Thursday, August 14, 2014

In Character: Robin Williams

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.

Five Essential Comedy Roles
Mork & Mindy (1978-1982)
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)
Adrian Cronauer
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)
Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Doubtfire
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)
Armand Goldman
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)
John Keating
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.

Awakenings (1990)
Dr. Malcolm Sayer
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.

Insomnia (2002)
Walter Finch
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)
Sy Parrish
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.

Wild Card
Aladdin (1992)
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)
Sean Maguire
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.

Other Notable Roles
In Jumanji
Popeye (1980)
The World According to Garp (1982)
Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
Seize the Day (1986)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Cadillac Man (1990)
Hook (1991)
FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)
Homicide: Life on the Street (1994)
Being Human (1994)
Nine Months (1995)
Jumanji (1995)
Jack (1996)
Fathers’ Day (1997)
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Flubber (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)
Louie (2012)
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) 
The Crazy Ones (2013-2014)
The Face of Love (2013)
The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (2014)

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  1. I saw a comment on a website that said that even though Williams was extremely famous and popular, he never stopped being the same hilarious, good hearted person that he was and remained for his whole life. There are too many celebrities who lose themselves in all of the fame, and I'm so thankful that Williams was not one of them. I won't say more, because I think you summed it up perfectly in this post.

    Thank you for everything, Robin Williams. We will miss you so very much.

    1. He really did seem like a genuinely great guy, didn't he? Untouched by the glamour and glitz of the Hollywood bullshit. We will certainly miss him, but his work will live on and on.

  2. Both in his comedic and dramatic roles, Robin Williams has always been able to bring a unique kind of hyper-kinetic energy in every character he performed on screen, leaving behind a cinematic legacy that we'll still be talking about for years to come. His range was so phenomenal and his talent so towering that his loss at this point seems immeasurable. His performance in "Good Hill Hunting" is easily among his best work, but to me his greatest achievement on screen remains his fearless portrayal of Parry in Terry Gilliam's "The Fisher King". It also ranks among the best acting I've seen from an actor on screen in my entire life. It's such a unique beast of a performance, the kind that lives within comedy and drama, two genres Williams always tackled with characteristic passion and raw honesty. Without separating his work between comedy and drama, my personal Top-10 of his countless brilliant performances goes like this:

    1) The Fisher King
    2) Good Will Hunting
    3) Dead Poets Society
    4) Good Morning, Vietnam
    5) Mrs. Doubtfire
    6) One Hour Photo
    7) Insomnia
    8) Aladdin
    9) World's Greatest Dad
    10) Awakenings

    Goodbye, Captain, our Captain.

    1. I think of all his work, The Fisher King contains his best range as an actor. He really hits all the marks there. It's a phenomenal achievement, and I actually had trouble deciding which category to place it in.

      Love your list. There are so many different ways to rank his performances. And the best part is, no matter how you rank them, it always amounts to a stellar body of work.

    2. It does indeed, buddy. He will be missed.

  3. great post Alex! This was a beautiful way to pay tribute to a man who was more than just an actor...he was a friend.

    1. Thanks man! He was more than an actor, for sure. A great and kind man who consistently went out of his way to better those around him.

  4. Believe it or not, we considered Mork and Mindy a gem back in the day. Of course, I was also a devoted viewer of shows like Gilligan's Island, so I don't recommend that you put much stock in my youthful opinions. :-)

    I have seen most of the movies on your list, but I don't remember them well. Maybe it's time for a Robin Williams marathon. ;-) I've been spending a lot of time at home, due to being sick, so the timing couldn't be better.

    Great post, and a lovely tribute.

    1. Oh, I grew up on reruns of Mork & Mindy. I loved that show (and Alf) as a kid. I've basically been doing a Robin Williams marathon for the past three days. Kind of sad, but also rather endearing. He was such a fine actor.

  5. Great post! I'm glad you included him in your In Character feature.

    1. Thanks Brittani! I really enjoyed your post on him too. His work in One Hour Photo is incredible.

  6. Man, this year hasn't been very kind to Hollywood, has it?

    1. Not at all. We've lost some great ones these past 12-14 months.

  7. This week totally blows. I'm still bummed out. Tonight, I'm going to watch The Fisher King for the very first time to sort of continue this tribute to Robin Williams.

    It's tough to name 10 let alone many roles that are so great. So far,

    1. Dead Poets Society
    2. Mrs. Doubtfire
    3. One Hour Photo
    4. World's Greatest Dad
    5. Moscow on the Hudson
    6. Aladdin
    7. Good Will Hunting
    8. Mork & Mindy
    9. Good Morning Vietnam
    10. The Birdcage
    11. Awakenings
    12. Death to Smoochy
    13. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
    14. Insomnia
    15. Deconstructing Harry

    That's a fucking legacy. No one will take that away from him. Plus, if it wasn't for him. We wouldn't have comic relief and all the comics he helped out. We wouldn't have Ben & Matt or Jessica Chastain. The guy gave us so much and more and now, we're giving back.

    1. Great list and a GREAT closing paragraph. I had no idea that his scholarship helped Jessica Chastain. Just saw that on her FB post. Incredible. I'm so curious to read your thoughts on The Fisher King. It's pure Gilliam, but there's a lot of beauty within its madness.

  8. Great tribute to a very talented man. I was wondering if you were planning on doing one for Lauren Bacall sometime in the near future.

