RIP Robin Williams: A Look Back at the Late Actor’s Best Work
Robin Williams' death is shocking and heartbreaking and touches us in a way usually reserved for close friends. Maybe that's because we're of a generation that grew up on Robin Williams. He's been making us laugh and cheering us up since we were kids; like a big-screen father figure. That he died suffering from severe depression, makes the news all the more tragic. As director Garry Marshall, who first cast Williams in 'Happy Days' and later 'Mork and Mindy,' said today, "He could make everybody happy but himself."
He made everyone happy and in that spirit, we'd like to celebrate his work, and we asked a few of our writers to look back at their favorite moments of his career because maybe looking at the best Robin Williams moments will cheer us up.
In 1992, as Nirvana's 'Nevermind' and Dre's "Nuthin' But a G Thang" were single-handedly reinventing the music scene and what we think is "cool," it was probably not very "cool" for an 8th grader to be listening to the soundtrack to a Disney musical. But, there I was wearing out the cassette tape on the 'Aladdin' soundtrack. Disney had a tradition of casting classically trained singers for its animated features, not superstars, and it's Robin Williams' performance in 'Aladdin' that made the film, and its soundtrack so alive. While they never reached the top of the charts like "A Whole New World," let's be honest: it was Williams' work that made the movie and soundtrack memorable. Williams brought all the personality and life and humor that we come to associate with Robin Williams to his role as the animated Genie. He was one of the first A-list stars to voice an animated film in the modern era and changed the way animated movies would be developed. His voiceover work was so transcendent the Golden Globes made up an award just to recognize his work on the film. 'Aladdin' may never be as cool as Nirvana or 'The Chronic' but that doesn't mean it wasn't as influential, and that's all Robin Williams. - Mike Sampson
When people remember ‘Mrs. Doubtfire,’ they recall Robin Williams doing what he did best: a larger than life, chameleonic presence who was able to seamlessly switch between imitations and characters. In the film, Williams played a voice actor and father whose wife absconds with his children; in a desperate bid to spend more time with his kids, he poses as an old British nanny. It wasn’t the silliness of his falsetto and seeing him in drag as Mrs. Doubtfire that struck me, but how much Williams reminded me of my own father, who wouldn’t let anything stand in his way of providing for me and being the best father he possibly could. Like Williams’ Daniel Hillard, my dad was also flawed, but that didn’t keep him from striving to be a great dad. Throughout the course of the film, we watch as the Mrs. Doubtfire disguise enables Williams to learn how to be a better father and to realize how much and how deeply his family is hurting -- and like Dustin Hoffman in ‘Tootsie’ or Mel Gibson in ‘What Women Want,’ it takes living life as a woman to teach him how to be a better man. I watched ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ with my dad countless times, wearing out our VHS copy as we chuckled and cried along with Williams, a man who was able to elicit immense empathy while making you laugh until your stomach ached. - Britt Hayes
Every kid dreams about escaping into their playthings -- it might be the most enduring childhood fantasy we have -- but no one really gets to do it. Robin Williams got to do it in Joe Johnston's 'Jumanji,' a film that sounds like, well, like all fun and games until the thing really gets rolling. 'Jumanji' works on a big number of levels, but Williams is the lynchpin that holds it all together. He was always able to tap into a wide-eyed, child-like spirit before zinging into far more adult and dramatic shades, but Williams' role as Alan Parrish is probably the best combination of those talents (it's probably even better than 'Jack,' a film designed to portray such duality in the most obvious way possible). He's an actual man-child, a full-grown adult trapped in the mind of a terrified kid. The film is funny and silly (and packed with insane animals and still weirder villains), but it's also wrenchingly sad, a tough combination to pull off while still being actually entertaining. Because Williams could do both things and be both things, 'Jumanji' worked. It's easy to toss around words like "gravitas," but that's exactly what is on display in 'Jumanji': Williams' gravitas and skill and presence. It's not just a kid's fantasy, it's a classic, and Williams' performance is what elevates it to that status. - Kate Erbland
'Good Will Hunting'
Robin Williams won his first and only Oscar for a supporting role in ‘Good Will Hunting,’ opposite the dynamic duo, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. In the film, Damon plays a 20-year-old working-class Bostonian and a genius when it comes to mathematics. The problem is that he’s got a bit of an attitude problem. After assaulting a policeman, the young man gets some leniency if he goes to see a psychiatrist, played by Williams. In one of their most memorable interactions, Williams’ Sean Maguire attempts to connect with Will Hunting by telling him a tale of how he skipped “the greatest game in Red Sox history” to go meet his future wife. If you’re not bawling your eyes out by the end of the scene, a shame on your house! This role helped re-establish the actor as a dramatic force to be reckoned with — years earlier, he wowed audiences with turns in such works as ‘The Fisher King’ and ‘Dead Poets Society,’ but ‘Flubber,’ ‘Jumanji,’ ‘Aladdin,’ ‘The Birdcage’ and even a turn on ‘Friends’ flexed his comedic chops. ‘Good Will Hunting’ was a welcome reminder of Williams’ versatile breadth. - Nick Romano
