He Will be Missed; Robin Williams’ Best Performances

Williams at "American Idol," picture by Mark Terrill, via AP
Williams at “American Idol,” picture by Mark Terrill, via AP

“Robin Williams found dead by apparent suicide,” said a tweet by the Huffington Post.

Shock. Sadness. Outrage. Robin Williams’ suicide yields a sharp jab at the loss of one of the world’s great entertainers. With four projects wrapped up, all slated to come out within a year—including a sequel to 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb—Williams always starred in films that moved us. Charisma, range, presence, humor, and humanity. Williams carried all these traits in spades—he was one of the master movie stars in cinema history.

Robin Williams with Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo on Saturday Night Live in 1984, photo by Suzanna Vlamis, via AP
Robin Williams with Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo on Saturday Night Live in 1984, photo by Suzanna Vlamis, via AP

There have long been studies linking creativity with mental illness and there’s certainly a glaring connection between those whose lives burn so bright but fade far too early. Artists—from Frida Kahlo to Mark Rothko, Sylvia Plath to David Foster Wallace, and Albert Ayler to Kurt Cobain—all took their lives prematurely. But there’s something that makes Williams’ death all the more shocking: he seemed to have beaten back the darkness. He was clean for years and the cocaine abuse that he turned into razor-sharp comedy in the ’70s and ’80s was long behind him. He did relapse into alcoholism in 2006 and had to get heart surgery in 2009. But other than that, he was healthy. He had even just married graphic designer Susan Schneider and seemed happy. His rep Mara Buxbaum told the press that he had been battling severe depression up until the time of his death, and he recently made his second trip to rehab. It’s impossible to know at this point just what brought back such wrenching depression back into Williams’ life. Perhaps we’ll never know.

Williams’ struggles with depression were well-documented. All you would have to do is to watch his standup routines to see that despite his impossibly warm and fun demeanor, he carried pain beneath that facade. As a child, he would often perform impressions that he got exceedingly good at to his grandmother. And he once said that joining drama school was the only thing that allowed him to come out of his shell before getting a scholarship to attend Juilliard. It’s possible that his shyness that debilitated him as a youth did not fade away as he grew to be one of the world’s most celebrated stars.

Williams Performs "Blame Canada" from the "South Park" movie at the 2000 Academy Awards, photo by Getty Images
Williams Performs “Blame Canada” from the “South Park” movie at the 2000 Academy Awards, photo by Getty Images

Whatever the case, on August 11, 2014, depression took another one of America’s greatest talents. At his best, he was one of the most dynamic actors out there, chameleonic in his breadth of emotions and forceful in his presence. His cocksure but quirky acting style allowed him a range of humanity that most leading men couldn’t dream of. He could make you cry. He could scare you senseless. He could infuriate you. And, oh boy, could he make you laugh. Let’s remember the man who moved us in a myriad ways in his stand-up, his television shows, and his movies. Here are the 10 greatest performances of Robin Williams’ career.

1. Mork & Mindy
Originally a Happy Days spinoff series, producers were so impressed with then-unknown actor Robin Williams and his turn in the popular program that they cast him in his own series as his HD character Mork, an alien that had come from space in a one-man egg spaceship. The shows demonstrated Williams’ considerable impression prowess as Mork adjusted to human culture, but the show quickly declined in its third season and was cancelled during its fourth.

2. An Evening with Robin Williams (1982)
One of the most interesting aspects of Williams’ career is that he initially went into dramatic acting following Juilliard and only turned to comedy to get work. But his comedy is as popular as his acting, and interestingly it has always held him back from acting respect despite making him multi-faceted. But this show  in Williams’ hometown of San Francisco is everything that made his comedy great. Over the top, biographical, dark, and zany, Williams pours himself into the routine.

3. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Loosely based on the experiences of DJ Adrian Cronauer, in this Barry Levinson-directed film WIlliams plays a wartime DJ in Vietnam who is loved by soldiers and hated by superiors. Though the story is little man takes on the big man cliché, Williams brings uncommon humanity to the role. We are rooting from the very first shout of, “GOOOOOOD MORNINGGG, VIETNAMMMM!”

4. Awakenings (1990)
In this Penny Marshall DIrected-film, Williams plays a fictionalized Oliver Sacks (named Malcolm Sayer) who was a doctor that treated multiple encephalitis patients by catatonia, waking them up during the events of the film. Williams shines alongside real dramatic heavyweights like Robert De Niro as one of the patients, letting the world know he indeed was a real dramatic actor.

5. The Fisher King (1992)
Pairing up Williams with Monty Python alum-turned subversive director Terry Gilliam proved inspired. In the film, Williams plays a homeless man who has lost everything alongside a sleazy radio DJ played by Jeff Bridges who feels responsible towards Williams’ down-and-out. The movie is entirely based around the lead actors’ relationship, and watching their friendship blossom touches and resonates in a way that Gilliam films don’t often reach for. Williams earned his first Academy Award nomination for the film, and the film has inspired a cult following.

6. Aladdin (1992)
Williams was furious with Disney when he agreed to voice the genie under the conditions that his voice never be appropriated, which obviously didn’t happen. But Williams’s voice performance shows how even just his delivery could elevate a mediocre children’s film into something that has remained an indelible stain on the consciousness of America.

7. Good Will Hunting (1997)
The film where Williams finally beat back the criticisms that he was a comedian and not an actor. As the eponymous Will Hunting’s therapist, Williams displays remarkable pain, loss, and grief but also a twinge of hope in what he sees in future for this boy. He knows if he could just help him, then perhaps he has a chance. Awarded an Oscar for best supporting actor for the role, will any of us ever forget the, “It’s not your fault scene?”

8. Insomnia (2002)
A small crime thriller from Christopher Nolan following the success of Memento, the director found Williams to be perfect for his creepy, murdering villain. As few actors could do, Williams finds the humanity of his character even under the most despicable guise, and went head-to-head against Al Pacino in a battle of wits and dramatic tag.

9. One Hour Photo (2002)
Call 2002 Williams’ creepy year. In Mark Romanek’s feature film debut, Williams plays Sy, an emotionally stunted and lonely man who becomes obsessed with a family that he develops photographs for. Williams oozes tragic pathetic and zany-eyed madness as things continue to get worse for the character throughout the film. Channeling classic Hitchcock as well as flashier modern camera techniques, One Hour Photo is easily one of the most underrated films about the unknown depths of psychosis.

10. World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
This  film was released in 2009 to little fan fare, which is a shame because it’s the best late-life performance of his career. He plays a father whose son accidentally dies due to auto-erotic asphyxiation and covers up the death as as to avoid embarrassment. The film explores how people are posthumously elevated beyond their stature in life, and could possibly become a topic in the weeks following Williams’ suicide.