    1. Thanks man. I've been refamiliarizing myself with some of Bacall's work, but I don't think I'll do a post on her. Still, she was one of the all time greats, no question.

  9. A wonderful tribute. Loved it all especially your description of Mrs Doubtfire. The scene when he has been discovered and is in the court knowing he will lose custody of the kids is heartbreaking. So much emotion in his face. I did a tribute for him too. So many of us will miss him.

    1. Thanks so much. Ah, that scene kills me as well. He's so damn heartbroken, it's just devastating. The drama in that movie really is quite fierce.

  10. I was wondering if you would do an In Character for Robin Williams, being that he was a big star and not a character actor as such, but if anyone deserves breaking the rules for it's him. One of my favourite comedians, he will be greatly missed. I pretty much agree with you on his best roles, but my favourite movie of his would be The Final Cut, I might be a bit biased towards sci-fi, but I love the ideas in that movie and Robin Williams is great in it also in one of his dramatic roles.
    Great site by the way, I've been reading it a fair bit over the last few weeks, adding movies to my neverending watch list. Gotta love the lists!

    1. Thanks Chris, really appreciate you stopping by the site and checking it out. Very kind of you to leave a comment here as well.

      I agree, Robin Williams was definitely a star and not a typically-defined character actor, but, yeah, he's a guy worth breaking the rules for. I love The Final Cut. What an interesting concept, and Williams did very fine work with it. It's a shame that movie never got more play.

      Thanks again for stopping by.

  11. Awesome to see an In Character piece on Robin Williams. I love that you split this up into drama and comedy -- very fitting for a man who had such a long, diverse career. I have been meaning to revisit a few of his films, including Insomnia and One Hour Photo from this list.

    Man, he was so good. Always entertaining even if the film was a dud. Such a devastating loss.

    1. You know, it just didn't feel right to confine his work to only five essential roles. He's definitely an actor worth opening it up for. Insomnia and One Hour Photo are two films I can pretty much revisit anytime. I love what Williams did in both of them.

      And you're right, even if the movie wasn't good, he was always good in it. It's been a week since he passed and I still can't believe it.

  12. He will always be Parry to me. I think he just did something with that character that is just magical. The chemistry he had with Jeff Bridges, I think, is the sort of chemistry that Bridges has yet to find in another partner (on film). Gilliam really got the best out of them imo. But as your article makes clear, Williams is a guy who really could sell both the comedy and the drama. Something many of the comedic actors today either cannot (or at least choose not to) do.

    Williams, your performances will live with all of us forever. RIP.

    1. Parry was the one role I battled with most, in terms of where to place it - in comedy or drama. It's such a layered and impressive performance. Arguably the finest performance Gilliam has captured. Parry, and many of Williams' other performances, will certainly live on. No question.

  13. Great list, Alex! I actually watched The Fisher King for the first time this past weekend...such a great performance and devastatingly heartbreaking.

    1. Thanks Courtney! I had trouble deciding to call his work in The Fisher King comedy or drama, because, yeah... so heartbreaking. The man could convincingly do both, one scene to the next. (sigh)

  14. The receptionist at the office I work in told me that she met Robin Williams years ago on the grounds of Paramount Pictures in California. She spoke of the same gentle and approachable guy who would go out of his way to make everyone feel important and worthy of his attention, so I have a first-hand source that corroborates everything that has been said about the man.

    There's so much grief that has come out of his tragic passing because you simply could see how great of a man he was. There was a "twinkle" in his eyes, as if he never quite grew up, and he was always a child who was honest, gentle and approachable, albeit crude and wild.
    How fortunate we are to have the movies to go back to now that he's gone. I just watched The Fisher King for the first time (the only one in your list I had not seen) and I was floored. Perhaps some had to do with the tragedy and how the film deals with trauma and depression, but it truly was a beautiful film with a great pairing of Jeff Bridges and Robin.

    Very nice post. The only film I would have added is perhaps Jumanji, not because it was his best work, but because it holds a dear place in my heart. I watched in the theater and I watched it several more times whenever it was on TV. A film I grew up with.

    1. I love stories like that. We've heard a lot of them over this past week, and they fill my heart. He was one of the good ones. As you say, a man more than willing to make everyone feel important and worthy. Which is, for the record, a very special trait to find in a person.

      So glad you liked his work in The Fisher King. I just read an interview with Terry Gilliam about him working with Robin on that movie. It's a great read if you want to give it a go:

      I grew up with Jumanji as well, and really wanted to include it here. A prominent film of my childhood. Thanks so much for the comment.

  15. Love, love, love this post! GWH would also rank as the best for me, but I've become more attached to his work in Mrs. Doubtfire since his passing. I'll be watching Awakenings soon, but I really need to watch World's Greatest Dad as well.

    1. I watched Mrs. Doubtfire after he passed. I don't think I'd seen it 15 years, and I was stunned by how consuming the drama is in that film. He's got the comedy, no question, but he really hits hard with the dramatics in that flick.

      World's Greatest Dad... there's only one actor who could've played that role, and he's great in it.

  16. Beautiful, Alex...though I knew it would be nothing less. I had tried to think of a list in my mind but only narrowed it down to "from the day he was born until the day he died". "Dead Poet's Society" and "Awakenings" are two of my favorites.

    1. Thanks Dawn. It was very hard to narrow this list down, because he was so good in everything. I watched Awakenings the night he passed, hadn't seen it in years. Such nuanced work from him in that film. (sigh) Still no where near being over this.