Twenty-five years ago, Robin Williams gave his first Oscar-nominated performance in Good Morning, Vietnam. He’d garner another nod for his next big role in Dead Poets Society (released on this date in 1989). Whether tackling comedy or drama, Robin Williams always brings a unique hyper-kinetic energy to any role, something we came to love him for way back in 1978 when he starred in Mork & Mindy. There’s an impressive range to his acting as evidenced by the diversity of movies below.
Today we look back at the very best of Robin Williams in film.
In the role that inspired Tobias Fünke’s Mrs. Featherbottom, Williams plays man who plays a British nanny (with an inexplicably Scottish accent) in order to spend time with his kids. Williams cross-dressed his way into the second-highest-grossing movie that year.
He’d put his doctor’s coat—and goofy persona—back on eight years later for Patch Adams, but we prefer his portrayal of Dr. Malcolm Sayer, whose concern for a group of catatonic patients leads him to revive one in a medical trial. Alongside a brilliant performance from Robert De Niro, Williams holds his own—something that would have been hard for us all to imagine watching Mork back in the day.
The first film adaptation of a John Irving novel was also the first major cinematic role for Robin Williams, who played the title character, T.S. Garp. With an unconventional mother and an unconventional life, Garp exlpores feminism and tolerance with a healthy dose of “lunacy and sorry,” the book’s original title.
Christopher Nolan coaxed out the creepier side of Williams, casting him as a murderous and manipulative crime novelist. Most of the story’s psychological tension comes from Al Pacino, but the actual suspense is supplied by Williams’ Walter Finch.
Though the part of The Genie was specifically written for him, Williams turned down it down until he saw a clip of the character doing his own stand-up routine. He reportedly “laughed his ass off,” and then made millions of viewers do the same.
Sy Parish isn’t the first creepy loner Williams has played—in fact, One Hour Photo was released just a few months after Insomnia—but he might be the most nuanced villain of the usually comic actor’s oeuvre. The detachment at the far end of a sterile big box retailer leads to a desperation for human connection that breaks a fragile psyche in scary ways.
If any role was tailor made for Williams’ manic comedy timing, it’s his turn as a wartime DJ, frustrated at the U.S. Army’s censoring the truth he sees in Vietnam. “What does three up and three down mean to you, airman?” “End of an inning?”
Possibly Williams’ most iconic role, John Keating has his students ripping up textbooks, standing on desks, displaying barbaric yawps and learning to both love poetry and seize the day. A Hollywood heartstrings kind of film, no doubt, but a good one thanks to the unconventional charisma of its leading man.
Williams already had the “inspirational teacher” thing down, but he faced a bigger challenge when the student—Matt Damon’s Will Hunting—wasn’t ready to learn. Williams keeps the eccentricities in check in a subtler supporting role, but the result is a more believable and original tale.
Many of Williams’ characters dangle perilously close to the edge of sanity, but Parry has been pushed right off that cliff in The Fisher King. Terry Gilliam’s Arthurian tale is set in the present, but it still takes a fantastical journey for Jeff Bridges’ disgraced talk-show host and Williams’ homeless widower to find The Holy Grail, sweet Lydia and redemption.