The news that Robin Williams died was a punch to the collective gut of movie fans, comedy lovers and pretty much anyone who ever saw his work. But the actor had struggled for years with deep depressions, sometimes turning to substances to silence his demons. Despite that, he delivered performances both hilarious and heartfelt, and we wanted to look back at some of our favourites on this sad day.
Though his first leading role came with Robert Altman’s 1980 attempt to bring spinach-guzzling comic strip hero Popeye to life, it was this adaptation of John Irvine’s complicated novel that showed Williams’ true range for the first time. As Garp, Williams has his oddball moments in dealing with a feminist mother whose writing career outstrips his own first efforts, but it’s a much more restrained performance. This scene shows him bringing a touch of his energy to what initially looks like a fairly bland, handsome leading man role.
As far as the big screen is concerned, Williams’ true breakthrough role was his turn as Adrian Cronauer, a wise-cracking, irreverent Armed Forces DJ during the Vietnam War. The role, during which Williams improvised and added his own comic touches to Conauer's broadcasts, saw him nominated for his first Oscar. From that first hollered good morning, it was clear that this is the shock jock that all others could only aspire to emulate. Channelling his trademark high-energy style, Cronauer also gave him the chance to show a range that could cover moody and reflective too.
Most actors are lucky if they had one memorable moment that people quote long after the film has left cinemas. Robin Williams had a crowded handful, all of them seared on to our collective brains. Benevolent, inspirational teacher John Keating provided more than one in Peter Weir’s film, winning Williams his second Oscar nomination for the part. There is, of course, ‘O Captain! My Captain’, a moment guaranteed to draw a tear from the hardest viewer, but this entertaining talk about appreciating poetry is a better showcase of what Williams brought to the role, his enthusiasm shaking his students out of their comfortable boredom and firing them up.
The story of a doctor working to rouse coma patients from decades of catatonic slumber proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Williams could easily hold his own with actors of the calibre of Robert De Niro. Wiliams’ work here as Dr. Malcolm Sayer is not showy but supportive, and it really demonstrates his ability to dial it right back and play a very different personality when needed. The film isn't his best, but the performance is underrated, and this final effort to sum up the film's brief miracle cure shows that even the famously acerbic and irreverent comedian could provide a moment of perfect sincerity.
Williams had worked with director Terry Gilliam already (he appeared briefly in The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen as the King of the Moon). But it was in The Fisher King that their talents truly seemed to gel, with Williams bringing mania and heart to the homeless Parry, consumed by fantasy and haunted by nightmares, and Gilliam bringing the magic he perceived in the world to life. His mania played perfectly against Jeff Bridges' dude-like cool, and another Best Actor Oscar nomination was his reward for this beautifully pitched portrait of someone haunted by his own demons. It also gave him a rare chance to play real romance, as shown in this dinner scene, where he mimics his date's clumsiness to put her at ease and stands in sharp contrast to Bridges' cynicism. His declaration of love later that night for Amanda Plummer's Lydia is even better.
Few live-action films can capture the energy and invention of Williams in full improv flow; to really match visuals to his sheer pace you need animation. Ron Clements and Jon Musker hit on a great idea when they hired Williams to play the Genie in Aladdin, a tragic but buoyant figure who could conjure anything. Once in the voice booth, key character animator Eric Goldberg encouraged Williams to go nuts, and then perfectly matched his animation to the best moments of improv, creating scores of different versions of the Genie to match his flights of fancy. This introduction has some great and clearly off-the-cuff quips that show Williams at work, although we also have a huge soft spot for the more formal Friend Like Me.
As with many of his best films, this Chris Columbus family comedy handed Williams the chance to be over the top and subdued in one role. As frustrated actor Daniel Hillard, faced with being kept from his kids after his marriage to Sally Field's Miranda breaks down, Williams gets to play the put-upon, ordinary schmuck faced with real loss before he puts his anarchic spirit into the eldery Scottish housekeeper that Hillard creates to stay close to those he loves. You probably remember Mrs Doubtfire's wisecracking and pranks, as shown nicely in this scene, but Hillard's journey from bitterness to maturity is the real triumph.
This adventure film might have garnered more attention at the time for its digital menagerie, but while the effects don’t necessarily stand the test of time – they’re not bad, mind – Williams injects real humanity into his role as Alan Parrish, lost in a mysterious board game for decades only to re-emerge when two youngsters play it. There's a similar man-child character here to the one he played in Hook, but this is a little more restrained despite the jumping on cars and the monkey impressions in this scene.
Playing perfectly off of Nathan Lane’s camper-than-Butlins performance, Williams exudes life as Armand Goldman, who must try to conceal his more flamboyant side - indeed, his entire life - when his son’s fiancée’s parents come for a visit. Few people can match Lane quip for quip: Robin Williams is one of them. The pair really convince as a loving couple, even when (especially when) they're bickering away.
