What can be said? It’s been three days since Robin Williams passed away, and the enormity of his loss still hasn’t fully sunk in. I’m opening my In Character column up today, making room for the roles that best captured Williams’ unique and profound range. Because really, if there is one guy to break the rules for, who better than the wild man himself? May you rest well, fine sir.
When Mork & Mindy began, Robin Williams was a virtual unknown. There are very few actors who, after landing the lead role as an alien on a major network show, would do what Williams did here. Mork is loud, over the top, and, simply put, shouldn’t have worked with audiences and critics. Yet it did. Everyone bought into Williams’ unique brand of humor, giving Mork & Mindy life, and, as a result, Robin Williams a career. And yes, the show looks and sounds dated, but who cares? Because of Mork, the world got Robin. No complaints here.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Williams starred in a number of worthy TV shows and films prior to 1987, but Good Morning, Vietnam introduced the Robin Williams we all grew to know and love. Sure, Williams had displayed his improvisation skills on talk shows and stand-up acts, but Adrian Cronauer was different. Adrian Cronauer had a narrative, he had close-ups, he had heart. Adrian Cronauer felt like a real man, as opposed to a bit. Look at it this way, Good Morning, Vietnam works because of Williams’ manic and fearless performance. Director Barry Levinson famously let Williams create many of Adrian’s riffs on the spot, a wise directorial decision that proved to be the best way to let Williams’ comedic madness soar.
The Fisher King (1991)
Parry is a character I love as much for his humor as I do for his gentleness. In that regard, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Robin Williams occupying this role. When we first meet Parry, he’s a humorously deranged homeless man on a quest to find the Holy Grail. But when Jack (Jeff Bridges) realizes that he and Parry are connected by tragedy, Jack makes it his mission to change Parry’s life for the better. Jack cleans Parry up, introduces him to women, and helps him accept everything he’s been through. It’s in these moments that Williams displayed the best of his humility. Parry is a challenging role – a man of hyperbolic highs and devastating lows – but Williams inhabited him with complete and utter zeal.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Is Mrs. Doubtfire the best comedic performance of Robin Williams’ career? Hell, I don’t know, but it’s certainly my favorite. This film is so engrained into my childhood that I simply can’t hail it as anything else. Mrs. Doubtfire was such a perfect role for Williams – the make-up, the costume, the voice – it gave him the freedom to go wherever he wanted. But, it’s important to note that Mrs. Doubtfire is just one half of Williams’ work in this film. The other is Daniel Hillard, the unwavering man-child whose anger, frustration and shame allowed Williams to tap into the best of his dramatic abilities. The kitchen argument between Williams and Sally Field, for example, still breaks my heart. Thankfully, there’s plenty in this film to bring me back up.
The Birdcage (1996)
Robin Williams was known for a lot of things, and one of them was certainly not for playing it straight. But if The Birdcage is nothing else, it’s a film of exceptional casting. Playing Nathan Lane (in all-out queen mode) against Williams’ restrained Armand was simply genius. Match them both with Gene Hackman’s right wing whack job senator, and you’ve got gold. The only thing left is to make sure the camera is in focus, and say “Action.” Which is pricelessly what director Mike Nichols did. Who knew a controlled Robin Williams could inspire such tremendous laughs?
Five Essential Drama Roles
Dead Poets Society (1989)
It’s not my intention to stir up controversy in this post. But, if there’s one thing I actively try to do on this blog, it is share my opinions honestly. So, honestly, I must admit that I’ve never really liked Dead Poets Society. Though not without its spirited moments, the film has never fully been for me. Why then is it listed here? Because it is no coincidence that Robin Williams is present for every one of those spirited moments. John Keating is Robin Williams at his most earnest and noble. There isn’t a false note to be found in his work here. He created a teacher that every young student has a right to know in their life – a teacher who cares, and understands, and listens. John Keating is the type of performance that can force people to change the way they behave for the better. I’ll certainly always give Dead Poets Society credit for that.
Malcolm Sayer was one of Williams’ first straight-drama roles. A man, while seemingly void of humor and romance, has immense compassion for his patients. None more than Leonard (Robert De Niro) a catatonic man who Sayer feels is trying to reach out. During his research, Sayer frequently records Leonard’s progress with a small 8mm camera. In the film’s best, most visceral moment, Leonard has a sudden attack of violent twitches and ticks, and demands that Sayer record the attack. Sayer refuses, saying it feels cruel. But Leonard is insistent, screaming, “Learn! Learn! Learn!” repeatedly. Watching Williams’ face as he fights back tears while recording Leonard, and it’s hard not to call the moment the best-acted scene of Williams’ career. They’re so many emotions on display here – panic, fear, insight, but, most of all, the deepest, most profound sympathy.
