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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness