Remembering Robin Williams: An Actor Who Never Stopped Taking Risks

Wesley Emblidge ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Assistant Editor
When you think of Robin Williams, what role comes to mind first? Younger people might think of his voice work in Aladdin or his recurring role in the Night at the Museum franchise. Older people might think of a movie like Mrs. Doubtfire or Good Morning Vietnam. Most people think of Williams as a comedy actor, which makes sense, as the man was one of the biggest stand up comedy stars of all time and was always able to enliven even the blander studio comedies. But on Monday when the news of Williams’ untimely death hit, my thoughts didn’t go to the likes of Jumanji or Happy Feet but the roles where I felt he really made an impact. I’m talking about the ones that got him awards nominations, where he stepped outside of his comfort zone, where he took risks. And that’s what made Robin Williams continue to be relevant, even amidst the paycheck gigs he kept coming back to do something completely unexpected.
You can look just five years back to see Williams in World’s Greatest Dad, an incredibly dark comedy from Bobcat Goldthwait that tackles touchy subjects that you’d expect a family film star to steer clear of. But there was nothing Williams was ever afraid of, starting by playing a live-action version of Popeye for Robert Altman in 1980. It was his first film role ever, and while the movie wasn’t all that well received it kicked off two decades of constant work.
In 1987 Williams took an important step toward the dramatic with Good Morning Vietnam, where he was able to use his stand up comedy skills in a movie that is, ultimately a drama. But it’s the perfect vehicle for Williams, because it lets him be extremely funny and spend many scenes just riffing into a microphone, while also hitting the right dramatic notes later on that led him to his first Oscar nomination. His second came just two years later, in one of his defining performances: Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society. The movie brought us the often referenced “Oh captain, my captain” bit, as well as one of the best scenes of the man’s career, which you can watch here.
He made two films with Terry Gilliam, the better known being The Fisher King with Jeff Bridges, for which he scored another Oscar nomination. But he also pops up in Gilliam’s 1988 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which is a far weirder and riskier movie, in the vein of the filmmaker.
In the ‘90s he had some of the bigger studio films that most might remember him for, movies of varying quality like Steven Spielberg’s Hook, Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, Toys, Aladdin, Flubber and more. At the end of the decade came his big Oscar win: Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. Though Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the film themselves to boost their careers, the one who gets the great role is Williams, as Damon’s challenging therapist. In one of the best scenes, Damon explodes at him shouting but Williams never goes that far. He’s quiet, reserved, and subtly angry. Another actor might have turned the scene into a shouting match but Williams understands the power in being understated.
2002 was a darker year for Williams, where he played the terrifying killer in Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia, and the stalker photo developer in Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo. And although after that Williams disappeared into a lot of studio comedies and unsuccessful indies, he still tried to pick projects that at least had potential, like Barry Levinson’s Man on the Year.
Like so many recent actors who have passed away though, we still have movies to look forward to from him. Outside of a third Night at the Museum film, Williams has a number of smaller projects coming out in the following months. There’s Boulevard, a drama co-starring the great Bob Odenkirk and directed by A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints’ Dito Montiel. There’s the holiday themed comedy Merry Friggin’ Christmas, and he did some voice work in the upcoming Monty Python reunion of sorts Absolutely Anything. He also had a sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire in the works, but as far as we’re aware it had yet to start filming (and honestly, that’s probably for the better).
At 63 it’s a shame he died so young, but he left behind just over 100 screen credits for us to dive through over the years. His death seems to have hit nearly everyone very hard, and that’s because there wasn’t just one version of him on screen. There’s a Robin Williams for everyone, for every mood, for every age. He’ll be remembered not based on the quality of his films, but based on the different presence he could bring to each unique project.

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