Flubber might not rank among Williams’ best films, but it’s a prime example of why he’s so good in movies that kids enjoy – they can relate to his madcap energy and enjoy his onscreen tendency to go off the rails with no thought for the consequences. Also, he blows raspberries. And when you have a substance that can do so much thanks to the magic of CGI, you need someone who can compete.
This was proof, if anyone needed it by now, that Robin Williams could shoulder any amount of dramatic weight. Working opposite Matt Damon, the actor shines as good-hearted, grief-stricken psychologist Sean Maguire, who shares stories from his own life as a way to help his most difficult and most gifted patient, laying his own soul bare before he can persuade Will to open up about his history of abuse. It was powerful. It was memorable. It won Williams a long overdue Oscar.
Criminally underseen upon release (and underrated ever since), Danny DeVito’s dark and twisted look at the bitter rivalry between two children’s TV entertainers let Williams channel a much more cynical character in Rainbow Randolph. Our highlight? This brief but brilliant moment where he threatens good-natured replacement Sheldon Mopes, AKA Smoochy the Rhino (Edward Norton). The response, "Gee whizz!" to William's bug-eyed verbal attack is one of the great understatements in history.
The first of two pitch-black roles that saw Williams perceived in yet another different light, here playing a truly dangerous but outwardly benign killer in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. He wraps Pacino's detective around his finger after seeing him accidentally shoot his partner, and starts tightening the screws. Here, even confessing to murder, he has a creepy half-smile on his face throughout and empty eyes, leaving even Pacino shaken.
Here is Williams' other supremely creepy performance from the early 2000s, this time in Mark Romanek’s stylish thriller. Here mild-mannered photo processing store employee Seymour Parrish becomes obsessed with Will Yorkin’s (Michael Vartan) family, seeing them as a perfect unit that he longs to join. Robin Williams as a methodical, dangerous stalker, a buttoned-down misfit? It’s light years away from Mork.
Another fine, nuanced and very different piece showing Williams’ range, this time directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. Here Williams plays Lance Clayton, who covers up his son’s accidental death with a fake suicide note, a tragedy that leads to an outpouring of support from the community. It’s dark, funny and surprisingly emotional - and the cycle of emotions he goes through in this scene is stunning, from shock and horror to howling grief to calculation.
Williams was a stand-up legend, and if you go back and watch him live on stage you can see why. He fed off the audience's energy and his delivery sped up further than the films would allow. This segment on his battles with drugs and alcohol is especially poignant given his lifelong battles with substance use, and show an awareness of his own demons that is near heartbreaking. It is also, however, incredibly funny, because Williams apparently couldn't help it.
Here is a meta concept for a TV episode and a clip that is incredibly moving to watch today. In company with alien Mork, Mindy heads to see Robin Williams in search of an exclusive interview and accidentally gets directed to his dressing room. Williams plays himself as a rather subdued character, a lot darker and more restrained than his shirt (but still funny), in contrast to the completely off-the-wall Mork. He plays himself as a tragic figure ("I don't know why I can't say no. I guess I want people to like me; I hate myself for that!") in contrast to the innocent, manic Mork, and amusingly doesn't see much of a resemblance to Mork ("You look like...naah, he's a woman now.").
Of course Robin Williams fit in perfectly to the Whose Line Is It Anyway? ensemble. Of course he did. The man was a master of improv and could suspend any ego in order to make the scene work and give his fellow performers a chance to shine. If he dominates here, well, we suspect that's as much deference as anything else.
Here's the background: in 2003, there were three nominees for Best Actor at the Critics' Choice Awards: Daniel Day-Lewis for Gangs Of New York, Jack Nicholson for About Schmidt and Robin Williams for One Hour Photo. The result was a dead heat between Day-Lewis and Nicholson, who were invited onstage in turn to accept the award. Williams followed the latter to the stage, broke out his Nicholson impression and interrupted his speech several times with quips and commentary - a more daring performance than most would risk around the Hollywood legend - and the two winners gave him their envelope as a joke. "I'm glad to be left out of this incredible group," joked Williams (we think he was joking). "Coming here with no expectations, leaving here with no expectations, it's pretty much been a Buddhist evening for me." It's a far cry from the genuine joy when he won his own Oscar in 1998, "Ah man, this might be the one time I'm speechless."
Much derided on release, Hook hasn't aged too badly at all. Marion Cotillard's favourite Spielberg film might not be quite as fleet of foot or fairy-dust sprinkled as its makers hoped, but it has some great moments. Dustin Hoffman steals many scenes, but when Williams lets loose the film suddenly takes off. This is the best scene of competitive insult throwing outside a Cyrano de Bergerac tale, and sees Williams employ his gift for the gab to good effect.