I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t know who Robin Williams was. Many like myself, who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, I always knew Mork from Ork. I watched “Popeye” every time it played on HBO (which was a lot). I sat through every long season of “Comic Relief,” even when my parents should have reconsidered what a kid my age was doing taking in three hours of highly profane stand-up routines. After “Popeye,” the first movie I saw starring Williams was “Moscow on the Hudson.” His Russian accent was so good (far better than most done by American actors in films) and his characterization so layered, I wasn’t convinced I was watching the same guy who once sang “I Yam What I Yam” to Olive Oyl.
As a teenager, I was witness to one of the greatest comebacks by an actor, as Williams finally broke through in film. Yes, he was a Julliard-trained actor who once roomed with Christopher Reeve. Yes, he was hilarious and adorably odd playing an alien on two TV sitcoms and, so I’ve been told, his performance opposite Steve Martin in “Waiting For Godot” on Broadway was brilliant. Yet, at first, the movies weren’t working.
Williams has never shied away from talking about “The Popeye Years,” as he called them, when his film choices were unfortunate. It’s easy to see why: based on his stand-up and Orc, who the hell would you cast this guy as?! Too many just-watchable time killers like “Club Paradise” and “The Best of Times” littered Williams’ creative output. Then “Good Morning, Vietnam” happened. It was the perfect union of his seemingly bottomless comic brilliance and his strength as a dramatic actor (watch it again if you haven’t seen it in years. It’s funny, but it’s not a comedy). That followed with “Dead Poets Society,” in which Williams, paired with the brilliant director Peter Weir, again reigned in his ability for farce and gave a beautifully understated turn. “The Fisher King” came next, and it’s my favorite turn that showcases his ability for comedy and drama in a movie that matched his out-there brilliance. Along came “Aladdin,” where his vocal performance as The Genie was so beloved, many questioned whether an award could be given for voice actors in animated films.
Williams finally won an Academy Award for his moving portrayal in “Good Will Hunting,” but some of his best work remains underappreciated. If you haven’t seen him in “One Hour Photo,” “Awakenings” or “World’s Greatest Dad,” you’re missing some of the best performances he ever gave on film. The hard-to-find “Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent” featured Williams in an uncredited supporting role as a sinister mad bomber. He’s as terrifying (and surprisingly persuasive playing “bad guys”) in that as he is in “One Hour Photo” and “Insomnia.”
His more sentimental films, like “Hook” and “What Dreams May Come,” demonstrate truths and pain in characters that could have been sappy stick figures. Williams also played Dwight D. Eisenhower and Teddy Roosevelt, acted the words of William Shakespeare, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow and John Irving, and once performed the voice of a horny penguin named Ramon. He could play anything.
My favorite of his films is the flawed, unloved but beautiful, profound “Being Human.” It’s a 20-year old oddity in which Williams plays five guys named Hector who lived at different times in human history. Williams makes the simple connections between these men a lesson in the universal struggle for happiness.
I haven’t mentioned his stand-up career, where he was one of the greatest comedians, up there with Richard Pryor and George Carlin. His 2009 “Weapons of Self Destruction” concert is as funny as his famous “A Night at the Met” and any of his talk show appearances or “Comic Relief” sets. I failed to bring up “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” his Tony nominated Broadway performance in which he played, yes, a tiger. I’m forgetting that Williams played “The Frog Prince” in Fairy Tale Theater, that he was an enthusiastic gamer, techie, and performed USO shows.
There’s so much he gave us. Like many, I will mourn his death and re-visit his work often. I only regret that I never told him Thank You, for all that he did. And na-nu, na-nu.