ANIMATION ANECDOTES
January 3, 2020 posted by Jim Korkis

Further Adventures of Robin Williams ‘Genie’

After starring in the sitcom Mork & Mindy from 1978-1982, comedian Robin Williams struggled with finding good movie roles as well as his first marriage collapsing. In addition, there were rumored abuse issues with drugs and alcohol.

At Disney, producer Jeffrey Katzenberg felt that Williams’ comic improvisation skills had potential and decided to take a chance by offering him the lead role in the film Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) but at a severely reduced paycheck because of Williams’ poor reputation. Williams performance and the film were a hit and Katzenberg immediately cast Williams in Dead Poets Society (1989). Both films garnered Oscar nominations for the actor.

Because of Katzenberg’s taking a risk on him, Williams was extremely grateful so when Katzenberg wanted Williams to voice the Genie in Aladdin (1992), Williams reluctantly agreed in order to pay back the producer.

He was reluctant despite being intrigued by animation because he was starting to film the movie Toys (1992) and didn’t want Disney to publicize his role so it wouldn’t conflict with that film that was to be released within weeks of the animated feature. Williams did not want Disney to use his name or image in any theatrical posters, print ads, movie trailers, TV commercials or merchandise to promote Aladdin especially since Disney was only paying scale and not his regular fee.

Katzenberg eagerly agreed. However, when test screenings proved that Williams’ Genie was a huge hit, he re-negotiated with Williams. He convinced Williams that since the Genie was now prominently featured in 25 percent of the film, the character should be featured in 25 percent of the movie trailer, print ad, poster and TV commercials but gave his word that the Genie character would not be promoted as the star of the movie or the film as a “Robin Williams film”.

The theatrical poster did show the Genie on only 25 percent of it but the character image was huge and at the top of the artwork with the other characters much, much smaller lumped together at the bottom. When Toys did badly at the box office, Williams felt it was because of Katzenberg promoting his work in Aladdin so that two of his movies were competing with each other.

“We had a deal,” Williams said on the Today Show. “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 my children can see. I just don’t want to sell anything — as in Burger King, as in toys, as in stuff. All of a sudden, they release a television advertisement. One part was the movie and 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 only thing I said, ‘I don’t do that’. That was the one thing where they crossed the line.”

In February 1993, the Golden Globes gave Williams a certificate of special achievement for his work in Aladdin. Katzenberg ordered new posters for the film prominently featuring the award from the Foreign Film Critics Association and Williams’ name. Williams phoned Katzenberg, yelled at him that he had repeatedly broken his word and swore that Williams would never make another film for Walt Disney Studios.

Williams held true to his vow and refused to look at any scripts Disney sent him. He returned all invitations to premieres and theme park events. His name and picture were not included in John Culhane’s book Disney’s Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film. While the book praises Williams’ work, he is constantly just referred to as “the voice of the Genie”.

A scene from the Aladdin TV series

Walt Disney Television Animation’s block of programming, the Disney Afternoon, produced an animated Aladdin series. Of course, Williams would not reprise his role as the Genie so he was replaced by Dan Castellaneta, perhaps best known as the voice of Homer Simpson. He went on to supply the Genie’s voice for the 65 episodes of the television series and for videogames. Jim Meskimen took over in 2008 and continues to do the voice today.

Katzenberg resigned from the Walt Disney Studios in October 1994 to form Dreamworks. He was replaced by Joe Roth, who had been in charge of film production at 20th Century Fox. Williams had a fondness for Roth because he had green-lit the production of Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and allowed Williams’ wife, Marcia Garces Williams, to be the producer.

Roth phoned Williams and pointed out that Katzenberg was no longer with the company. In addition, he offered to have the company publicly apologize to Williams for their mistreatment of him which he did at a press conference in 1996 as well as taking out full-page ads in the industry’s trade papers, explaining that the Walt Disney Company was sorry that it hadn’t honored its agreement with Robin Williams.

Williams was taken aback and began discussions with Roth for other projects at Disney, including doing more voice work as the Genie.

Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996) was the second straight-to-video sequel of Disney’s popular animated feature Aladdin (1992). Because of Williams, it became the No. 1 top selling video at the time of its release.

