My introduction to the manic world of Robin Williams came in 1991 with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Hook. I imagine most people my age have a similar story to tell. I came out of that film convinced that Rufio was the coolest movie character this side of Luke Skywalker, a little bit in love with Julia Roberts, and mesmerized by the guy who brought a truly magical restoration to a character that had never really interested me previously. The next year we got Aladdin, still one of my three or four favorite Disney movies of all-time, which introduced me to the world of voice work and how someone with great talent could transform and give life to a film without ever actually appearing on camera. And in the following year, a cross-dressing, Scottish nanny made landfall with Mrs. Doubtfire, a movie that was consumed an unhealthy number of times in my household (though it was probably a TV edit taped off of TBS or something similar).
There are likely better, and perhaps much better, performances on Robin Williams’ resume than Pan, Genie, and Mrs. Doubtfire. I’ll highlight another one in a moment. But it was those three movies, back to back to back, over the course of my formative years (8-10 years old) that stand out and illustrate how insanely talented and moreover, how incredibly versatile Williams really was. He’d win an Oscar a few years later (again, see below) and received three other Academy nominations over the course of his career, all of them deserved, and his legacy as a stand-up comedian is untouchable, but it is those films that introduced him to a new generation and made a major impression on any number of youngsters, yours truly among them. He was a unique performer, a guy who owned whatever stage he took to for a solid 30 years. Charisma is not quite the right word for what he had, though it is also applicable, but he had a presence that many have emulated and very few have matched. There will never be another Robin Williams, which makes his untimely death all the more tragic.
When tragedy strikes, in the interest of memorializing the dead, sick, or downtrodden, we tend to not only skip over the person’s faults but erase them altogether and pretend we have just lost an actual saint. I have no stomach for false eulogizing. Williams had a well-established history with drugs and he struggled mightily with the depression that ultimately did him in. And his last decade of work was disappointing to put it nicely. In recent years, he seemed almost desperate to me, like he wanted to reinvent himself once more but wasn’t sure what the next phase was and the irrelevance was eating at him. That happens a lot. It is really difficult to be the “funny guy” for 30 years and even the very best comedians, a group in which Williams is surely counted, have to either come to grips with being slightly less funny than they once were or do something different. Whether that’s where Williams was or if that’s just my own brain trying to grapple with this stuff I don’t know. Regardless, none of his issues, personal or professional, diminish the great work he did along the way. So as my own small tribute to Robin Williams, let me briefly discuss my personal favorite films from his catalog. Rest in peace, Mr. Williams.
5. Good Will Hunting (1997) This is an excellent film featuring some outstanding work (not the least of which is the script that won an Oscar) but it is Williams’ performance, an understated piece of work that again put the man’s versatility on full display, that holds the whole thing together. That’s fitting, given that his presence in the film gave it the credibility it needed in order to catch the attention of both the critics and the masses. Williams picked up an Oscar for his troubles.
4. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) If you put virtually anyone else in the lead role, this movie is an unmitigated disaster. The whole thing is completely ridiculous, like something that would have been cut out of an episode of Full House, yet somehow Williams made it not only watchable but incredibly re-watchable. No one else could have brought both the kinetic energy and completely shamelessness to the role that Williams did.
3. Hook (1991) Until recently, I had no idea that apparently grown-ups hate Hook. I assumed all humans were swept away by the sheer wonder of this reinvented universe the way I and all of my friends were. Shame on you, grown-ups, for missing the boat on this one. It’s insane but once again, Williams makes it work.
2. Aladdin (1992) There’s a very large group of actors who’ve voiced characters for subsequent Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar films who should’ve been sending some of their money to Williams each week. There had been great voice work done before Aladdin, to be sure, but Genie was such a cultural phenomenon that I think it’s fair to say it changed the game for animated features. He’s magnificent.
1. Dead Poets Society (1989) I hadn’t seen Dead Poets Society in years until recently and I was completely taken aback by how powerful it remains and how deeply profound Williams’ performance is. It’s a tremendous performance within a great film and its emotional relevance still resonates 25 years later. The “Oh Captain, My Captain” desk-standing scene is iconic, to be sure, as is the room-spinning scene in which Williams helps a young Ethan Hawke overcome his stammer. But the scene that has always been my favorite, and that recently regained popularity thanks to an excellent iPad commercial, is the one in which Williams excitedly but pointedly asks his young pupils, “What will your verse be?” I’m getting a little choked up just thinking about. Truly a masterful piece of work.