With the loss of Robin Williams, who died this week at age 63 from an apparent suicide, we lose not just one of the most talented actors of the past 35 years, but we also lose maybe the most interesting movie star of his era. He was at least two or three performers rolled into one; his broad, wacky comedy a far extreme from his most sentimental drama. You could often tell which version you were going to get depending on whether the character he was playing had a beard or not. But he wasn’t that easily defined, and he could mix the humor and the emotion within the same role, or he could go very light or very dark from one movie to the next.
Below are ten of his best moments on screen, beginning with his first lead role as one of the most iconic comic strip characters of all time.
Immediately he shined in a part that was what he was, lively and fun — yet also as reserved in this sort of role as we’d ever see. We can probably thank director Robert Altman for that, but Williams wasn’t doing a lot of shtick in general on the big screen at this point. It’s interesting, too, that he went rather unrecognizable (to fans of his TV character on Mork & Mindy) in his first lead appearance.
Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
While he continued to be one of the most popular, most uproarious stand-up comedians on the stage through the 1980s, his movie career was mainly sprinkled with pathos — primarily dramatic parts with sprinkles of comedic fluorishes, such as the Soviet defector who takes Manhattan (and Brooklyn) in Paul Mazursky’s look at America from a particular point of view.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Earning his first Oscar nomination with this Vietnam War movie, he’d found one of his most suitable roles, a radio DJ who hams it up on the air but has to face the serious reality of his surroundings when he’s outside the booth. And that voice, blaring the movie’s title at the start of each broadcast, has been stuck in our heads ever since.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Teachers, too, are a great sort of part for a performer who can in one minute be so hilarious — whether over the top or deadpan — and then in the next minute lay on the business. As John Keating, he is not just an important man to his students, but he is inspiring and amusing and maybe the greatest teacher we never had. The part earned him his second Oscar nomination.
The Fisher King (1991)
Of course he could play manic and crazy, chasing invisible fairies and running from hallucinations of a frightening red knight. Not to mention waving his little guy in the breeze in the middle of Central Park. He’s also adorable as Parry, the yuppie turned prince of the homeless. Most wonderful, though, is how romantic Williams is in this Terry Gilliam movie, a side we rarely saw from the actor. And it got him yet another Oscar nomination.
It fit him so perfectly to play an animated character like the Genie, one where he could go as wild with improvisation as his heart desired. He made this movie a hit and the role an instant classic, all with the power of his vocal chords and ingenuity. We ain’t never had a friend, or performer, like him. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else speaking that blue guy’s lines.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
While possibly his most unbelievable movie, plot-wise (counting the fantasy films he’s in), this was the one that cemented him as a popular movie star. He could act, he could be up for all the awards, and he could certainly be funny anytime he wanted to be, but there’s something else involved in carrying a broad sitcom such as this. Regardless of the quality of the movie itself, he’s winning here on many levels — including in his opportunity to do cartoon voicework.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
He finally won an Academy Award for his supporting performance playing a therapist opposite Matt Damon. One of the greatest things about it is how Wiliams also improvised much of his scenes here, yet for totally different effect than something like the Genie in Aladdin. The stuff he made up still cracked up the crew, but for much more real anecdotes about idiosyncracies. He even came up with the memorable final line, proving he was just a genius all the way, not just one who could do quick jokes and impressions.
One Hour Photo (2002)
In one year, Williams appeared in three very dark movies (the other two being Death to Smoochy and Insomnia), with this being the last to come out and also the most remarkable. He was at his most unrecognizable in years, and the part signaled a new phase in his career and something of a comeback as he showed us that he could go totally unlikable.
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
If Williams hadn’t already iconically starred as one of our favorite teachers in all of cinema, this part would still stand out as one the most despicable. It’s even more starkly contrasted, though, because he’s once again leading a poetry class. He plays the father of a boy who dies accidentally, but whom he claims committed suicide, and then he cons a whole nation while exploiting the death for his own success. It’s probably his least likeable characters ever, but he plays it as brilliantly as he played all the rest.