There are actors who can make you laugh, and there are comedians who can make you cry. Robin Williams, an Oscar-winning performer and preternaturally gifted comic, was one of the rare few who can do both in the span of a single scene.
He may have made his name as Mork, the eccentric alien of the late ‘70s sitcom Mork and Mindy, but it was with his remarkable 1987 performance in Good Morning, Vietnam that Williams first demonstrated his considerable dramatic chops, earning an Oscar nomination as a charismatic but conflicted Armed Forces Radio DJ in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. Amazingly, he improvised many of the film’s fast, funny and furious radio monologues.
He earned two more Best Actor nominations over the next four years, for Dead Poets Society (1989) and The Fisher King (1991), in which he played a delusional homeless man who, poignantly, rescues Jeff Bridges’ depressed radio shock-jock from suicide. By then, away from the big screen, Williams was enjoying a thriving second career as a stand-up comedian, a forum across which his wild persona could roam without the fencing constraints of studio filmmaking.
He could have stolen any scene he chose, but he was generous, too, in yielding the spotlight to other actors – particularly when playing a mentor to young, up-and-coming stars such as Ethan Hawke in Dead Poets Society or Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting (1997), for which Williams finally won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Indeed, the widowed therapist Sean Maguire was a defining role: funny, wise and whip-smart; damaged yet deeply empathetic.
Williams was also the first major star to make a virtue of voicing an animated character, delivering a classic comic turn as the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) – without whom there might never have been a Buzz Lightyear, let alone Eddie Murphy’s “Donkey” from Shrek. The fantasy world of animation gave him free rein to indulge his genius for impressions, accents and funny voices, to unforgettable effect.
A naturally likeable presence, Williams nonetheless developed a distinctive side-line in smiling villains, most notably in two psychological thrillers from 2002: One Hour Photo and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia.
As his career lengthened into middle age, he appeared in more turkeys than triumphs, but there remained glimmers of his peculiar brilliance in, for example, the little-seen 2006 black comedy Man of the Year; in a brief guest appearance in Louis CK’s offbeat sitcom, Louie; and in his presidential performances as a serious Eisenhower in The Butler (2013) and a silly Teddy Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum movies. He remained to the end a breathlessly funny chat-show guest, and earned acclaim for his first and only Broadway stage performance as recently as 2011, in the play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.
Behind his more emotive roles – Maguire in Good Will Hunting, the troubled English teacher of Dead Poets Society, even the desperate, divorced, cross-dressing father of Mrs Doubtfire (1993) – a viewer could discern inklings of what may now be interpreted as Williams’ own deep and authentic pain. It is to his lasting credit that he used it to create such indelible characters.
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Warning: Strong language
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