Mork & Mindy (1978 – 1982)
Robin Williams first appeared on TV as part of the cast of The Richard Pryor show but it was landing the part of alien Mork in an episode of Happy Days that properly kick started his career.
Knowing Williams as we have come to, it is no surprise that he improvised and slapsticked his way through this performance and audiences responded so well to his individual brand of comedy that they gave the character his own show.
Williams was suddenly in the public eye and no doubt people didn’t know what hit them. The energy Williams put into the show was incredible. Again, this is something we have come to expect from the actor now but at the time it must have been quite an eye opener.
Unsurprisingly people found Mork’s antics and awed fascination with life highly entertaining and the show was a massive hit. It made its lead a star, both on TV and on stage as a stand up comic.
Mork and Mindy seems a little dated now and Williams’ crazy shtick has lost some of its novelty value but it was a staggeringly brilliant piece of characterisation that lifted the show way above its sitcom conventions.
Good Morning Vietnam (1987)
Robin Williams was clearly best know for his crazy and unpredictable performances. So much so in fact that it’s possible the public got a little too used to this over the years. Many of his later comedy performances in films such as The Big Wedding, License to Wed and Runaway Vacation didn’t really register and his later voice over work in animations like Robots and Happy Feet may even, dare I say it, have been a little jarring.
His true genius though was in how he could combine this mania with incredible dramatic performances. The films that didn’t allow him to exercise the latter with the former are fine but they are not his best work, which is why Mrs Doubtfire does not make the list. It was on the occasions when he found a part that allowed him to balance the two sides of his acting persona that he was truly unequaled.
The film that first showcased this, and instantly turned him from a TV star to a movie star, was Good Morning Vietnam. Barry Levinson’s film, based on the real life experiences of Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, was perfect for Williams. A crazy, irreverent personality in the middle of war devastated Saigon, his mix of buoyancy and poignancy was just what was required and like so many of his best roles, it is hard to imagine anyone other than Robin Williams doing it.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Another film that took an unconventional man and put him in a world of rules and staid conventions. Yes, it’s sentimental but it is powerful and moving and that impression of John Wayne as Macbeth is genuinely funny.
Despite the emotion of Vietnam, it was this film, about a teacher trying hard to inspire his pupils in a rigid boarding school, that really showed what the actor could do when playing it straight. The film still makes much of Williams’ comedy stylings but it is a more reigned in performance than he gave as Cronauer. It is here that Robin Williams widely earned a reputation as more than just a funny man, properly stepping out of Mork’s shadow for the first time.
Interestingly director Peter Weir did something similar for Jim Carrey and his career with The Truman Show around a decade later.
Robin Williams’ comedy may have needed an emotional context to ground it but it wasn’t the same the other way round, his straight performances are brilliant even without the chuckles.
Crazy Robin is nowhere to be seen in this film about a doctor in a residential hospital finding a drug that revives patients from years of catatonia. Williams is the doctor, Malcolm Singer and Robert DeNiro his lead patient and the two of them are a fantastic pairing. DeNiro rightly enjoyed a reputation as the finest actor of his generation and Williams more than matches his performance.
The scenes of Dr. Singer and his colleague Julie ‘Marge Simpson’ Kavner struggling to bring some kind of life back to the people in his care are beautifully moving.
The Fisher King (1991)
Then came The Fisher King. For the first time Williams found a role that didn’t so much alternate between heartbreak and humour but actually played both at exactly the same time. For me this is the best performance in any Terry Gilliam film, with the director finding someone who could perfectly play to his tragi-odd sensibilities.
If you look at Williams next to Christoph Waltz playing a similar lost soul this year in Gilliam’s Zero Theorem, it just doesn’t compare. Not even Bruce Willis, Johnny Depp or Heath Leger, who did some of their finest work under Gilliam’s guidance, nailed his vision quite like Robin Williams.
His portrayal of the homeless dreamer, Parry, is certainly on the manic side but with every laugh your heart breaks at the vision of this broken man. The sad clown is a classic figure in literature, stage and cinema but this might actually be the greatest example of the trope anyone has ever created. It is all the more tragic now it seems Williams may have been playing the same role in real life.
This isn’t a perfect film by any means but Robin Williams was born to play a man child and Peter Pan is the ultimate man child. They tried to get him to do a similar thing in Jack some years later but it didn’t work anywhere near as well as it does here. Of course, I would generally patriotically argue that J.M Barrie’s most famous character be played by a Brit but I can’t imagine from the UK who could have done it with the same conviction.
Okay, I know I’ve said that Williams brand of improvised comedy best worked on the big screen when coupled with moments of high drama, but here is the exception to the rule. Robin Williams’ work as the a Genie was simply brilliant.
Sure it means the movie has dated like no other Disney cartoon, with off the cuff impressions of talk show hosts Arsenio Hall and Ed Sullivan, but even if you don’t get all the references and gags there are so many being fired at you it doesn’t matter.
Apparently Williams had some dispute with Disney on the film’s release which is why Dan ‘Homer Simpson’ Castellaneta voiced the Genie in the straight to video sequel. Castellaneta had actually recorded the voice track for part three as well but after a Jeffrey Katzenburg engineered apology from the studio they scraped the track and got Williams back to read the lines. That right there is why Aladdin King of Thieves is not the classic the original movie is. Williams was barely reading the lines on the first one, he was totally off the chain and they just had to draw the pictures round it.
The Birdcage (1996)
The other example of a nutso Robin Williams performance that works without the need for any lump in the throat moments. I think the reason he gets away with it here is because the performance is just so broad and flamboyant. Robins plays it gay opposite Nathan Lane as a couple trying to be accepted by straight laced Gene Hackman for the sake of their son’s forthcoming marriage to Ally McBeal.
In different hands it could have been an offensive caricature but, in the same way Bill Bryson writes about Britain, it is done with such genuine affection that he gets away with it, and it is very very funny.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Arguably Robin Williams finest hour and certainly the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences thought so. Not a minute of it relies on wise cracking, verbal acrobatics or impressions. Williams is just brilliant as damaged psychologist Sean Maquire, trying to help Matt Damon’s drop out genius reach some of his potential. It is amazing that a performer of such exuberance was also capable of such subtle and beautifully down played performances.
There is very little you can put on paper that fully represents the effortless power of Williams in this film. He is just quietly mesmerising.
Having starred opposite DeNiro in Awakenings, here Williams was cast against Al Pacino and once again was an easy match for the highly respected actor.
As with One Hour Photo, released the same year, Robin Williams started to play creepy and did so to great effect. As unrepentant killer Walter Finch he showed a new side to his repertoire and was once again brilliant.
Robin Williams was best known as a funny guy, and so he should have been, but he was actually a hugely talented and versatile actor. There was genuinely no one else quite like him and there never will be.
The man was a proper Hollywood legend.