I didn’t know Robin Williams, but he was a presence in my life since I was about 5, when I began to transition from Sesame Street (where he would later visit several times) to more grown-up fare, like Mork & Mindy.
His 1986 performance special Robin Williams: Live at the Met, a hilariously whiplash act that veers from politics to drug use to the birth of his first child, was the first stand-up comedy album I owned, and it opened the door to other comedians who alternately shared his manic verbosity (George Carlin), fearless confessionalism (Lenny Bruce) and frenetic improvisation (Jonathan Winters, a longtime idol of Williams who appeared on Mork & Mindy in its waning days). Though Williams remained true to his stand-up roots, he was much more than a comedian in his films.
I’d be hard pressed to name another actor who embraced and embodied such a diverse range of characters (from Mrs. Doubtfire’s desperate, cross-dressing dad to Hamlet’s Osric, the courtier who invites the Dane to his deadly duel with Laertes) in such a broad spectrum of films (from big-budget studio spectacles like Jumanji to small-scale dramas like Good Will Hunting). One of Williams’s blessings as an actor was that he was not blessed with conventional movie star looks; I think his death has affected so many people not simply because he gave great performances in popular movies that registered with different generations, but because there was something about Williams that felt like he could be us, even in his darkest characters and most absurd films; he could also be our collective id, veering into territory we don’t often allow ourselves the freedom to explore.
Williams appeared in more than 100 movies and TV shows, sometimes just lending his versatile voice (Aladdin), other times popping up in uncredited cameos (the mime instructor in his friend Bobcat Goldthwait’s directorial debut, Shakes the Clown). Following are 10 films that remind us what a brilliant performer we lost and leave us wondering what may have been yet to come.
1. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Williams has a small, indelible role as the King of the Moon in Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated but fun fantasy based on the tall tales of the German nobleman Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchausen. In fact, Williams is credited in the film as Ray D. Tutto, a nod to his character’s proclamation that he is re di tutto, or king of everything.
2. The Birdcage (1996)
A restrained Williams mostly leaves the scenery chewing to Nathan Lane in this Mike Nichols/Elaine May adaptation of La Cage aux Folles, in which the owner of a drag club (Williams) and his domestic partner (Lane) attempt to play straight to impress the conservative parents of Williams’ son’s fiancée. Williams invests his role with layers of frustration and anger that provide much-needed humanity to this otherwise scattershot affair.
3. Dead Again (1991)
Another minor but impactful role, Williams is a downtrodden psychiatrist who offers insight into the hazards of past lives regression in Kenneth Branagh’s underappreciated thriller about an amnesiac woman (Emma Thompson) who may hold the key to a decades-old murder.
4. Dead Poets Society (1989)
We should all have at least one teacher like Williams’ John Keating, someone who challenges us—dares us—to broaden our view of the world and demand the best of ourselves. There are those who protest the sentimentality of Dead Poets Society, but director Peter Weir has genuine affection for the characters and conducts the proceedings with such warmth that the film never veers into hokum. If you have a heart, surely it cannot help but swell in the movie’s final moments.
5. The Fisher King (1991)
After emerging from a catatonic state following the death of his wife in a mass shooting inspired by a brash disc jockey (Jeff Bridges), Williams’s Parry becomes a delusional vagrant who wanders New York in search of the Holy Grail in this bold, bittersweet, modern take on the Arthurian Fisher King myth directed by Gilliam.
6. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Much of Good Morning, Vietnam features the unrestrained Williams familiar to fans of his stand-up schtick, and indeed significant portions of the film were built around his improvised riffs. But there are subtle shades to his antiauthoritarian Armed Forces Radio DJ that emerge as the character falls in love with a Vietnamese woman, connects with young soldiers whom he inspires and who are likely being sent off to their slaughter, and encounters first-hand the horrors of war.
7. Insomnia (2002)
I’m partial to Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s chilly and chilling 1997 Norwegian thriller (now available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection) over Christopher Nolan’s remake, but the latter features a deft performance by Williams as an Alaska-based crime novelist who engages an out-of-town detective (Al Pacino) in a dangerous game related to a seemingly inscrutable murder.
8. Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
Written and directed by Paul Mazursky, whom we also lost this year and who had a gift for humane, observational comedy, Moscow on the Hudson is one of the hidden gems of the 1980s. Williams is surprisingly subtle and believable as a Russian saxophonist who decides to defect while visiting New York with a traveling circus.
9. One Hour Photo (2002)
Vividly and unsettlingly imagined by noted music video director Mark Romanek, One Hour Photo is built around a haunting performance by Williams as a photo developer fixated on a family whose photographs he processes. Williams’s Seymour Parrish is especially creepy because the actor finds the humanity beneath his actions.
10. World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
There are sad parallels to Williams’ own end in this morbidly comic film from writer-director Goldthwait that satirizes our human desire to romanticize the deceased. Williams plays a high school English teacher who aspires to be a novelist and whose son dies in an accident involving autoerotic asphyxiation; the death is recast as a suicide by Williams’ character, who then forges a journal allegedly written by his son that becomes a sensation.