In The Hollywood Reporter of July 15, 1996, Tad Stones, the director and producer of the sequel said, “The budget was bigger and animators were given more time on the project. About a third of the movie with Dan Castellanetta as the voice of the Genie, as in the first sequel, had been recorded but was thrown out and we added a whole new climax when Robin [Williams] decided to return to the part.” Here’s a small clip from that film:

Williams also did voice the Genie in a series of 15 three-minute “bumpers” on ABC’s One Saturday Morning block in 1997, that aired between the regular cartoon shows like Doug and Recess. The series was titled Great Minds Think 4 Themselves.

The Genie shared stories of great historical figures like Albert Einstein, George Washington Carver, Barbara Rose Johns, Jackie Robinson, John Muir and Susan B. Anthony and others who thought differently. The Genie was traditionally animated but the rest was done with “cut out” animation. The same episodes were repeated for a few years.

The final production using Williams’s voice as the Genie was a 1997 computer game titled Disney’s MathQuest With Aladdin that taught the fundamentals of mathematics to children aged 6-9. The goal was to defeat the evil female genie Bizarrah and trap her back in her lamp.

When Williams died August 11th, 2014, there was somewhere between 16 and 30 hours of outtakes that existed of Williams doing different variations of the lines or just ad-libbing as the Genie. At one point Disney considered doing a Frankenstein-type of endeavor of stitching some of them together into another animated film with the Genie.

In his will, Williams bequeathed to the Windfall Foundation, a non-profit corporation he had his attorneys set up, the rights to what he looked like, what he sounded like, his signature, his name and more with the stipulation that they could not be used for 25 years after his death or the year 2039. There could be no movies, television shows, advertisements, no digital insertions, no holograms, no new use of any existing material.

So Disney is unable to make another film using the Williams’ outtakes for another two decades but I wonder how many of his fans ever saw Disney’s Great Minds Think 4 Themselves or MathQuest with Aladdin?.

10 Comments

  • Interesting. According to what I’ve read (sorry, don’t remember where), Eric Goldberg animated a test reel based on several minutes of one of Robin Williams’s comedy albums to demonstrate his concept of the Genie character and how Williams’s persona would fit in with it. It was Goldberg’s animation that convinced Williams to take on the role, more than any prior obligation to Katzenberg. Is there any truth to this?

    I can understand his reluctance to play another animated character after his experience in the Hanna-Barbera “Mork and Mindy” Saturday morning cartoon of the early eighties, in which Williams, Pam Dawber and Conrad Janis all reprised their roles from the sitcom. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a clause in the charter of the Windfall Foundation to ensure that that execrable cartoon is kept buried in perpetuity.

    Nobody but Robin Williams could have played the Genie — or a live-action Popeye!

    • When I was at a book signing, I got Eric Goldberg to autograph my copy of DISNEY’S GENIE ABC by him and Susan Goldberg. I was pleased that he recognized my name and we talked briefly where he told me:

      “I was the first animator on the film. I was drafted in September 1990 and I was on pre-production for close to a year, and I designed the Genie, basically, as a swirl of smoke with a nose and eyes. He is simply a trail of smoke that came from the lamp. I always thought of him as being Jewish and Robin used a lot of Yiddish phrases when he voiced him.

      “John and Ron said, ‘Pick a couple of sections from [Robin’s] comedy albums and animate a genie to them.’ That’s essentially what I did. I took a part of his routine from his 1979 ‘Reality … What a Concept’ album.

      “The cartoon genie says ‘Tonight, I’d like to talk to you about schizophrenia.’ Then the genie grew a second head on his shoulder to argue with himself, which quickly told the first head to ‘Shut up! No he doesn’t!’; After I did these tests, I’m told, ‘OK, Jeffrey Katzenberg is bringing Robin Williams in to see your tests,’ and it’s like, ‘Oh my God!’

      “I cannot tell you what great joy it gave me to make Robin Williams laugh. I was such a huge fan. I think that sample is what probably sold him because Robin just laughed when he saw it. He could see the potential of what the character could be. I’m sure it wasn’t the only factor, but then he signed the dotted line.”

