It was almost a year ago when we heard the tragic news that one of our most beloved comedians was gone. It’s always tough to lose an artist we’ve grown to know and love, but the death of Robin Williams was a particularly painful blow for countless fans around the world. He is probably best remembered for his performances in Aladdin, Good Will Hunting, Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire and Dead Poets Society, but Williams also appeared in a wide variety of films that weren’t exactly smash hits. And not only are some of those films quite good, but they also feature some fine work from the late, great Robin Williams.
So in honor of a great man’s birthday (7/21/51), let’s run through a few of those films.
The Movie: Yes, it’s weird. Sure, it has its flaws. And yeah, it probably wasn’t the wisest choice for Mr. Williams’ big-budget debut — but I’ve loved this movie since childhood, and I still find it oddly charming today. From the brilliantly ramshackle production design and the pitch-perfect casting to the endless array of bizarre Harry Nilsson songs, there’s a lot to appreciate here. Even when the movie goes off the rails, it’s still a freaky, family-friendly spectacle worth checking out.
The Performance: Aside from the fact that I always pictured Popeye as much older than 29 (Williams’ age at the time), there’s no denying that Mr. Williams lept into the role with both feet. He nails Popeye’s mannerisms, body language and arcane muttering, but he also brings a welcome sense of warmth and sweetness to a very strange film, particularly in his later scenes with Shelly Duvall (as Olive Oyl) and little Wesley Ivan Hurt (as Swee’pea). It’s not all that difficult of a role, dramatically speaking, but Williams’ performance is a big reason why some folks still remain loyal to one of Robert Altman’s oddest films.
The Survivors (1983)
The Movie: This all-but-forgotten social satire from Michael Ritchie (The Bad News Bears) doesn’t get a whole lot of attention these days, but my friends and I watched it on VHS at least three times and ended up quoting it for months. It’s about two down-on-their-luck nice guys (Robin Williams and Walter Matthau) who butt heads with an inept criminal (Jerry Reed) and end up hiding out in a remote survivalist commune. It’s actually a lot funnier than it sounds.
The Performance: Mr. Williams’ performance goes from sweet (in Act I) to certifiably manic (in Act III), but there’s one particular sequence in which the actor strips down in a frozen wasteland and prepares to have a nervous breakdown. It’s a touching scene in the context of the film, but it was also a clear indication that Robin Williams was a whole lot more than “just” a comic actor.
The Best of Times (1986)
The Movie: There aren’t all that many great comedies about American football, which is probably why you’ll see a few (probably older) movie geeks smile whenever The Best of Times enters the conversation. It’s about two grown men (Robin Williams and Kurt Russell) who decide to re-enact their infamously tragic high school football championship. The lead actors exhibit some fantastic chemistry together, the supporting cast is aces, and the film as a whole feels sort of like a mid-’80s love letter to Frank Capra, combined with a plain old “feel good” sports comedy.
The Performance: Absolutely lovely. In order for this movie to work, the viewer has to root for Williams’ character at every turn — even when his plan for recapturing former glories turns him into sort of a sneaky rat. As in The Survivors, the man is allowed to run the gamut from energetically silly to quietly miserable, and Williams never misses a beat.
The Fisher King (1991)
The Movie: Terry Gilliam’s wondrous, brilliant, hilarious, tragic and (clearly) eclectic film is all about friendship, loneliness, loyalty, insanity, misery, and forgiveness. It’s also about a radio DJ who causes a horrific tragedy and finds a way to get past it — with the help of a man he unintentionally destroyed. If you’ve never seen this film, I am officially envious. Watch it soon.
The Performance: I can already hear the complaints: “How could this performance be underrated if it earned Robin Williams his third (of four) Oscar nominations?!?” And that’s a good question. My response is this: I firmly believe that this is the finest work of the man’s career, and it’s a film that doesn’t seem to get all that much attention these days. So I made the call. If I’ve convinced at least five people to watch this film then I am happy with my decision.
The Movie: Also known as the film Christopher Nolan made between his break-out Memento and his smash hit Batman Begins, Insomnia is also a quietly fascinating crime thriller in which Robin Williams plays a psycho and Al Pacino plays the veteran detective who has to track down clues scattered across some barren Alaskan landscapes. Whether this American remake is an “improvement” over the 1997 Norwegian export is up to the viewer, but it certainly showed that Mr. Nolan could handle big budgets and big stars without sacrificing his own calmly kick-ass style.
The Performance: By this point in his career, Robin Williams had proven (several times) that he could do drama as well as comedy, but this was the darkest character he’d ever played. And he was great. Perhaps it’s partially because we all knew him as a lovable sweetheart up to that point, but this was a lot more than a gimmick role. Williams would go on to deliver some fascinatingly darker performances in independent films like One Hour Photo, The Final Cut, The Night Listener, and World’s Greatest Dad.
There are numerous ways to “quantify” an actor’s body of work, but there’s no faking versatility. Robin Williams could make us laugh like no other, but he could also make us cry, cheer, and shiver. He is sorely missed.
Scott Weinberg is a film writer of 15-plus years for FEARnet, Cinematical, Nerdist, The Horror Show, Geek Nation, Playboy and others. He tweets at@scottEweinberg.