A Mug to Remember
Vancouver Echo, July 15, 1998
God bless Harland Williams, that floppy-eared, dopey-looking goober, star of Half Baked and Rocket Man. Sure, those movies sucked, but you can’t help but like the guy.
Directors seem to like him, too. For when he’s not starring in his own half-baked films, he’s providing memorable supporting roles or cameos in some much better ones. His latest is as a crazed hitchhiker in There’s Something About Mary. You may have also seen him as the unsuspecting urine-drinking cop in Dumb and Dumber. And, for the record, he didn’t think Rocket Man sucked. On the phone from his Hollywood home, where he’s lived since making the move from Toronto in 1990, Williams defends his Disney-made flop.
“It didn’t go through the stratosphere,” he admits. “I don’t know why. That’s the thing about filmmaking. You just don’t know what’s going to come out in the end. I was really proud of the movie and really happy with it. And almost everyone who saw it really enjoyed it. It did moderate business, but to be a superstar, I think you’ve got to crack the $40 million mark.”
You might think talk of being a superstar is getting a little ahead of himself. And you might be right. But big things were predicted for him when he left home. Andrew Clark, author of Stand and Deliver: Inside Canadian Comedy, devoted a chapter to Williams, entitled The Next Big Thing. Clark remembers the first time he saw Williams on stage.
“I had the epiphany that many writers pray for. I know I was watching a major talent… When I left the club, I was prepared to bet a week’s pay that he would be bigger than Jim Carrey. For the next four years I followed his career, seeing his act a total of six times. Each time that I saw him reinforced my belief in his comic prowess.”
That’s a lot to live up to for any young comic. “It certainly put a lot of pressure on me, that’s for sure,” Williams says. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was one of the best compliments I’ve ever had. I actually met Andrew on the street in Toronto about a year ago. And I said, ‘I’m not there yet, Andrew, but I hope I live up to all the things you wrote about me. I hope your foresight comes through one day. I’m trying.’”
Harland Williams likes where he’s at. It may not yet be where he’d like it to be, but he’s happy. “I think I’m still in a really, really good zone right now,” he says. “You can feel the excitement. You’ve started to make some headway in this industry, which is really tough. And you’re in a place where you’ve got some recognition and people think of you for roles and think of you for development and things like that. That, to me, is a really nice place to be in. I guess somehow people recognize that you’ve got something to offer.”
And people now are starting to recognize his unforgettable mug on the street. “It’s getting crazier,” he says. “A couple of years ago it was maybe a couple of people a month. Now it’s pretty much every time I go out I get approached by people and people stop to talk to me. But so far I haven’t had any nuts that tried to take out there Black and Decker drill and drill a core sample out of me. But it’s kind of neat. I’m experiencing it at a smaller level. I just can’t imagine what these big megastars live through.”
But he’d sure like to give it a try. “What I wouldn’t mind is being able to do the movies I wanted when I wanted. And all that other stuff just comes with it. All that fan adoration is just a sign that you are kind of at a place where you’re doing what you want. My real first thing is to create kind of an art, and any of the other kind of fame stuff that comes is just there. As long as I don’t wake up one morning and find three guys with plaid shirts and swimming fins under my bed.”
He’ll keep at trying. If it’s not a feature film, it’s a Saturday morning cartoon, where he does the voice of Newton the Newt on Fox television. Or it’s his series of children’s books, The Adventures of Lickety Split, which he writes and illustrates. Or it’s his standup routine, which he still performs regularly, including his appearance at the Vancouver International Comedy Festival on July 26.
It won’t be his first time in Vancouver. Back when he was doing the standup circuit out of Toronto, the western road swing was one of his favourites. “That was a real sweet trip,” he recalls. “I always enjoyed it out there. The smell of logs in the air and the cry of the eagle.”
Some comedians abandon the stage as soon as they get a taste of film or TV. Others, like Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld or Robin Williams, have it in their blood. Harland Williams is clearly in this second group.
“I do a lot. I can’t shake it. All the clubs are real handy to me. I just roll down the hill and there I am, man,” he said.
“But I was always into standup and if anything else came along with it, that was just gravy.”