Robin Williams was a rarity, a superb stand-up comedian with a very raucous side who could have even the most hostile audience eating out of his hand and yet also a film actor whose best roles were invariably as sensitive and introspective characters. He partied in wild style with John Belushi but never seemed remotely boorish in any of his screen roles.
Williams first became a household name in the US thanks to the Happy Days spin-off Mork and Mindy. He was very well cast as the extra-planetary eccentric Mork from Ork, adjusting to life in the suburbs after arriving on earth in an egg-shaped spacecraft.
Just as Happy Days producer Garry Marshall had been impressed by Williams’ extraordinary comic zest and had cast him instantly, Hollywood was also quick to target his febrile talent.
Right from the start of his film career, Williams was playing soulful outsiders. He was very moving as the Russian musician who defects to America in Paul Mazursky’s Moscow On The Hudson (1984). Like a latterday Charlie Chaplin, he was even then combining the comedy with very large dollops of pathos. Like Chaplin too, he didn’t have the slightest hint of cynicism about him – one reason why he was sometimes accused of rank sentimentality.
Another of his more downbeat films that is often overlooked is the Saul Bellow adaptation, Seize The Day (1986), in which he was playing a Willy Loman-like salesman whose life was going nowhere. For such a successful man, Williams was very good at playing losers.
Robin Williams: A career in pictures
Robin Williams: A career in pictures
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1980: Robin Williams in the world-famous Mork and Mindy series that launched his career.
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1984: Williams in 'Moscow On The Hudson'. The actor earned his first Golden Globe nomination for his turn as a Russian circus performer in this 1984 hit.
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1987: Williams in the critically acclaimed 'Good Morning, Vietnam'. Williams ad-libbed all the radio broadcast scenes from this 1987 film about a radio DJ sent to Vietnam to entertain the US troops serving out there.
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1989: Robin Williams appeared with Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles in 'Dead Poets Society' as English teacher John Keating - or the “slightly more daring O Captain, My Captain”.
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1990: Williams and Robert De Niro in Awakenings, an emotional film that saw Williams portray a British neurologist who administered a drug to catatonic patients that briefly awoke them from decades of catatonia.
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1991: Williams appeared as an adult Peter Pan forced to return to Neverland to rescue his children in 'Hook'. The film received mixed reviews but proved popular at the box office.
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1992: Williams in 'Toys'. The film followed a military general after he inherits a toy factory and decides to produce war toys.
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1993: Williams appeared in one of his best-loved roles in Mrs Doubtfire, where he played an actor disguising himself as a female housekeeper in order to spend more time with his children.
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1995: Williams appeared as man released from a board game after being trapped for decades inside it in the blockbuster 'Jumanji'.
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1996: Williams starred opposite Jennifer Lopez in 'Jack', a film about a young boy who ages four times faster than other children.
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1997: Williams appeared alongside Matt Damon in 'Good Will Hunting', a film that won him an Oscar for his portrayal of psychologist Sean Maguire. As he accepted his award, a touched Williams warned the audience: "Oh man, this might be the one time I’m speechless".
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1997: The box-office hit Flubber saw Williams take the role of Professor Philip Brainard, who creates the unstoppable green goo Flubber in his bid to produce a new energy source.
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1998: Williams gave a poignant turn as Dr Hunter 'Patch' Adams, an unqualified doctor who treats patients with laughter in 'Patch Adams' .
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1998: Williams stars alongside Cuba Gooding, Jr in 'What Dreams May Come', a film that follows American physician Chris Nielsen's journey through the afterlife after he is killed in a car crash.
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1999: Robin Williams, Bob Balaban (left), and Armin Mueller-Stahl star in the movie 'Jakob the Liar' about a Jewish shopkeeper who uses his imagination to engender hope throughout a Polish ghetto in 1944.
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1999: American Science Fiction drama 'Bicentennial Man' followed an android (Williams) as he experiences emotions and becomes more human
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2002: Williams took a more sinister role as reclusive crime writer and murderer Walter Finch in 'Insomnia'.
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2002: Williams undertook an unsettling, psychopathic role in One Hour Photo, where he played a photo lab technician obsessed with a family who frequented the store.
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2002: Williams starred alongside Danny DeVito in 'Death to Smoochy', a film about a corrupt children's television host disgraced by an FBI sting.
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2005: Robin Williams stars in 'The Big White', a film about a financially struggling travel agent trying to make a bogus life insurance claim in order to pay for his wife's Tourette treatment.
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2006: Williams and Ben Stiller star in 'Night at the Museum'. Williams will appear in upcoming film "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb," playing the statue of Teddy Roosevelt who comes to life at night.
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2006: Robin Williams, Jeff Daniels and Cheryl Hines star in roadtrip comedy 'R.V.', which followed the tribulations of a dysfunctional family.
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2006: Williams took the leading role in the political comedy drama 'Man of the Year' about a comedian who decides to run for President and finds himself mistakenly elected.
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2007: Robin Williams and Freddie Highmore in 'August Rush', where Williams played a homeless musician who teaches children living on the streets music and employs them as performers.
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2007: Robin Williams, Mandy Moore and John Krasinski starred in 'License to Wed'. Williams played a reverend who places a couple through a series of tests to see if they should marry in his church. The rom-com was poorly received by critics.
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2010: Robin Williams and John Travolta star in 'Old Dogs', a comedy that sees two friends and owners of a sports marketing firm struggle to deal with seven-year-old twins placed in their care. The film was nominated for four Golden Raspberry Awards.
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2013: Susan Sarandon, Robert De Niro and Robin Williams star in The Big Wedding
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2013: Williams starred as President Eisenhower in Lee Daniels' 'The Butler'.
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2014: Robin Williams with his Mork and Mindy co-star Pam Dawber in The Crazy Ones series. It was axed after one season.
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2014: Rob Williams stars in 'The Angriest Man in Brooklyn', the story of a bad-tempered man mistakenly told he has 90 minutes to live.
Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), a huge box-office and critical success, was the first of his movies really to tap into his abrasive stand-up persona. He was very loud and very funny as the armed forces DJ riling his superiors with his outspoken approach. Williams was Oscar-nominated and became a bona fide movie star on the back of the performance. However, his appetite was more for heartfelt drama than for National Lampoon-style farce. He was unlikely but very successful casting as the poetry-loving English teacher with a Mr Chips-like devotion to his pupils in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989).
One of his finest and least acknowledged performances was as the homeless visionary living on the streets in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991.) Again, he was using his comic abilities in an unusual way, to probe very deeply into a character who could easily have seemed an absurd caricature.
Look over Williams’ filmography and you can’t but notice the range of his work. Alongside the cookie cutter studio films like Patch Adams and Jumanji, there were always plenty of indie titles and offbeat movies too. He was somebody who seemed equally at home in kids’ movies and dark adult dramas. Williams was very funny in drag in Mrs Doubtfire (1993) but it is revealing of his approach that he next signed up to appear in Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s ambitious fantasy Being Human (1994.)
Sometimes, Williams’ movies could be just a little too saccharine and too full of hugs and tears. His therapist in Gus van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997), scripted by its then unknown actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, was a case in point (even if he did win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role.) Then again, Williams’s taking such a role underlined his commitment to independent cinema. He was far better as the very creepy photo technician poring over customers’ most intimate pictures in One Hour Photo (2002).
Like many actor-comedians who’ve been successful for a prolonged period, Williams in recent times was sometimes taken for granted. We thought we knew what to expect from one of his performances. He had been as busy as ever in recent years. With his untimely death, audiences and critics should take a step back and look more generously and perceptively at what has been an extraordinarily rich and varied career.