      The sample was obviously a “proof of concept” that it would work. As Eric pointed out, it wasn’t the only factor. Robin’s connection to Katzenberg were a major factor as well.

  • The animated “Mork and Mindy” series was produced by Ruby-Spears Enterprises, not Hanna-Barbera. In recent years, WB has released on DVD the occasional series made by Ruby-Spears as having been produced by Hanna-Barbera, perhaps due to better public name recognition with H-B. Which arguably makes for sturdy marketing but falls short of being accurate.

  • Aladdin didn’t cause Toys to fail, the movie just sucked. Peter Travers wrote this review in the December 18, 1992 Rolling Stone:

    Before Barry Levinson made his 1982 debut as a director with the memorable Diner, he and co-writer Valerie Curtin concocted a script about a military plot to use toys for war. No studio would touch it. Now after the box-office success of Good Morning, Vietnam, the cachet of Bugsy and the Oscar for Rain Man, Levinson has the clout to make his dream movie a reality.

    To cut Toys a minor break, it is ambitious. It is also a gimmicky, obvious and pious bore, not to mention overproduced and overlong. Levinson works best close in; the visionary art of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam eludes him. Like And Justice for All, another Levinson-Curtin script, Toys mistakes bombast for grandeur.

    Robin Williams stars as Leslie Zevo, the son of a toy maker (Donald O’Connor) with a macabre sense of whimsy. Just before the old man pops off, he asks his brother, Leland (Michael Gambon), a three-star general, to run the toy business. He thinks the general will make a man of Leslie, but the decision sounds like something more pernicious: a plot contrivance.

    Leslie is only slightly less bubble-headed than his sister, Alsatia (Joan Cusack), who dresses in doll clothes. Williams’s riffs soared as the Genie in Aladdin. But Michael Jackson impressions and cracks about getting laid don’t jibe with Leslie the isolated, gentle fool. Toys is tainted with pseudo-cleverness, such as casting the charmingly assured rapper L.L. Cool J as Patrick, the general’s commando son.

    Behind closed doors the general turns toys into miniature weapons. It’s up to Leslie, Alsatia and a duplicating-machine operator named Gwen (a babe cliché made sassy and human by Robin Wright) to save the factory and the world from this F.A.O. Schwarzkopf. No amount of brilliant production design – and Toys has plenty, courtesy of the dada-besotted Ferdinando Scarfiotti (The Last Emperor) – can disguise the smug hypocrisy of an antiwar tract that decries the killing games of vid-age children and then offers up a climactic battle between hawk toys and dove toys for their movie delectation.

    • I never saw “Toys”, but I remember the TV commercials for it. They showed Robin Williams standing in a vast wheat field, ad-libbing — and that was all. No other actors, no scenes from the movie, no music, none of the “brilliant production design” Peter Travers mentioned in his review, and no clue as to what, if anything, it had to do with toys. Just Robin Williams on a background that couldn’t possibly have been plainer. The film might have done better if he had insisted on appearing in no more than 25% of the advertising.

    • The irony is that Disney now owns Toys, too.

    • Well, I guess someone has to speak up for the minority, so I guess it’s me. I thought TOYS was extraordinary, a brilliant satire that sort of combined WILLIE WONKA with DR. STRANGELOVE. Fox sold it as a straight-up comedy, so it was no surprise the reaction was negative. I still use one of its lines regularly, though not one of Robin’s: an ex-Army officer played by LL Cool J doesn’t like that they serve meals on ordinary, non-sectioned plates and grouses that all the various foods are touching each other: “I’m a military man! I like a military meal!”

  • I know I’m in a minority but I did like Dan Castellaneta as Genie and thought he was a fine replacement for Robin Williams. Still unfortunate that Disney went against his wishes, though to be fair I can sorta see why: He was the breakout character of the movie so it only felt natural to heavily highlight him.

    • I thought Dan Castellaneta was fine as well.

  • What about his BATTY KODA™ role in FERNGULLY: THE LAST RAINFOREST?
    STOP FORGETTING.

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