Christine Metz Howard
KU News Service

Film professor shares memories of interviewing Hollywood legends Williams, Bacall

Thu, 08/14/2014

LAWRENCE – John Tibbetts, associate professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas, is available to talk to media about his interviews with Hollywood legends Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall.

Actor and standup comedian Williams died Monday at age 63 of an apparent suicide. Bacall, one of the great actresses of the Golden Age, died Tuesday at age 89. Tibbetts, a film critic and historian who has interviewed hundreds of stars over the years, can share his experiences with Williams and Bacall.

Tibbetts interviewed Williams three times during the 1980s, once in 1982 for Williams’ first big screen appearance, “The World According to Garp,” and twice in 1986 for “The Best of Times” and “Club Paradise.”

The interviews weren’t all laughs. Williams talked about his days as a high school wrestler, the disparity of wealth in Jamaica and the difficulty in portraying a creative process onscreen. In between the moments of seriousness, Williams would launch into riffs on how Richard Simmons might lead an exercise session with football players, broke off in mock Russian and pretended to be an evangelist addressing baseball players. The interviews were also full of one-liners.

“Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn’t like, but you got to remember, he spent his time playing with a rope in his basement,” Williams told Tibbetts in one interview.

For Tibbetts, his best moments with Williams came when the actor was in repose.

“It is like when an athlete is standing still. All of the muscles, all of the tension, all of the instincts are just barely restrained,” Williams told Tibbetts of his moments of quiet.

For Tibbetts, Williams' best films, such as "One Hour Photo" and "Dead Poets Society," highlight that restraint.

“That is the Robin Williams I wish more people could talk about,” Tibbetts said.

As for Bacall, Tibbetts interviewed her in 1996 while she was promoting the film “My Fellow Americans.” Tibbetts recalls Bacall as forthright but friendly, and as a striking figure with beautiful blond-white hair that spilled over a black suit.

It was an interesting time for Bacall, Tibbetts said. She had recently appeared in “The Mirror Has Two Faces” as Barbra Streisand’s mother. It was a role that earned her the Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Tibbetts asked Bacall what she thought of being a star and legend.

“Movie star, she was fine with that,” Tibbetts said. “But the term 'legend' she didn’t like. She said legends are people who have been dead a long time and are part of a mythology. And to have that kind of label made her uncomfortable, and she didn’t think it was appropriate for anybody, much less her.”

Tibbetts also asked about Bacall’s home life. At the time Bacall, who had previously been married to Humphrey Bogart and Jason Robards, lived happily alone in New York.

“Her big agenda at this point was looking for a small dog, not looking for a man, but looking for a small dog,” Tibbetts said.  

"Am I being impertinent for wondering if there is a man in your life?” Tibbets asked. Bacall leaned forward and said, “I beg your pardon?”

She went on to tell Tibbetts, “I can’t deal with a man’s insecurity. And if you met some of the men I have, you wouldn’t even be asking the question.”

Tibbetts said one of the most interesting aspects of the interview was discussing Bacall’s involvement in speaking out against the House Un-American Activities Committee. Tibbetts asked whether she was intimidated by going to Washington, D.C., to confront the congressional committee.

“No, I was young and brash and full of self-righteousness. Unfortunately, I look back on that and realize we didn’t learn much then, and we still haven’t learned much today,” Bacall told Tibbetts in regards to censorship of the arts.

Her reputation for candor was well-deserved, Tibbetts said.

“This is a woman who knows what she is about, she has been around the track, she has had experiences, she doesn’t flinch from them, and she doesn’t flinch from age,” Tibbetts said. “And by golly, she looked great.” 

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