There are few actors more beloved than Robin Williams. His acclaimed filmography is across a variety of genres – ranging from comedic classics like Jumanji and Mrs. Doubtfire to more dramatic turns in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. This medley of roles solidified his status as a cinematic icon and revered stand-up comedian. It’s hard to imagine a time when he wasn’t a national treasure, but even the greatest actors must start somewhere, often with minor roles that could easily wind up on the cutting room floor. And funnily enough, that’s exactly what happened.

When Williams was still a rising talent in the mid-1970s, he landed a part in the raunchy anthology film, Can I Do It… ‘Til I Need Glasses? Although his performance was cut from the final edit. But when a leading role on the sitcom Mork & Mindy gave him a sudden burst of popularity, a re-cut of the film was hastily assembled that placed Williams front and center. Quite an overhaul, and one that Williams was not pleased with.

An actor’s debut is a defining moment in their life. The first steps down the long road toward stardom can be taken from only a few well-received words, but they also hold the potential to end a career before it ever truly starts. In the most idyllic of circumstances, such a performance can thrust a person into glory overnight, as evidenced by incredible debuts like Anna Paquin in The Piano or Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave. Unfortunately for Robin Williams, his work in Can I Do It… ‘Til I Need Glasses? will not see him included in these discussions. Not that he deserves the blame. Williams tries his best with the material, but even with his brilliant comedic timing (flawless from the moment he first graced our screens), the writing simply isn’t good enough to generate more than the briefest of smiles. That his total screen time barely eclipses a minute makes it hard to provide further critical analysis, other than to point out how fascinating it is to see this once-in-a-generation actor in such a disposable role. No wonder there exists a version that exercised him entirely.

The rest of the experience is equally poor. Watching Can I Do It… ‘Til I Need Glasses? – the sequel to 1975’s If You Don’t Stop It… You’ll Go Blind!!! – conjures the image of a young child listening to their grandfather recite taboo (and frequently outdated) jokes that fail to stick the punchline every time, all the while patiently waiting for an exit that never seems to arrive. But what else should be expected from a film whose title can be its review? If there is the promise of a 73-minute barrage of puerile sex jokes fails to pique your interest, then it’s unlikely you’ll find much enjoyment from what director, I. Robert Levy, has to offer. Not every joke is a disaster, but when you’re confronted with this many in a limited runtime, the rare triumphs serve only to remind the viewer that a broken clock is still right on occasion. If not for it holding the distinction of Robin Williams’s debut performance, then Can I Do It… ‘Til I Need Glasses? would have been just another forgotten comedy in a sea of thousands. Presumably, Williams spent many nights wishing for that outcome.

To understand the drama surrounding Can I Do It… ‘Til I Need Glasses? one must first direct their attention toward the visionary behind this whole endeavor, Mike Callie. Although primarily known as the owner of numerous comedy clubs across the American West, Callie occasionally dipped his toes into the world of light entertainment, such as by contributing material to television shows like Hollywood Squares and The Tonight Show. It’s easy to see how these experiences – combined with an infallible love for comedy that would see him authoring a frightening number of joke books – would lead him to produce his feature films, but these things do not come cheaply. Callie needed actors who would work for pennies, especially when his cast lists extended into the hundreds. One willing performer was Robin Williams, a rookie comedian from Chicago who happened to be performing at Callie’s Newport Beach club at the same time he was filming his second (and last) big-screen production. Williams was offered $150 to appear in two small roles. He accepted, filmed his scenes, and then went on his merry way, oblivious to the headache that lay just around the corner.

Can I Do It… ‘Til I Need Glasses? received a limited release throughout 1977 and 1978, grossing an estimated $1.5 million – a meager sum, which failed to recoup its investments. “I owed $400,000 [and] I was in danger of losing my club,” Callie revealed to the Los Angeles Times, painting a grim picture of his situation. However, a lifeline soon appeared from an unlikely source. Williams – the actor so insignificant that Callie removed all his scenes after deciding the film was too long – had landed a major role on the ABC sitcom Mork & Mindy. Suddenly, he was no longer a struggling actor, but an actor undergoing a meteoric rise to fame that Hollywood was already keen to exploit. Callie realized he was sitting on a goldmine whose value was declining rapidly, so in December 1978, he and Levy recalled all eighty prints in circulation to perform a sweeping re-edit of their film. One year later, Can I Do It… ‘Til I Need Glasses? was back in theaters with every second of Robin Williams footage reinserted, alongside a brand-new advertising campaign that promoted the actor over the film itself (“Star of Mork & Mindy in his FIRST screen role” as the poster read). Callie was delighted, but his enthusiasm was not shared by all.

Paramount Studios, for example, were reportedly “extremely upset” that their upcoming Popeye film could no longer be marketed as Robin Williams’s first film (it was instead marketed as his first leading performance). But it was Williams who was the most vexed. Before the film’s re-release in November 1979, Williams and his management firm took legal action against Mike Callie, claiming that his flagrant deception concerning the size of Williams’s role constituted “misleading and unfair” advertising. Callie tried to refute the accusations (“Robin was an actor who was paid to do a job and who signed a release… I didn’t read in the release a clause that said ‘this release becomes invalid upon stardom.’”), but to no avail. One day before the film reached cinemas for a second time, Callie agreed to “modify” the advertising campaign to accurately reflect Williams’s participation, bringing the lawsuit to a close (although Williams would fill a separate one in 1981 asking for $5 million in damages). The fact that the re-release still netted an additional $3 million speaks to how popular Williams had become, although one suspects this new audience would have been sorely disappointed upon seeing the source of this controversy.

There are countless instances when producers have misrepresented their films depending on the popularity of certain cast members. Jesse Eisenberg launched a similar lawsuit against Lionsgate Entertainment when, following a rise in prominence after Zombieland and The Social Network, he suddenly found his cameo appearance in Camp Hell being advertised as the lead role. Callie himself mentioned the time Marlon Brando received top billing in Superman (despite appearing for literal minutes) when trying to defend his actions, but two wrongs never make a right. The events surrounding Can I Do It… ‘Til I Need Glasses? was a fiasco, pure and simple, but it was not wholly negative. Without it, fans of Robin Williams would never have been able to experience the humble beginnings of this great comedian. Being able to witness his final months before he became an international icon, irrespective of the quality it’s contained within, is an incredible sight. If only it had happened under more amenable circumstances.

Can I Do It… ‘Til I Need Glasses? is available to watch on Plex.

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