he loved it.” After Williams’ suicide in 2014, in an interview for Business Insider magazine, Chris Columbus unveils details that were buried 30 years ago.

“Four and a half hours, maybe five,” is the time in which, according to the director, Robin Williams was able to play Mrs. Doubtfire, a characterization for which the film earned the Oscar for Best Makeup. The actor was not comfortable in portraying his role: a father who disguises himself as a housekeeper in order to spend more time with his children after a bitter divorce. For him, it presented a challenge. “We never could shoot two consecutive days of Robin as Mrs. Doubtfire. It was a punishing day for him, so always the next day, we would shoot him as Daniel (the father),” the director of the film reveals three decades after its release.

In between the laughs and moments that are etched in the minds of many, Columbus describes the challenge of keeping actors such as Pierce Brosnan and Sally Field — who played leading roles in the film — from breaking away from the script of their characters while Williams was at his most unrestrainedly creative. Indeed, according to the director, his boundless energy even created situations where the script supervisor could not keep up, resulting in unrepeatable and spontaneous takes. “None of us knew what he was going to say when he got going and so I wanted a camera on the other actors to get their reactions.” Most of the sequences in the film, and specifically all of those featuring Williams, were the result of an incredible amount of improvisation from the American comedian. “If it were today, we would never end. But back then, we were shooting film so once we were out of film in the camera, we would say to Robin, ‘We’re out of film.’ That happened on several occasions,” recalls Columbus.

“Hey boss, the way I like to work, if you’re up for it, is I’ll give you three or four scripted takes, and then let’s play.” This was the actor’s first warning to the director of Mrs. Doubtfire. Robin Williams was a significant figure in Chris Columbus’ life, and he still is to this day. Not only because he was responsible for his move to San Francisco — the actor didn’t want to shoot anywhere else — but due to his ability to make people laugh and cry at the same time. “Williams wanted the film to be shot there because he was living in San Francisco with his wife, Marsha, and their children. Thanks to him I fell in love with the city that has become my home,” he explains.

The director also recalled some iconic scenes that made the film a cinematic masterpiece, in the eyes of many. But most of all, his innate ability to improvise: “The entire restaurant sequence was amazing. When Robin playing Mrs. Doubtfire loses his teeth in his drink, you can see the glee in Robin’s face, he’s almost smiling to himself that he came up with that.” Given the success of the premiere of Mrs. Doubtfire, its own production team is currently working to commemorate Williams and his role in the film, although at this stage nothing has been finalized. “There are roughly 972 boxes of footage in a warehouse somewhere in California. There is something special and magical about his work and I think it would be fun to delve into it.”

Despite not being very enthusiastic about making a sequel, the idea of creating a new spin-off almost came about; just before the actor took his own life on that fateful day on August 11, 2014, at his home in Paradise Bay, California. “Robin’s only comment was: ‘Boss, do I have to be in the suit as much this time?’ It was physically demanding for Robin, I think it was like running a marathon every day he was in the Doubtfire costume,” he explains. After a brief meeting at the actor’s home, and with a simple handshake, Chris Columbus began to draft the script days before the ill-fated ending: “In the rewrite, we thought we would cut back on the Doubtfire character. But then Robin passed away so there will never be a sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire.” Although not from its creator, Mrs. Doubtfire has indeed hit the stage as a musical. “What made him special as a talent is that there was never anyone before him and there will never be anyone ever like Robin Williams. He’s a one-of-a-kind,” concludes the actor’s “boss”.

Mrs. Doubtfire
Robin Williams and Matthew Lawrence in a scene from ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ (1993). MPTV.net (Cordon Press)

In addition to the director, another Mrs. Doubtfire star who later spoke of Robin Williams’ brilliance was Matthew Lawrence, who played Daniel’s son. Lawrence was just a teenager in the film, which also gave a debut to his co-star Mara Wilson, the unforgettable Matilda. One day Lawrence went to Robin’s dressing room and did not expect what he was told: “‘Stay away from drugs, particularly cocaine.’ He was being serious and told me: ‘You know when you come to my trailer and you see me like that?’ He’s like, ‘That’s the reason why. And now I’m fighting for the rest of my life because I spent 10 years doing something very stupid every day. Do not do it.’ I stayed away from it because of him”, Lawrence recalled in an interview with People magazine in March 2022.

That unknown stage for Williams, although it had nothing to do with his death, did reveal the inner demons of a man who was dedicated to making people laugh, but who also harbored immense sadness within himself. “As bright as he was on camera — I would go visit him in his trailer to talk to him — it was painful for him. It was really painful for him. He didn’t hide it. He talked to me about his addiction,” concluded the actor.

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