Williams was an incredibly versatile actor, and his performance as Armand Goldman in ‘The Birdcage’ is, like many of his best roles, both hilarious and deeply touching. Goldman is a gay cabaret owner who, along with his drag queen partner (Nathan Lane, also giving one of his best performances), play it straight when Goldman’s son comes home to visit with his fiancee and her exceedingly conservative parents. Looking back on Williams’ roles, the ones that move me the most are inextricably linked to my nostalgia, and here again he plays a father who will go to any length -- no matter how exhausting, humiliating, or absurd -- for the love of his child. What could be a performance couched in stereotype is instead exuberant and full of warmth, and a bit more restrained than the roles he was often known for playing. What makes him so special is his commitment to understanding his characters and finding their humanity. His manic tendencies allowed him to play in a very broad range, and within that range were so many shades of emotion -- he made it seem effortless when he honed in on any one particular feeling, and as Armand Goldman, he gave us more than just a character, as he so often did -- he gave us a real person. - Britt Hayes
'Dead Poets Society'
While Williams' only Oscar win was for 'Good Will Hunting', he was certainly nominated for others, one of which was for ‘Dead Poets Society,’ the film that produced such memorable quotes as “Oh Captain, my Captain” and “Carpe Diem.” Yes, those are the words made famous by Walt Whitman and John Keating, respectively, but Williams gave them new life while teaching his onscreen students to love poetry. What’s great about this moment, is that he’s teaching the audience watching the film just as much as he is the characters. Come the tearjerking moment of the final sequence, you want to stand atop your coach, shouting "Oh Captain, my Captain” along with the newly awakened kids. Even now, fans reciting these lines as a memorial sendoff and poetic declaration for how Williams touched our lives. And, of course, this film wouldn’t be a Robin Williams performance without a few impersonations thrown into the mix (our favorites: his Shakespeare (“Oh Titus, bring your friend hither”) and Marlon Brando). - Nick Romano
'Mork and Mindy'
Let's be honest: there's no way 'Mork and Mindy' should've worked. A spinoff from an episode of 'Happy Days' where an alien named Mork comes to Earth looking for a human specimen and attempts to abduct Richie Cunningham (only to have his plan foiled - natch - by The Fonz), the sitcom should've been a bad joke. One of those high concept 70s sitcoms that we wonder how they ever got greenlit. With any other actor, there would've been no 'Mork and Mindy.' But, Robin Williams came in and just did what he does: made people laugh no matter what material he was given. It didn't matter how silly the premise was, you couldn't not watch Robin Williams. After just one season on air, Williams was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. 'Mork and Mindy' was his first ever on-screen role, but it was obvious to anyone watching it was just the beginning. - Mike Sampson
'Good Morning, Vietnam'
No kid sits in History class thinking they're going to enjoy a movie their teacher shows them. They were, at best, the chance to stack up your books like a makeshift pillow and take a nap in the darkened room. But, I'll never forget my middle school teacher who one day, likely without permission from the administration, wheeled in the TV cart and played for us 'Good Morning, Vietnam' during a lesson on the war. It was shocking, not just because, as a rated-R movie, it was wildly inappropriate for a classroom of kids in junior high. But, shocking also, because - gasp - we loved it. We probably didn't get half the jokes, but it was impossible not to be mesmerized by Robin Williams' performance as motor-mouthed radio DJ Adrian Cronauer (a role for which he would be nominated for his first Oscar). Williams hooked us in with the jokes, and, wouldn't you know it, when things turned serious, we actually learned something. Our History teacher probably got himself in trouble, but he (and Robin Williams) did the job better than any stale old filmstrip could have. - Mike Sampson
'The Fisher King'
No one will ever say that Williams' role in 'The Fisher King' was a big stretch for the actor. While his other two Oscar nominations were for more against-type characters (in both 'Good Will Hunting' and 'Dead Poets Society'), his work in 'The Fisher King' is filled with all the manic zings and quirks for which we know him best. But, his work is buoyed by equally strong performances from Jeff Bridges, Mercedes Ruehl (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and Amanda Plummer. Other directors sometimes struggled to rein in this version of Williams (see: 'Patch Adams'), but Terry Gilliam was deftly able to balance his performance with the darker moments in the script. - Mike Sampson