Hours after the world learned that Robin Williams had died, the actress-turned-writer Lisa Jakub took to her blog to share a curious memory. At 14, Jakub had co-starred alongside Williams in one of the comedian's most beloved roles, the titular character in Mrs. Doubtfire. He was, of course, remarkably talented, she wrote. But he also stood up for Jakub when she was kicked out of her high school for taking too much time off during filming; without being asked, he authored a letter to the school, which was framed in the principal's office.
We talked to Jakub to learn more about what it was like to work with Robin Williams as a teenager on the set of the highest-grossing comedy of 1993. She recalled his generous spirit and boundless (if intimidating) improv skills—and the regret she feels for not quite keeping in touch.
What was your first impression of Robin Williams? Did you meet him on set?
I actually first met Robin during the screen test for Mrs. Doubtfire. We went through an audition process and then they narrowed it down and flew several kids for each of the three children’s roles to do screen tests with Robin and Sally [Field]. Very quickly, Matt [Lawrence], Mara [Wilson], and I got put together. That was really amazing, because the three of us just had really great chemistry together. I grew up watching Mork & Mindy, so I was very excited to meet Robin. We all just really clicked during the screen test experience. It seemed like the producers and Chris Columbus saw that as well, because we all ended up getting cast.
The great thing about Robin is that very quickly the whole celebrity thing just faded away. He was such a normal, nice, generous, kind person. So you forgot about all the brilliant actor stuff.
What was it like being on set with him?
It was really amazing to watch him in action. Of course he’s always been the master improvisational guy. That was both wonderful to see and incredibly intimidating. I was 14, I had been acting since I was four, but I had never done comedy. I had definitely never done improv.
First few days on the set, I’m kind of a nerd, so I would have studied my lines and had my lines down perfectly and I walked into set feeling like I had this. Then Robin just goes completely off script and into another planet. So that was a little bit challenging! I would stand there and kind of panic and not know how to deal with it. I would shoot these bewildered glances over to Chris Columbus and I would just blurt out my line whenever Robin would take a breath. Pretty quickly I had to learn how to go with the flow a little bit more and be more in the moment with Robin and really respond to him in an honest way rather than just saying my memorized line. It was a good lesson in being very present, which worked for improv, and I think it’s also really important for life.
Were there any scenes that particularly came out of that sort of improv?
It's so hard because it was pretty much the entire movie. There was really so little that went according to the original script. There was just so much improv and so much of Robin being so brilliant on his feet. But I remember really having to stifle my laughter because the line that Robin says to Pierce [Brosnan] when Pierce says, “Your accent's a little muddled” and Robin comes back with, “So is your tan.” That was out of nowhere. And I busted out laughing. I don't know if they just did some excellent soundwork or what, but luckily they were able to cover that with some movie magic.
And that was the take they used?
Yeah. A lot of what was so amazing about Robin was that so much of it was just a lightning strike. It was just that one time. And you can’t recreate that. So you have to catch it on the fly.
Did you have to spend a lot of time together so you would be able to project the sort of intimacy of a father and daughter? But then there’s that other layer there because he’s your father pretending to be a nanny…
What was really wonderful about the Doubtfire shoot is that we had this really long rehearsal period in the beginning. That was a great time to get to know each other. We got to know each other and to create the family vibe. So we really didn't have to force it. And Sally Field was incredibly wonderful as well. She was so sweet and she was such an amazing mom to us that that all came really naturally. That’s not something that always happens. It was really a special thing that we were able to all bond in that way.
And then you got kicked out of your high school.
[laughs] Yes, that happened.
Robin just immediately decided to help you and wrote that letter?
Yeah! He just clearly saw that it was something I was upset about. And he clearly thought he might be able to help me. That was something he did completely on his own. And he asked me for the address of my school.
Do they still have the letter there?
I’m not sure. But I kept a copy of it.
Have you remained in touch with the other kids from the movie?
Mara and I lost touch for quite a while, but in the last couple of years we’ve been back in contact, which has been fantastic because I absolutely adore her. We still have a sister-like relationship, which is so wonderful. So Mara and I are back in touch, but I still have not spoken to Matt in a very long time and I don’t know how to get ahold of him.
What about Robin? Did you stay in touch with him after the movie?
We stayed in touch for a little while after. But it’s really hard as an actor to keep in touch with people! You’re working so much and you’re traveling and it just becomes really hard to stay in those relationships over time, even though you were really close for a while. I always kind of liken it to going to camp with people. You get really close and you have this very intense experience with people, but then next year maybe you go to a different camp and you have other people who are important. It’s really hard to keep in touch.
But I really regret that now. I think that’s been an important lesson for me in this. That there are really people in our lives that have had a profound impact one way or another. It’s really important to reach out and to let people know that and to make the effort to stay in touch. Because you never know what’s going to happen and you never know how much time you have.