If you grew up in the ’90s, you were a Robin Williams fan, there was no two ways about it. He was in so many classic childhood films: Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji and Aladdin among others. And his young costars cared about him just as much as his audience did, as this story from the set of Jumanji proves.
There’s a famous Hollywood saying that goes, “Never work with children or animals.” Well, Jumanji had both. It wasn’t an easy movie to make. CGI existed at the time the movie was made, but it wasn’t fine-tuned the way it is now. So lots of the special effects were made with machines or puppets.
But the scenes that did use CGI were very hard to shoot. Williams is on record as saying he found it difficult doing those parts of the movie, and he wasn’t the only one. It all paid off in the end – for years, untrue rumors persisted that a real animal had been killed on the set – but it wasn’t easy.
And there were times when the grueling filming schedule became frustrating. During an interview with the Jumanji cast for the New York Times newspaper in 2017, actor Jonathan Hyde admitted, “It was a strange shoot. We were in Vancouver through the winter. It’s a wet, cold city. For five months, that became a bit of a drag.”
It would probably have been even more of a drag if Robin Williams hadn’t been there, but he very nearly wasn’t. When originally given the script for the movie, he said no. But the studio wouldn’t go ahead without him. The writers frantically retooled the script and presented him with the new version, and that time he said yes.
Williams was the one who kept the cast and crew entertained through the extended and tiresome hours of making the film. He had a big impact on everyone, especially his young and inexperienced co-star Bradley Pierce. And even though Williams passed away in 2014, his legacy of professionalism and kindness lives on.
By the time Williams hopped onto the production of Jumanji, he was already a household name – and for good reason. His performance as the alien Mork on the show Mork and Mindy had made him famous, and he simply went from there. Fast forward to 1988, and he had an Oscar nomination for the film Good Morning Vietnam.
But Williams was especially beloved by children. He was very good with them. He was a father himself, of course. By the time Jumanji was filming, he was a dad of three – these being Zachary, Zelda and Cody. They were very close to their father and still speak today of all the positive impact he had on their lives.
And it seems all the child actors Williams worked with loved him. Mara Wilson starred alongside him in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire, playing his onscreen daughter, when she was only five years of age. And she talked to the EVOKE website in 2020 about how glad she was to have met him.
Wilson told the site, “I consider myself very lucky to have known Robin because he was such a kind and wonderful man. I have worked with some actors who were not that great to work with, but I also worked with a lot of really wonderful ones.” At five years old, she knew Williams only as the voice of the Genie from Aladdin.
The actress went on, “Robin was very quiet and shy but he was someone who gave children their full attention. Some of it was he just wanted to make people laugh, and he wanted to make kids laugh especially, and he would make little hand puppets that talked to each other and to us, and we would laugh at that, but he took us seriously too.”
Dante Basco from Hook was another child actor who adored Williams. After the actor’s death, he wrote a tribute to him on the entertainment website HuffPost and said, “Although working with him changed my life, in truth, he impacted me several years before when Dead Poet’s Society became one of my favorite films and really got me interested in poetry; I later became a poet.”
Basco added, “I was lucky to work with him as an actor and witness first hand the magic of what made him a legend – the wit and other worldly improv skills – as well as see him single handedly put the morale of a movie set, easily hundreds of people, on his shoulders and kept everyone laughing as they worked long hours for what seemed like months on end.”
Williams improving the morale of everyone around him was a running theme in the tributes paid after his death. Actor Ben Stiller said in a statement, “His kindness and generosity is what I think of. How kind he was to anyone who wanted to connect with him. And he could not help but be funny all the time. He would do something as long as it would keep you laughing. He made many, many film crews laugh out loud before the audiences ever saw it.”
And this was very much the case on the set of Jumanji as well. In the cast interview for the New York Times, Jonathan Hyde remembered, “Every Monday night, Robin went to a comedy club in Vancouver and did an hour and a half of improv with the locals, then another hour and a half of solo stand-up – three hours of burning off excess steam. He was glorious.”
Yet Williams never overstepped any boundaries. In the interview director Joe Johnston remembered he was told that Williams might “ad-lib and go crazy,” but on the actual set of the movie, “He understood that he needed to be this very critical part of the machine. It was a tightly structured story. He never went out of the box.”
And all the way back in 1995, Kirsten Dunst spoke about her Jumanji co-star to the Chicago Tribune newspaper. She said, “Robin Williams was so wonderful to work with. He would crack us up all the time on the set. I learned a lot about improv from him. My favorite impression he did was Nell [a Jodie Foster character] going through a drive-through.”
But if Williams had an impact on Dunst, he had an even bigger one on her onscreen brother Bradley Pierce. Dunst was a pretty established child star at that point, having been in The Bonfire of the Vanities and Interview With the Vampire, but Pierce was just starting out in Hollywood.
The young actor had at that point appeared in a few notable things, including Days of Our Lives and Roseanne, but he wasn’t at the level of fame that many of his costars were. He did have something in common with Williams though: both of them had voiced a Disney character. Williams of course played the Genie in Aladdin, and Pierce was the voice of Chip in Beauty and the Beast.
Pierce recollected some of his experiences on the Jumanji set in an interview with the blog Retro Lady Land in 2015. Upon getting the part of young orphan Peter, he remembered, “I celebrated the news of getting the role by having a special dinner at home with my family, steak and macaroni and cheese, my favorites.”
