American actor, singer and comedian Robin Williams was one of the most beloved figures in Hollywood and was regarded by critics as one of the best humorists of all time. Despite his untimely death in 2014, he will always be remembered for his brilliant performances in critical and commercial successes like Dead Poets Society (1989), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and Good Will Hunting (1997).
Having started his career during the mid-70s performing at stand-up comedy shows in San Francisco, Williams won a full scholarship to an advanced program in the prestigious Juilliard School in 1973 but he left during his junior year in 1976 after his professor, the famous John Houseman, told him there was nothing left for Juilliard to teach him. A separate teacher at Juilliard regarded the young Williams as a “genius” and said that nobody was surprised to see him leave because his talent was too radical for the conservative and classical school.
His role as the alien Mork in the sitcom Mork & Mindy (1978-1982) helped establish him as an actor of immense comic talent. With two Primetime Emmy Awards, six Golden Globe Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, four Grammy Awards and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Robin Williams was one of the most talented, celebrated and accomplished actors of his time.
On his 69th birth anniversary, we take a look back at some of his greatest performances as a tribute to the distinctive talents of Robin Williams.
Robin Williams’ 10 Best Performances:
10. The Fisher King – Terry Gilliam (1991)
A work of pure brilliance from the director of Brazil, this 1991 film is an adaptation of Richard LaGravenese’s mysterious screenplay that features a misanthropic Radio Deejay (played by Jeff Bridges) who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a homeless man (played by Robin Williams).
A powerful and moving performance by Williams, the actor uses gestures as much as spoken dialogues to transition between a threatening character and a playful one. Recalling a particular scene where the character of Williams was confronted with his own personal demon, director Gilliam said that Robin Williams “always wanted to do another take”.
“He felt he had even more anguish and pain to spill out of the character. And I had to really stop him,” he continued. “I had to say, ‘Robin, you’ve reached a point here, way beyond what we expected. We’ve got what we needed. Now you’re just hurting yourself’.”
9. Awakenings – Penny Marshall (1990)
Robin Williams plays the character of Dr. Malcolm Sayers, a role based on the real-life figure of British neurologist Oliver Sacks. Penny Marshall’s 1990 drama places Williams in a psychiatric hospital where he is responsible for several catatonic patients.
This performance earned Williams his fourth Golden Globe nomination and the film was nominated for three Academy Awards, despite it not being much of a commercial success. Both Robert De Niro and Williams put up phenomenal performances in Awakenings, a film that manages to come across as emotionally moving for audiences, without fail.
“I think when Oliver first met Robin, he was amazed at Robin’s ability to imitate,” filmmaker Penny Marshall noted. “Robin could do all of Oliver’s moves, and I think it made Oliver a little nervous.”
8. One Hour Photo – Mark Romanek (2002)
In what is the debut feature film of music video veteran, Mark Romanek, Williams delivers an effective performance as Sy Parrish, a lonely photo technician whose obsession with his customers slowly breaks him down. Williams extends his acting range with ease and makes the film what it is with his fearless performance.
Williams commented on this departure from his usual roles, saying, “Yeah. It’s just time to add some dark colours to the palette. I’ve always wanted to, but they just wouldn’t offer them to me. Hollywood goes for what sells and what sells is ‘warm and happy… good and fun!’ But when I got this, I was like, ‘God this is great. Thank you!'”
Adding, “Would I play another villain? Fuck yeah, if they offered me one. I haven’t got another one yet… maybe ‘Hitler: The Musical’- but then again, I hear they’re already doing that.”
7. Mrs. Doubtfire – Chris Columbus (1993)
This 1993 film is right up there with some of the most iconic performances by Williams. He plays the character of Daniel Hillard, an out-of-work actor who dresses up in drag and pretends to be Mrs. Doubtfire to be able to see his children every day, after losing custody of them.
Williams is brilliant in this manically emotional role. He won his fourth Golden Globe Award for an outstanding performance as Daniel Hillard (aka Mrs. Doubtfire). In an interview, Williams spoke of the predicament of the character of Hillard: “Here’s a guy who lives in a very random way and, through a painful process, finds there’s more than him.”
6. Moscow on the Hudson – Paul Mazursky (1984)
Robin Williams is a Russian sax player in Paul Mazursky’s 1984 comedy-drama, one who grows disillusioned with the idea of leading a life in the circus and decides to defect when the circus comes to New York. Some might argue that the entire film is built around the wonderfully sensitive performance of Williams who masterfully handles the culture clash as a Russian immigrant.
