Robin Williams died yesterday, of an apparent suicide. He was 63.
Williams was a talented actor and comedian, without doubt. Known early in his career primarily as a funny-man and later as a multi-faceted character actor, he had a charisma and exuberance, on stage or screen, unlike any other. It was impossible to mistake Robin Williams.
That energy imbued his many comedic roles, but Williams could also tame his wild-man persona to great effect. He did it throughout his career, in roles as diverse as the inspirational English teacher John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, to the creeping, silent Sy Parrish in One Hour Photo. Williams won an Oscar, much deserved, for his portrayal of the professor and psychologist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting.
It is perhaps too easy to forget how powerful a presence Robin Williams held in popular culture in the 1980s and 90s. His work in those years was consistently moving and absolutely hilarious. Those are the years that hold the fondest recollections of Williams for us at The Stake. Below, contributors remember their favorite Robin Williams roles.
Robin Williams was my first favorite comedian—and the reason was 1992’s Aladdin. I was nine. Disney was three films into a 90s animation renaissance, and Aladdin was, perhaps, the least of the films of that period, which began with The Little Mermaid and reached its pinnacle and end with The Lion King. But it’s still my favorite, due entirely to the movie-stealing performance of Robin Williams in the role of the Genie.
The movie itself was fairly typical of the Disney animated features of the time—catchy musical numbers, dumb jokes, male heroes with million-dollar smiles, princesses with thin waists and enormous eyes. But Williams’ Genie was this other thing, a comic presence completely foreign to the world of the film. He was exuberant, he was delightful, and he was just a little bit dangerous. Animation turned out to be a perfect medium for Williams, as each of his flights of fancy, each of his voices, each of his impressions, each of his comedic gambits found visual expression on the screen. I didn’t understand half of what he was up to. But he still made me laugh.
I’d go on to discover Robin Williams in other, better work. I’d see his dramatic range in Awakenings and Good Will Hunting. I’d watch his standup and find that the dangerous exuberance of his comic genius had depths that my nine-year-old mind couldn’t begin to fathom. But Aladdin is where I first discovered him. It’s still (I think) his best purely comedic film role, the one best suited to his irrepressible talents. It was the first time he ever made me laugh.
And for that, I’m grateful.
Robin Williams was a staple of my childhood. I spent many hours lying on our old brown sofa, recovering from bronchitis or flu, watching Mork and Mindy. “Nanu, nanu!” was my victory cry during those early years. Later on, I was riveted by Hook and shed plenty of tears when Rufio, a Lost Boy, died in Peter’s arms. A few years later, Williams starred as Mrs. Doubtfire. I laughed myself silly during his tortured impersonations of an older woman.
Williams had beautiful whimsy with a touch of sadness underneath. He was the perfect adult Peter Pan. The gentle sadness in his eyes made the truth of the adult Peter once being a Lost Boy fully believable. And the comedy he delivered in Mrs. Doubtfire had an under note of that same sad note of truth—life is hard so we must find things to laugh about. He embodied sadness and joy at the same time and that’s what made him so funny and at the same time, so moving.
Robin Williams will, forever, be Peter Pan. I see no way around this. The nature of the man himself requires us to recall his youthful energy and charisma, and as such, I will always attach Robin Williams to Hook. I, like most kids my age, loved Hook. When the film was new, I remember being far less interested in William’s portrayal of Pan than I was of Rufio and the Lost Boys. I loved that rag-tag group of kids. But I’ve re-watched the film a few times, in High School, college, and since, catching it on television or with the family, and that attachment has long changed. Williams’ performance as Peter Banning, like so many throughout his career, is highly comedic, and very sad. Peter Pan as a story is built on nostalgia for one’s youth, and who out there might possibly embody a longing for the ageless life of Pan better than Robin Williams?
If I’m honest about Robin Williams, with a few exceptions, I recall little he has done in the past ten years. But his career spanned decades, and there were stretches of that career, including my formative childhood movie watching years, that were brilliant. He had great highs, as a dramatic actor. His work in Good Will Hunting is lovely and effective, and the change he underwent to play Sy in the very underrated One Hour Photo remains a marvel. But he will, for me, always be the Robin Williams of Hook: running around with kids as Peter Banning, searching desperately for a way to maintain his youth, but always with the somber realization that we must grow old.