Part of the challenge of playing a psychopath is standing out. Modern film and television is so inbred with psycho killers, that audiences are seemingly desensitized by such characters and the gruesome acts they commit. What helps set Walter Finch apart is that he’s the kind of guy we could all know. Williams played him as a quiet, affable, and considerate – a seemingly normal fella we wouldn’t think twice about. And, because he acts so normal, we, like detective Mike Dormer (Al Pacino), start to forget what Finch has actually done. Hell, we may even begin to like him. But, of course, Finch’s normalcy is only a façade, a thick mask waiting to be removed. Rarely does playing a killer straight merit such unsettling results.
One Hour Photo (2002)
This might seem like a strange way to offer praise, but I want to tell you why Sy Parrish is not my favorite Robin Williams performance. I love Robin Williams’ work because, no matter what, there is always a trace of his hilarious energy. Sometimes the role demands that his energy be front and center, other times, it’s far more restrained. Noting all this, Sy Parrish is the only Robin Williams performance that is completely absent of Robin Williams. It’s a haunting exploration into a deeply troubled man. A man who spends his days flashing a fake smile under the bright lights of the SavMart, and his nights sitting alone in his dark and lifeless apartment. What’s he thinking? What’s he planning? We haven’t a clue, but we’re as terrified as we are captivated to know more.
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
World’s Greatest Dad was written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, and, in typical Goldthwait fashion, the film has dead serious moments that are underlined with pitch black comedy. And it’s that very delicate balance of humor and emotional horror that Williams realized so well. Lance is just as funny as he is tragic, but I’m placing the character among Williams’ best dramatic work because watching the film, there are clearly demons at play. Whatever emotions Williams tapped into, it worked. I can think of no other actor who could play Lance with such conviction. I’ve purposefully kept plot details about the film a secret, because World’s Greatest Dad is one of Williams’ more under seen films, and it deserves a wider audience. It’s on Netflix Instant right now, and I highly recommend you give it a chance.
Genie is, perhaps, my favorite voice acting performance of all time, and to omit him from a post like this would be a great sin. Williams’ work as Genie is best remembered for its zany humor and wildly imaginative improvisation. Actors aren’t permitted to improvise when doing sound work, because what they say can literally alter the animation that has already been created. But, wisely, the creators of Aladdin gave Williams free reign to make it up as he went along. The result is a character who, despite being big and blue and otherworldly, feels as real as any character Williams ever created.
The Best of the Best
Good Will Hunting (1997)
I spoke at length about my admiration for Williams’ work in Good Will Hunting in my previous post, and, truthfully, I don’t have much more to add. Sean Maguire is one of those characters who will stay with me. His intensity, intelligence, humor and compassion meant so much to me at a specific time in my life. It’s the kind of role I’m indebted to, and one that I will continue to watch regularly.
There’s an odd thing that happens when a celebrity passes away. Although they themselves are gone, they’re still with us through their work. We can turn them on anytime and let them comfort, humor, and frighten us. For whatever reason, I’m stuck on something Tom Hanks said when he was on Inside the Actor’s Studio for the first time. When talking about Philadelphia, Hanks got choked up, noting that it’s difficult to watch the film now, because so many of the film’s cast members have since died from AIDS.
“They last forever, these movies,” Hanks says. “Yes, they do,” James Lipton replies.
Yes, they do.
The World According to Garp (1982)
Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
Seize the Day (1986)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Cadillac Man (1990)
FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)
Homicide: Life on the Street (1994)
Being Human (1994)
Nine Months (1995)
Fathers’ Day (1997)
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
What Dreams May Come (1998)
Patch Adams (1998)
Jakob the Liar (1999)
Bicentennial Man (1999)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Death to Smoochy (2002)
The Final Cut (2004)
The Night Listener (2006)
Man of the Year (2006)
Happy Feet (2006)
Night at the Museum (2006)
August Rush (2007)
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2008)
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)
The Crazy Ones (2013-2014)
The Face of Love (2013)
The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (2014)
You May Also Like