American film critic, David Denby, once commented: “Robin Williams’s performance holds up. His Vlad comes alive in New York; the city’s buzzing disorder makes him gregarious, hopeful, and ready to connect. And though Williams gives a performance of immense sweetness, he’s not pulled down by the movie’s sentimental tone.”
5. Insomnia – Christopher Nolan (2002)
A Christopher Nolan murder mystery set in Alaska featuring Robin Williams as a shady, suspicious local crime writer and Al Pacino as an LAPD detective, need we say more? One of Robin Williams’ best roles, he puts on a straight face and keeps the audience guessing whether he is the killer or not.
Speaking of the experience of working with Al Pacino, Robin Williams commented on the playful interactions between the suspect and the detective: “It is like someone said, it’s a bit like a game of Go, where you think you’ve got him or he thinks he’s surrounded you, and it takes just one stone to turn it around.”
Williams added: “You know, it’s that idea of initially meeting me, and I think he thinks it’s, you know, this is it and then wants to hear what I have, you know, what it is. Because I kind of played off the idea that I, you know, I saw what you did.”
4. Good Will Hunting – Gus Van Sant (1997)
One of the greatest cult classics of the ‘90s, Good Will Hunting is a brilliant examination of the unfair world that we live in, a world where geniuses are relegated to the status of janitors and snobbish pseudo-intellectuals get into top universities because they can afford to pay the tuition. With brilliant performances from Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Williams, Good Will Hunting is the film that finally got Robin Williams an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Williams plays a pivotal role as a psychology professor who is the only one able to get through to the troubled genius (played by Matt Damon). The film provides a platform for Robin Williams to deliver one of his most sensitive dramatic performances.
“It’s something more than a movie, it’s something like an emotional experience” for people, Williams said. “The painful stuff comes because it’s spoken so simply. That’s kind of the beauty of it. The more intimate and personal it is, the more it touches people. The more honest you are, the more it reaches out.”
3. Aladdin – John Musker, Ron Clements (1992)
Everyone is familiar with the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp but this 1992 iteration of the age-old myth of Aladdin is memorable for one thing in particular, the extraordinarily hilarious voicing of the Genie by Robin Williams. Williams is flawless in Aladdin, with his incessantly funny impressions and constantly hilarious affectations. He explained his reasons for doing the film, saying: “The one thing I said was I will do the voice. I’m doing it basically because I want to be part of this animation tradition. I want something for my children.”
However, when Disney decided to sell merchandise using his voice, he objected, “Then all of a sudden, they release an advertisement–one part was the movie, the second part was where they used the movie to sell stuff. Not only did they use my voice, they took a character I did and overdubbed it to sell stuff. That was the one thing I said: ‘I don’t do that.’ That was the one thing where they crossed the line.”
Despite these altercations, the Genie remains one of the best performances in Robin Williams’ extremely successful career. “Robin Williams and animation were born for one another,” noted Roger Ebert, “and in Aladdin they finally meet.”
2. Good Morning, Vietnam – Barry Levinson (1987)
“Goooooood morning, Vietnaaaaam“.
Robin Williams’ iconic broadcast opener as military disc jockey Adrian Cronauer has been immortalised by the eponymous classic 1987 film. It is Hollywood’s first Vietnam comedy that managed to show the Vietnamese people as humans too, devoid of any propaganda. Williams is equal parts serious and hilarious in Good Morning, Vietnam, dominating every scene he is in.
“Make no mistake about it,” wrote the New York Times’ Vincent Canby upon release. “Mr. Williams’s performance, though it’s full of uproarious comedy, is the work of an accomplished actor. Good Morning, Vietnam is one man’s tour de force.”
“Until this role, the acting and the comedy have been pretty much separate on screen,” Williams said. Prior to the film, he had been in therapy for a year which aided his performance, “It allowed me to show more vulnerability, and I think the camera can catch that. I think therapy has helped me to bring out a deeper level of comedy.”
1. Dead Poets Society – Peter Weir (1989)
Easily the most memorable role that Robin Williams ever played, Dead Poets Society taught an entire generation that art and literature are just as valuable, if not more, in the modern world. It had, perhaps, the most iconic scene of Robin Williams’ career in which the students stand up on the desks in an iconoclastic fervour and bid farewell to Williams’ character while reciting Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” It is a fitting farewell not just to the character that Robin Williams plays but to Williams himself.
John Keating, the unconventional teacher that Williams portrays, delivers these powerful lines: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering—these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for.”
Williams enjoyed working with Peter Weir, “I rank him up there with the best of people I’ve worked with.” “He was, in essence, Keating,” said Williams, “for all of us.” Robin Williams will always be fondly remembered for the fresh perspectives that he brought to the skill of acting and for his impactful legacy in American cinema.