While actors and actresses both serious and silly have frequently done animated film voice over work, no one took it to the level that Williams did here. Playing a shape-shifting genie hoping to help the title hero win the day (and he, his freedom), the nonstop wit that the comedian displayed as a stand-up came across here is beautiful pen and ink insanity. Williams work here was also important outside the film. Feeling slighted by Disney, he demanded more money and recognition. After initially replacing him for a direct to video sequel, the two made up, Williams earning more consideration for all voice-over talent.
For those who believed that his ebullient personality would never allow him to play creepy or evil (as in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of Insomnia), this Mark Romanek film is proof of how wrong that evaluation was. Here, Williams is a photo technician at a Wal-Mart like retail outlet. Obsessing over the pictures of families that he processes on a daily basis, our hero soon becomes dangerously fascinating by a young couple and their child. Worshiping their happiness and social status, he is determined to “become part of them.” When rebuffed, his longing takes on a more sinister bent. This is perhaps one of Williams’ most under-recognized roles.
While still an on-the-rise stand-up, and fledgling TV star (Mork and Mindy was in its final season), director George Roy Hill picked Williams to play the title role of T.S. Garp in this freewheeling adaptation of John Irving’s famed novel. More or less an everyman surrounded by eccentrics, ideologues, and the day-to-day drudgery of family, the soon to be superstar was perfect in the part. As a matter of fact, when you go back to his earlier work and watch Williams “act,” you can see his internal process of controlled chaos sitting silently behind his eyes, giving each scene a hidden dimension of depth.
With a terrific Jeff Bridges as his co-star and the dazzling work of Terry Gilliam behind the lens, this masterpiece of a movie is frequently lost among the more showboating pieces in the comic’s extensive catalog. Playing a homeless man who has a connection to a shock jock radio DJ, Williams walks the fine line between Method and melancholy, coming up with a tender and touching portrayal of anger and dealing with loss. From his “date” with a confused Amanda Plummer to his butt-naked romps in Central Park, Williams works hard to make this man - and his shattered psyche - believable, and he does so, magnificently.
Without a doubt, this is the best work Williams ever did. It was also his first film (unless you want to count the sex comedy Can I Do It ‘Til I Need Glasses?). Robert Altman was a weird choice to direct an adaptation of the kiddie comic classic, but he made a masterful decision when he hired the acting novice. Lost in an emblematic make-up job and doing his best to mimic the character’s voice and mannerisms, Williams not only got to deliver Popeye’s signature malapropisms, but he was allowed to sing and dance as well. While many dismissed this film when it was first released, it has now becoming a respective, and representative, tribute to a truly gifted performer.