The world mourned the passing of one of the truest talents of all time when Robin Williams left us in 2014. The Juilliard-trained comedian and actor won an Oscar, two Emmys, five Grammys, and — dearest to me — became a Disney Legend in 2009. Williams made his struggles with depression and addiction public, yet he was unable to overcome them. But today I’d like to celebrate his life. Here are Robin Williams’ ten best performances. I hope you’ll enjoy these wonderful moments as much as I have.
10. The Crazy Ones (2013-2014)
One of the most underrated television series of the past season paired Williams with Sarah Michelle Gellar as father-and-daughter partners in an advertising agency. The Crazy Ones featured a terrific ensemble, sharp writing, and plenty of space for Williams to let loose. Williams had his best moments on the show when he had the chance to blend his trademark humor with sweet sentiment (as in the clip above). He couldn’t have a much better alter ego than the character of Simon Roberts — he and the writers even made recovery from addiction a huge part of the character. The Crazy Ones showed such promise, and it’s such a shame that CBS didn’t see fit to give it a second chance.
9. The World According to Garp (1982)
At the tail end of his stint on Mork & Mindy, Robin Williams took on the title role in the movie adaptation of John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Even though both productions relied on quirky characters, the two roles couldn’t have been further apart. As T.S. Garp, the writer from a most unconventional background, Williams acts with a certain straightforwardness that may well have shocked viewers who knew him from Mork & Mindy or Popeye. Oddly enough, it works well. The World According to Garp provided the first glimpse that Robin Williams had the chops to handle dramatic acting just as well as he could perform zany comedy.
8. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, episode “Authority” (2008)
The 200th episode of SVU featured Williams as engineer Merritt Rook. Rook attempts to make a statement about obedience to authority by mimicking the experiments of Stanley Milgram. Rook impersonates a police officer by telephone and goads his victims into committing horrific crimes. Williams’ carefully measured performance is a ticking time bomb, and when he finally explodes, the result is electrifying. During the final act, in which Rook enacts Milgram’s infamous “shock machine” experiments with Detective Stabler (Christopher Meloni) appearing to apply dangerous shocks to his partner, Detective Benson (Mariska Hargitay), Williams gives a master class in acting. In a long-running show with so many classic episodes, Robin Williams left a mark that still packs a wallop upon repeated viewings.
7. Awakenings (1990)
It’s rare to see Robin Williams as the straight man, reacting to the chaos and craziness all around him, but in 1990, we saw a glimpse of that very phenomenon. In Awakenings, a fictionalization of the work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, Williams plays Dr. Marvin Sayer, a doctor in New York in 1969 who begins working with catatonic patients. After experimenting with different stimuli, Sayer tries L-Dopa on Leonard Lowe (Robert DeNiro). As Lowe completely awakens from his catatonic state, Sayer himself awakens to experience life more fully. Williams held his own against DeNiro and the rest of the talented cast and gave one of this most understated performances in a true gem of a film.
6. Mork & Mindy (1978-1982)
After a successful run in the world of stand-up comedy and a stint writing for Richard Pryor, ABC turned a guest appearance by Robin Williams on Happy Days into a sitcom deal. Mork & Mindy tweaked the older stranger-in-a-strange land concept by, well, casting Williams as the alien Mork from the planet Ork. More than just a vehicle for Williams’ brand of wild comedy, the show demonstrated the facets of modern American life as viewed through the eyes of a complete newcomer to Earth. Williams’ innate wackiness, his sweet relationships with his earthling roommate and friend Mindy (Pam Dawber), and the lessons he learns about human life endeared viewers and turned the series into a hit for four seasons. Even today, the show is fresh and funny. Na-Nu Na-Nu, indeed.
5. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Yes, we’ve seen it before – in Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, and (gulp) The Crying Game. Of course, I’m talking drag. But we haven’t quite seen it like Robin Williams does it in Mrs. Doubtfire. When unemployed actor Daniel Hillard’s marriage falls apart and he loses custody of his kids, he sabotages his estranged wife’s (Sally Field) ad for a housekeeper and gets a job – in costume – as British nanny Mrs. Doubtfire, fooling his family. Naturally, Williams’ patented blend of silliness and sentiment is on display here, possibly better than anywhere else. He plays both roles to near perfection – he makes the old English nanny bit completely believable. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how easy he made all of it look. Language warning! NSFW:
4. Good Will Hunting (1997)
We were so used to seeing Robin Williams in gut-busting, funny roles (even in some poignant films) that to see him in the fully dramatic roles he turned toward after the mid-90s packed their own kind of punch. Williams appeared in Good Will Hunting as Dr. Sean Maguire, a psychologist who serves as a bracing reality check to Matt Damon’s title character and who in turn shares the experiences that made him who he is. With a scruffy beard, unkempt hair, and a slightly more gentle take on a Boston accent, Williams looks and sounds the part of a weathered academic, and the Academy rewarded him with an Oscar for his powerful performance.
3. Dead Poets Society (1989)
The inspirational teacher movie is another cliché that Robin Williams managed to turn into something fresh and moving. In Dead Poets Society, Williams plays John Keating, possibly the most unconventional poetry teacher to grace the big screen. Keating encourages his students to think beyond convention, to dream big dreams, and to sound their barbaric YAWP – to borrow a phrase that the film borrows from Walt Whitman. Williams’ performance is powerful – both funny and touching – and unforgettable. And he inspired filmgoers in ways they didn’t expect. I’ve never told anyone this before, but after watching Dead Poets Society I knew I wanted to become a writer someday. You see, that’s the power of a performance like this one.
2. Aladdin (1992)
Perhaps no other performance encapsulates Robin Williams’ brand of stream of consciousness humor than Aladdin. What’s more, as the Genie, Williams isn’t even bound by the confines of a human character – the ultimate freedom for a comedian! Obviously the writers gave Williams more than enough room to improvise much of the Genie’s lines, and the animators must have had a blast bringing the character to life. Williams brings his love of impersonations and dialects into the mix and makes the Genie the most compelling character in the film. It’s hard to imagine anyone else filling the role of the Genie so expertly (though Dan Castellaneta took over the part for one of Michael Eisner’s patented direct-to-video “cheapquels”). If any character is Robin Williams personified, it’s Aladdin’s Genie.
1. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
The real Adrian Cronauer reportedly once said that Robin Williams’ portrayal of him in Good Morning, Vietnam was the Adrian Cronauer he wished he could have been. It’s easy to see why, as Williams made serving in Vietnam look far more fun that it possibly could have been. If the Genie in Aladdin was the ultimate embodiment of Williams’ brand of comic acting, Good Morning, Vietnam is the perfect venue for Williams to be himself in human form. His disk jockey routines, English classes, and interactions with superiors crackle with some of the funniest humor of his career. But the film offers him a chance to stretch beyond comedy and express tenderness, outrage, and empathy – and he succeeds at every one of them. Good Morning, Vietnam demonstrates all the facets of Robin Williams’ talent in one film. — Feel free to share your favorites in the comments section below. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please don’t hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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