Robin Williams dead. The words don’t compute. His mind was never still. His humor was infectious. His kindness, unstinting. Once, when he phoned my home, my then-five-year-old son took the call. I didn’t know who it was. I just heard my son laughing uncontrollably. Robin was doing the voices from all my kid’s favorite cartoons. That’s who he was. Giving. Wanting to please.
Sometimes, when Robin wasn’t on, his mood could swing precipitously. As much as you felt his humor, you also sensed a sadness that went deep. You sensed that as well in his best screen performances. When he wasn’t just the entertainer — like the zonked-out Mork he played on TV — Williams could be a consummate, subtle actor. Here are nine Robin Williams performances that I will always treasure.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987): My personal favorite Williams performance is here. As Adrian Cronauer, a disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio in Saigon in 1965, Williams let his free associations rip while also creating a character scarred by war and his own inner terror. Thanks to Williams’ first Oscar-nominated performance, this Barry Levinson film is as fresh and pertinent as the day it was made.
Dead Poets Society (1989): Peter Weir’s prep-school classic can get tear-jerky, but Williams never loses his edge. As an English teacher who reads Shakespeare as John Wayne and goads his students to tear out the stuffy academic introductions to their poetry books, Williams, again Oscar-nominated as Best Actor, earns the Whitman salute his students give him — “O captain! My captain!”
Awakenings (1990): In Penny Marshall’s film, Williams plays a character modeled on Dr. Oliver Sacks, a clinical neurologist who in a New York hospital in 1969 used the experimental drug L-dopa to awaken a group of post-encephalitic patients. Robert De Niro won the Oscar nomination as one of the patients, but it’s Williams who gets under the skin of this shy, committed doctor and registers every nuance of victory and defeat. It’s a startlingly mature performance.
The Fisher King (1991): Who better than Williams to play a modern Don Quixote for Terry Gilliam, a director attuned to the collision of fantasy and reality? As a homeless man crazed by tragedy and pursued on Manhattan streets by a fire-spewing red knight, Williams — again Oscar nominated — finds the humanity in Gilliam’s visionary extravaganza.
Aladdin (1992): They tell me the fast-talking Genie in this Disney crowdpleaser is a cartoon. To this day, I insist it is Robin Williams. Oh, he’s animated all right, in the way only Williams could be animated. His brilliant vocal performance, arguably the best in animated history, brings his Genie to a life that would be impossible without him.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993): They say it’s easy for an actor to get laughs in drag. Yeah, well try watching Sly Stallone in Tango & Cash. Williams, playing a divorced dad trying to get time with his kids by pretending to be their matronly nanny, mines the fun and the feeling in a role he made iconic.
Good Will Hunting (1997): Williams finally won his Oscar, as Best Supporting Actor, for playing Sean McGuire, a community college instructor and therapist who gets to the heart of what’s raging inside math genius Will Hunting (Matt Damon) by proving himself as wounded as the kid is. Working with director Gus Van Sant and a script by Damon and Ben Affleck, Williams digs deep into a character whose problems can’t be laughed away.
Insomnia (2002): Somehow director Christopher Nolan saw something in Williams that led to casting him as a killer being chased in Alaska by an LAPD cop (Al Pacino). Williams doesn’t enter the film until midpoint, but he brings a quiet intensity to the role that’s electrifying. His psychological pursuit of the cop shows us a Williams we’ve never seen before onscreen.
One Hour Photo (2002): It’s ironic that one of our most gifted comics gave his last great screen performance as a villain. It would have been easy for Williams to play Sy Parrish, Sy the Photo Guy to his customers, as the monster at the mall. Going the psycho route is a ham actor’s dream. But Williams, following the spare lead of director Mark Romanek, is riveting in his recessiveness and, as a consequence, truly, deeply scary.