Born in Chicago, he splashed onto the scene, suddenly, like a successfully launched Apollo space capsule, his rat-a-tat reflexes and verbal gymnastics taking more than one mid-‘70s TV viewer aback. No one had ever seen someone like Robin Williams before, a Julliard-trained shaggy haired hippie holdover in a cherry red alien outfit who acted like he was indeed from another planet.
He was part Chaplin, part Pryor, an ad-libbing maniac who tossed every imaginable idea, accent, social taboo, and current event talking point into a blender, mixing them up in his mind to then blather on non-stop, weaving his own Rumpelstiltskin like web of mischievous comedic gold. After being introduced on the popular sitcom Happy Days, Williams received his own spin-off shot at stardom, the surreal laugher about an extraterrestrial and his platonic bond with an Earth girl entitled Mork and Mindy. A huge hit, it wasn’t long afterwards that film came calling for the then 29-year-old “overnight sensation.”
From then on, Williams rose in the ranks, becoming the funny man du jour for a good portion of the ‘80s and ‘90s. But he also balanced his frantic sense of humor with a deep understanding of drama and human hurting, eventually earning acclaim and awards for same. For every The Survivors, there was a Dead Poets Society. For every flight of fancy like Toys or Hook, there was a dark, more devastating What Dreams May Come, or Bicentennial Man.
By the new millennium, he became one of those “anything for a paycheck” punch lines, a reputation that still dogs stars like Nicolas Cage and Robert De Niro, but even at his worst, Robin Williams was enigmatic. And at his best, like the ten performances we have highlighted here, he proved that, sometimes, there’s a huge hollow place inside the otherwise fun loving clown. While his untimely death will resonate in the now, it’s these films, and many others, that will guarantee his star stature for decades to come.
After proving his comedy chops in several standout films, Williams wanted to showcase a different side of his talents. So he took on the unglamorous role of Dr. Malcolm Sayer (a stand-in for the real life psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Sacks), a researcher trying to uncover why a group of catatonic patients have been unreachable for so long. Robert De Niro plays his “star” standout, a man who responds well to an experimental drug treatment, only to see his new life fade away once it wears off. Using his hound dog demeanor and onscreen likeability, Williams wins us over without a single snicker or snide comment.
Williams won an Oscar for his portrayal of a therapist asked to help a reclusive/reluctant genius played by Matt Damon. Together, they uncover personal secrets as well as spar over the meaning of life and death. Williams is especially effective in the scenes where he discusses his love for his late wife, from the moment they met (and missed the 1975 World Series) to her sad, tragic end. There is also a mutual past filled with loneliness and physical abuse. Together, the duo unlock each other’s loss, bringing the movie to an emotional epiphany that earned it all manner of Academy Awards love.
Working in fellow stand-up Bobcat Goldthwait’s bitter black comedy about fame and finally facing the music, our star plays a distant dad who longs to be a famous writer. When his last book fails, he vows to give up. As (bad) luck would have it, his angry and defiant teenage son dies of autoerotic asphyxiation and, seeing an opportunity, our wannabe scribe starts putting words in his dead boy’s… pen? He fakes a suicide note, and when that becomes an adolescent “hit” he forges a journal. Soon, he’s the celebrated author he always wanted to be. A final moment of confession, set to Queen’s “Under Pressure,” is stunning.
The late great Paul Mazursky cast Williams in this resplendent, Reagan-era celebration of Manhattan’s melting pot and the personal side of the still frigid if slightly thawing Cold War. Playing a touring Russian musician who defects to the US during a trip to Bloomingdales, what follows is a magnificent deconstruction of the immigrant experience circa the mid-‘80s, life in the big, heartless city, as well as a love letter to our country’s freedom and liberty. While today, the movie plays like an overly optimistic propaganda piece, Williams works is illuminating. Under a heavy beard and equally thick accent, he becomes this stranger in a strange land.
One of the big criticisms about Williams over the years is that filmmakers could never find an onscreen outlet for his onstage comedic shtick. More stream of consciousness than outright stand-up, such free flowing ad-libbed funny business just didn’t seem to work on camera - until this Barry Levinson hit. Loosely based on the experiences of Vietnam-era AFRS radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, Williams excels as a motor-mouthed on-air announcer whose unconventional banter drives his superiors to a bit more than distraction. Thanks to the format and the premise, our lead got to “let loose,” turning a simple fictional overview into a stellar tour de force.