Robin Williams dead: A comic genius with the equal ability to wring tears from his audience

A viewer could discern inklings of what may now be interpreted as Williams’ own deep and authentic pain

Los Angeles Correspondent

There are actors who can make you laugh, and there are comedians who can make you cry. Robin Williams, an Oscar-winning performer and preternaturally gifted comic, was one of the rare few who can do both in the span of a single scene.

He may have made his name as Mork, the eccentric alien of the late ‘70s sitcom Mork and Mindy, but it was with his remarkable 1987 performance in Good Morning, Vietnam that Williams first demonstrated his considerable dramatic chops, earning an Oscar nomination as a charismatic but conflicted Armed Forces Radio DJ in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. Amazingly, he improvised many of the film’s fast, funny and furious radio monologues.

He earned two more Best Actor nominations over the next four years, for Dead Poets Society (1989) and The Fisher King (1991), in which he played a delusional homeless man who, poignantly, rescues Jeff Bridges’ depressed radio shock-jock from suicide. By then, away from the big screen, Williams was enjoying a thriving second career as a stand-up comedian, a forum across which his wild persona could roam without the fencing constraints of studio filmmaking.

Read more: Robin Williams is found dead aged 63 after years battling his demons
President Obama leads tributes to Good Will Hunting actor

He could have stolen any scene he chose, but he was generous, too, in yielding the spotlight to other actors – particularly when playing a mentor to young, up-and-coming stars such as Ethan Hawke in Dead Poets Society or Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting (1997), for which Williams finally won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Indeed, the widowed therapist Sean Maguire was a defining role: funny, wise and whip-smart; damaged yet deeply empathetic. 

Williams was also the first major star to make a virtue of voicing an animated character, delivering a classic comic turn as the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) – without whom there might never have been a Buzz Lightyear, let alone Eddie Murphy’s “Donkey” from Shrek. The fantasy world of animation gave him free rein to indulge his genius for impressions, accents and funny voices, to unforgettable effect.

A naturally likeable presence, Williams nonetheless developed a distinctive side-line in smiling villains, most notably in two psychological thrillers from 2002: One Hour Photo and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia.

Video: Robin Williams - a life in films

As his career lengthened into middle age, he appeared in more turkeys than triumphs, but there remained glimmers of his peculiar brilliance in, for example, the little-seen 2006 black comedy Man of the Year; in a brief guest appearance in Louis CK’s offbeat sitcom, Louie; and in his presidential performances as a serious Eisenhower in The Butler (2013) and a silly Teddy Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum movies. He remained to the end a breathlessly funny chat-show guest, and earned acclaim for his first and only Broadway stage performance as recently as 2011, in the play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

Behind his more emotive roles – Maguire in Good Will Hunting, the troubled English teacher of Dead Poets Society, even the desperate, divorced, cross-dressing father of Mrs Doubtfire (1993) – a viewer could discern inklings of what may now be interpreted as Williams’ own deep and authentic pain. It is to his lasting credit that he used it to create such indelible characters.

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam