'You didn't go to sleep when Robin was doing his thing' – clown and actor Bill Irwin talks friendship with Robin Williams, and getting used to Irish humour for new play

Bill Irwin has a favourite joke. “It’s not a loud-laughing joke, but can I tell it to you?” asks this legendary Broadway clown, and you can hardly say no, can you?

“There is a stand-up comedian, working on the lower end of the circuit. He does his two sets in the comedy club, at 7.30pm and a 9 o’clock. He finishes, gets his pay and walks to his tiny motel room, looks at the room and wonders what he’s doing with his life.

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“He hears this tiny knock on the door. It’s really quite a lovely, open-faced young lady. She says: ‘I’m sorry, I’ve never done this but I saw your performance and I followed you here. And I know this was very presumptuous but I brought some food and some wine and can I just put my arms around you? And he thinks about it, and says: ‘Did you see the 7.30, or the 9 o’clock?'”

Bam. It is funny, we both agree. The self-described “elderly actor”, in town to do a new play with Druid – Epiphany, by Brooklyn writer Brian Watkins, which Garry Hynes is directing – has known a lot of comedians who take their craft very seriously: “He’s so preoccupied by himself. It says a lot about our lives.”

Another aspect of making people laugh for a living is that you will always end up disappointing them in person. “Lots of times, people say, I’m coming to see your show, do you want to have dinner afterwards? I think, ‘maybe’. I’m not always working though!”

Irwin, a Tony-winning mime artist who incorporated clowning to many Broadway plays, and television, too, feels he can’t be funny when asked to be. He used to wear a moustache and play Mr Noodle on Sesame Street. Sometimes parents pointed at him gleefully and brought their kids over to meet him. The kids were more circumspect.

Now in Dublin, he has had to adjust to Irish humour in the rehearsal room with Druid. Irwin is joining Druid company ensemble favourites Rory Nolan, Marty Rea, Aaron Monaghan and the star of the show Marie Mullen.

“I sometimes think: oh my God, they’re about to come to blows and then I realise, oh no, they’re having fun with each other.”

A boyish 69-year-old, Irwin is tall and thin and slightly dishevelled in full clown dress, like he’s just walked off a Beckett play – baggy pants and a weathered trilby hat. He wears glasses which magnify his eyes, and a school tie, left over from the year he spent at Methodist College in Belfast when he was 16 – his Irish-American family, the Mayos, emigrated from Cork many moons ago. He is gracious and amusing, an apologetic raconteur (“Just shut me up with the storytelling”). He met Beckett – a “very kind, lovely man” for orange juice in Paris, and tap-danced with Liza Minnelli in the 1990s – it’s a shame we don’t have more time for more storytelling.

He does not know who he is playing in this play, he claims.

“I don’t know him yet. I keep looking to Garry. That is the joy and the adventure and the anxiety of this work, is that I don’t know who this person is.”

On the table next to him is a very crumpled script covered in notes and markings. The play is set at a party celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany (if you’ve read the story ‘The Dead’, you will feel a strong Joycean homage) and Irwin plays a man in his seventies called Ames. He will say no more about him.

Born in 1950 in Santa Monica, California, his father was an aerospace engineer and mother a teacher. Before joining the circus, he spent years studying, partly because of “artistic restlessness” and partly to avoid the draft. “To stay in school was to have a deferment.” Conscription in the US ended in 1973 and was a hugely divisive force, he says. The Vietnam War “ate up a lot of young men my age, people I went to school with. I was not eager to go.”

His lifelong career in vaudeville began at the historic Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, riding elephants and learning trips and falls. He went on to co-found the Pickle Family Circus, which is credited as reviving circus arts in the US.

When he began performing in San Francisco in the 1970s, Robin Williams had just landed on the scene. “Casting people would say: here’s the script, don’t pay any attention to the script, just be crazy. They were all looking for the next Robin Williams, but there was only one.” The late comic superstar became his friend and collaborator. As a young man he had a “wild improvisatorial energy” and he was “so driven that you could feel the heat off him”.

They both made their first film together, Popeye, on the Island of Malta in 1980. “It bombed in the theatres,” Irwin recalls.

They performed together in Waiting for Godot in the Lincoln Centre Off-Broadway in 1988. Irwin played the chained servant Lucky, while Robin Williams and Steve Martin played the two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir respectively. The energies of the young Hollywood stars were different: Martin had an “intellectual wildness”, while Williams was more “nuclear reactor”, with a tendency to explode.

Tickets were scarce, and every night the “subscribers” or theatre patrons had to be accommodated, a more elderly audience prone to falling asleep. “You didn’t go to sleep when Robin was doing his thing. He’d spot someone sleeping – it drove him wild.”

It was a great blow when he died, Irwin says. “And I want to say this carefully. I think he had heard health news. He faced a question. And he answered it.”

In 2004, Irwin invited Williams to see him playing George in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a play focused on two unhappily married couples self-medicating with catastrophic amounts of alcohol over one night. Williams had just come out of rehab at the time. “He said ‘thanks a lot, that was a good play for me to see’.”

Playwright Edward Albee (who died in 2016) had offered Irwin the role which would earn him a Tony Award. “Albee said ‘I want him to do it’. Partly because of the Beckett connection. If he can do Beckett’s plays, he can do my plays.”

In 2004, Irwin found himself watching the Tony Awards on TV having hurt his back doing acrobatics. “I didn’t know what my prospects were. Things didn’t look that great for me. Twelve months later I won a Tony. And of course, a year after that, you’re yesterday’s news. It’s a profession that moves fast.

“This might sound like sour grapes. It’s such a thrill to be involved in the Broadway scene. But you could be quite comfortable missing it.”

Irwin has an ear for Beckett that enables him to break into two or three Beckett prose pieces today, in a beautiful stage Irish accent, soft Ts and warm Os. (“Home, I can see it from here, with good eyes, with a telescope, I can see it from here”). He went on to play Vladimir on Broadway in 2009 and this year he will reprise On Beckett, his season of Beckett plays, in a theatre in California.

“One reason I was drawn to Beckett is I memorised a bunch of it at a certain age and it never went away.” He mentions another Beckett interpreter, Conor Lovett of Gare St Lazare. “Conor says he has about four hours of Beckett in his head. I have about 55 minutes. It’s a great fraternity, to have that stuff in your head.”

By the end of the interview, he still doesn’t know – or won’t say – who he is playing in this play. “The lifeline for an actor is what your character wants. So we have to find out. If you don’t know what your character wants, it becomes: What do I want – I want them to love me.”

His entrance does involve a trip and a fall – but he doesn’t intend on a lot of clowning around. “What I hope I can do is bring all the stuff I’ve ever done to support Marie Mullen, because she’s the artist,” he says of his fellow Tony-winner. Meanwhile, he is going to wait it out with his tattered script.

“Reading it and doing it and saying it in the bathtub”. You just can’t force these things, he believes. “Acting is an observer’s craft.”

Bill Irwin appears in the world premiere of ‘Epiphany’, a new play by Brian Watkins presented by Druid, at Galway International Arts Festival 2019 (July 17-27 with previews at Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, July 12 and13), as part of Druid’s Year of New Writing. www.druid.ie

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