How Robin Williams Fell Out With Disney Over Aladdin

With the sad death of Robin Williams this week, thoughts have been turning to his greatest roles. His performance as the Genie in 1992's 'Aladdin' was certainly one of those - a madcap, comedic rollercoaster, much of which was adlibbed.

But what the millions of fans of the film may not know is that the aftermath of the movie became one of Hollywood's most drawn-out feuds.

Not long after ‘Aladdin’ came out, Hollywood producer Joe Roth sent a script to Robin Williams. When the actor found out that it was co-financed by Disney, he sent the pages back unread, along with a note explaining he had an issue with the studio and didn’t make films for them.

Williams’ dispute with Disney was a rare example of an actor and studio going head-to-head in public. The 'Aladdin' filmmakers had courted Williams for the role, going so far as to animate the character using one of his stand-up monologues. Impressed – and keen to do something his kids would like – Williams signed up. At that point he had a good relationship with the Mouse House. Their cinematic offshoot for grown-up movies had presented him with two Oscar-nominated roles, in ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ and ‘Dead Poet’s Society’.

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But these were the days before celebs got big bucks for voiceover roles, so Williams was paid close to scale (the base salary for actors), rather than his usual $8million fee. He was fine with that, but had some provisos. One was that they wouldn’t use his voice to sell the movie, another was the Genie wouldn’t feature prominently in the marketing.

When production was complete, this left Disney with a problem. He had recorded almost 30 hours of material, much of it improvised, which meant the animators had increased the size of the character’s part. Not only that, but they realized they had a hit performance on their hands.

Williams’ request that Genie not take up more than 25% of the poster was kind of adhered to by making the other characters smaller around him. But his voice was used to sell materials associated with the film, though Disney argued that a) there wasn’t a legal contract and b) everything had been cleared through Robin’s wife Marcia. “I don’t want to sell stuff,” the star told New York Magazine.

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He was upset, while Disney’s attempt at reconciliation – they gave him a Picasso painting worth more than $1million at the time – didn’t make things better. Williams’ friend Eric Idle suggest he burn the painting on TV to show Disney what he thought about it.

That didn’t happen, but he did criticise the studio in the press. “You realise when you work for Disney why the mouse has only four fingers,” he told a TV interviewer. “Because he can’t pick up a check.”

Dan Castellaneta, who plays Homer Simpson on the TV comedy, took over from Williams on the inevitable ‘Aladdin’ sequel.

Nevertheless, when Joe Roth took over as Disney studio head in 1994, he decided to try and reach out to their estranged star.

“There is no question in my mind that we need to apologise [to Robin Williams]…for not defusing the issue in the media that [his motive] appeared to be about money,” Roth told the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve known Robin for years and I know that none of these issues are ever about money. They are simply about principle.”

The apology worked. Williams himself told the Times, “Just when people are getting burned right and left [in Hollywood], look, an act of kindness!”

He gently came back into the fold, returning to play the Genie in the third ‘Aladdin’ film (much to the consternation no doubt of Castellaneta, who had already recorded his lines).

The one downside? The live action film that enticed Williams properly back to Disney was 1996’s ‘Jack’. But let’s just remember the Genie, shall we?

Photos: Rex/Moviestore/Snap Stills/Everett