But after that it was headfirst into a lot of quite difficult work. Pierce remembered a scene where the main characters are being shot at and said, “There were a lot of great physical effects in the movie that evoked a very real reaction from all of us on set.” But he also said, “I remember how mindblowing it was for me when I first saw the movie, finished, and saw all the beautiful work done by the artists on the film.”
And those artists had to work on Pierce himself at one point. One of the most famous and beloved parts of Jumanji involves poor Peter turning into a monkey, and that obviously required a lot of makeup. Even grown adult actors don’t enjoy the process of being stuck under prosthetics, so it was a lot for a child to take on.
Pierce remembered in the interview, “The process of becoming a monkey was a very interesting experience from the very beginning. It started months before the shoot when I went to the special effects house (ADI) for a life cast, where they covered my head in plaster to make an exact replica of it to create the makeup on.”
The actor also recollected, “The actual application process took almost three hours and nearly another hour every day for removal. It was really taxing and tried my 12-year-old patience a lot!” And yet despite that side of things, Pierce said the overall experience was amazing and he had “many fond memories” of it.
That’s not all Pierce has said about his time working on the movie, though. In December 2020 the actor, then 38 years old, spoke to the radio station CBCListen about his experiences on set with Williams, and revealed a good deed Williams had done that the wider world had no idea about.
Pierce began his story with, “We were filming the monsoon scene and I think it was day seven or eight in [a] rain tank. We were all in wetsuits, but spending eight hours in the water was really draining. It was coming to the end of the day, and children on set can only be on set for a certain number of hours.”
Yet to stop would have cost money. Pierce remembered, “Producers approached our parents and said, ‘We’ve only got a half hour left of shooting, is there anyway we can do a little bit of overtime just to get it done?’” This bending of the rules was not “uncommon,” he said, but Williams wasn’t having it.
Pierce said, “Robin caught wind of these conversations happening, and apparently he pulled the director and producers aside and said, ‘No we’re not doing any extra time. You’re gonna let everyone out of the pool now, and we’re going to come back next week.’” And that’s exactly what happened.
Many years later and Pierce still remembers that incident. He told the radio show, “For all the dollars that would have cost, nobody else could have stood up the way he did. In addition to being warm and generous and kind, he was also very protective of all of us. He told everyone, ‘We’re done today, time to go home.’”
That isn’t the only memory of Williams that Pierce has shared. Back in 2017, just as the Jumanji sequel-reboot Welcome to the Jungle was coming out, Pierce spoke to the website inews about the older actor. He painted a picture of someone who hadn’t just been a defender but a friend and mentor as well.
Pierce went into more detail about the monkey makeup in that interview. He couldn’t even eat once it was on him, he remembered, so he ended up having only “protein shakes through straws” to keep him going. The film crew were great at keeping him entertained, but Williams especially stood out.
During the hours in the chair, Pierce said, “Robin would come in, and he would sit in the make up trailer and keep me company. He had gone through all of the various stages of prosthetic make up for Mrs. Doubtfire not long beforehand, so being familiar with the challenges he was able to talk me through meditations, ways to calm yourself.”
According to Pierce, Williams was “that very energetic, bubbly guy” 95 percent of the time. He also remembered, “He was one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. Not necessarily with money or things, but with his time, his energy, his wisdom. He was willing to mentor myself and Kirsten.”
In fact, Williams gave the young Pierce some invaluable advice. He told inews, “Most of the advice I got from him was related to being patient – being willing to wait, but working that whole time. He also said finding your own individuality and value was important.” Pierce took that very much to heart.
As he grew up, Pierce decided to take a break from acting and “try and be normal for a little while.” At the age of 19, he decided to get into the business again, and that’s where Williams’ advice kicked in. He was patient, and eventually that lead the now-adult actor to voice acting and producing roles.
Pierce remembered another story for The New York Times too. He said, “Robin’s son, who’s my age, would come up, and they would invite me to join them at the zoo or the aquarium or a movie. It was great to see him as a dad and a friend rather than just a comedian. It was amazing to get to know the man behind the characters.”
And it was the man behind the characters so many mourned when Williams died in 2014. By that point, he had established himself as an icon for a whole new generation of children as well. They knew him from the animated penguin movie Happy Feet and its sequel, or the Night at the Museum franchise.
There was a big outpouring of grief after the news broke. Anyone whose life had been touched by the actor expressed devastation. The residents of the city of Keene, where Jumanji was filmed, before too long had created a memorial in the town underneath the “Parrish Shoes” sign used in the movie.
Pierce still remembers where he was when he got the news. He told the Retro Lady Land blog, “I was at work at a media production house, one of the assistants called me in and asked if I had ‘seen this,’ and they had the headline up on their computer. I was angry at first, thinking that they were sharing in on a hoax and hadn’t checked their facts.” But after clicking through to other news sites he realized that, sadly, it was true.
Yet the younger actor still has his memories. He told The New York Times that once Jumanji was done, “Robin gave the cast hard-bound copies of the script as wrap gifts, and he signed them. He wrote something like, ‘You were a great monkey boy and a pleasure to work with. You have a bright future ahead.’ He was very much an inspiration, not just as a performer, but as a person.”