LOS ANGELES - The script has a four-word description: "As they sashay out."
For Robin Williams, it's a veritable novel. The Oscar-winning actor, playing a brilliant but eccentric Chicago ad executive in CBS' The Crazy Ones (Thursday, 9 p.m. ET/PT), runs with it.
And sways. And glides. And limps. And saunters.
As Williams' Simon Roberts leaves a meeting with his partner (and daughter) Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and art director Andrew (Hamish Linklater), the character channels his inner Southern belle, politely asking protégé Zach (James Wolk) to walk with him to a conference room to meet a female client both adore.
"Ahm going taw'd the light lahk a honey bee to a bug zappah," he says, walking through an airy, desk-filled office.
In one take, Williams swings his arms. In another, he and Wolk hold hands, as Wolk briefly flops to his knees before bouncing back up.
Before yet another, Williams starts to bring up a new idea with director Jason Winer. "Can we try ..."
"Yes," Winer interrupts. "Whatever it is, yes."
This is Robin Williams, folks. You give the man some room.
The other actors in the new comedy are happy to play along with Williams, starring in his first TV series role since he played an alien on Mork & Mindy more than 30 years ago.
"He's the king and we're all a bunch of jesters in his court, so he sets the tone and we figure out how many bells and whistles we can throw in alongside to harmonize," Linklater says. "He's like a Buddhist, Krishna saint. He's the sweetest, gentlest soul between takes, but when you're going, you put all your weapons on the table. You cock them and go. It's fast and furious there."
Freedom to improvise is part and parcel of working with Williams, but playtime comes after the actors have recorded the scripts that are put together by a team headed by Emmy winner David E. Kelley.
Williams "wants to serve the material and make his scene partner look good," says Winer (Modern Family), also an executive producer. "He actually needs to be coaxed into doing that thing, that Robin Williams thing. Hopefully, the show will find a balance between being a hilarious showcase for him but also having real emotional relationships between these characters you care about."
Simon's "kind of similar to me," Williams says. "I think he's had a very interesting life, multiple marriages, rehab. He's an idea guy trying to be relevant in these times. In an age of social networking, he's trying to catch up, literally."
Crazy Ones, which follows the offbeat advertising adventures of Simon and his colleagues, gets some of its feel from a real Chicago ad executive, John Montgomery, whose "stories are totally insane. It's so fun to hear them. And a lot of them are making their way into our show," says Wolk, who had a standout turn as Bob Benson, an adman from another era on AMC's Mad Men.
The comedy seeks authenticity by mentioning real as well as fictional companies, with McDonald's a focus of Thursday's premiere. Simon's office is decorated with a wall of brand logos that includes Coca-Cola, Kellogg's and USA TODAY. Producers say no money has changed hands.
Some critics have questioned the product placement, but Wolk says it helps ground the ad agency. "When you have some names that people recognize, it brings a realness that brings people into (the characters') world."
At Lewis, Roberts + Roberts (Brad Garrett will play agency co-founder Lewis in two upcoming episodes), the core relationship is between Simon and Sydney, the creative director and more cautious soul initially afraid of taking the risky leaps that are second nature to her father.
"There's this man, this crazy genius, who just wants to be normal for her and all she wants is that little bit of him. And she doesn't understand that she has a lot of that in her and he's going to slowly help her discover the crazy one within her," Gellar says.
"She's great to ground him, because I'll kind of go out and try wild stuff and she's like, 'Dad, come back,' " Williams says. "I'm infusing her with a little bit of like, 'Take a chance, girl. Break out.' "
Surrounding the pair are the self-centered, libidinous, golden-boy copywriter Zach; the wickedly dry, nerdy, less-than-confident Andrew; and the flighty but definitely not dumb assistant, Lauren (Amanda Setton).
The actors cite Kelley as a motivation for taking their roles and they've worked with the top writers in Hollywood (Gellar with Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Linklater with Aaron Sorkin on The Newsroom; and Wolk with Matthew Weiner on Mad Men).
"Before I read it, I was like: Robin Williams and David Kelley?" Gellar says of the no-brainer. David "writes for women. What's so great about David, too, when you think about his ensemble shows, is he writes for everybody. It may have been called Ally McBeal, but Lucy (Liu) had great stuff and Portia (de Rossi) had great stuff. He really knows how to balance that and he's so smart. I love smart comedy."
Williams likes the character-driven nature of Kelley's writing and says Crazy Ones has the feel of a 1940s comedy.
"The pace is so much. Everyonetalksabitlikethis. Everything's so quick and you've got to pick up your cues. It's driven like the old Preston Sturges (movies) he says. "You really have to get up to speed very quickly, verbally, and be prepared to jump back and forth, which is very exciting."
He's quick, too, to share the wealth, crediting his co-stars.
"Everyone's got great skills," he says. "It's freeing. The pressure's really taken off."
In the end, however, it's Williams' face on all those billboards and buses, as CBS heavily promotes the new comedy. He knows the showbiz reality.
"The big name doesn't mean anything if it doesn't work. Those posters come down really quick," he says, adding that it seems surreal to see his picture all over Los Angeles. "I hope, once it opens, those start to go away. There are huge ones, little ones. None on a Portosan. That's good."