Robin Williams, the much-loved comedian and Oscar-winning movie star, has died, following a long battle with depression. He was 63.
I was surprised to learn of Williams’ passing as I sat down in front of the television to watch the evening news with my parents. Each year we post on social media about Hollywood’s “death watch.” The tweets are always in jest, as are the names of many of the celebrities tweeted about. Charlie Sheen…Joan Rivers…Lindsay Lohan…Andy Dick…Zsa Zsa Gabor…Abe Vigoda. This year we lost two Oscar-winning giants of stage and screen. The first, Philip Seymour Hoffman, died in February of a depression-induced drug overdose that few people saw coming, or even knew was a risk factor for the gifted actor. When he passed, social media commentary was universally consistent in its praise of Hoffman as a wunderkind of stage acting and film drama. Almost nothing was said of Hoffman in jest.
The second, Robin Williams, was found dead yesterday in his northern California home. Suicide-by-asphyxiation is believed to be the cause. Celebrity tweets are still pouring in as I write this, but if it’s possible to find an even higher-profile star than Hoffman for Hollywood to lose to depression, then Williams might be that star. Let us hope that he’s the last one for a long while to lose his life to such a devastating disease.
Top Ten Films Starring Robin Williams
The Chicago-born Williams attended Julliard (alongside the late Christopher Reeve), and although he never graduated, he left the school for a career in TV comedy that skyrocketed to great heights. “The Richard Pryor Show”… “Happy Days”… “Mork & Mindy”… Emmy-winning HBO comedy specials…1986 Oscars co-host. But it was in film that Williams found his greatest success, both critical and commercial. He received four Academy Award nominations, finally winning for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.”
I didn’t like every movie Williams made. But like the aforementioned Philip Seymour Hoffman and other greats, Robin Williams was always able to rise above bad material.
Here are my top ten favorite movies starring Robin Williams. Thanks for reading.
- Dead Poets Society (1989): This period drama, directed by Peter Weir (“Witness”), revolved equally around 1950’s Vermont prep school English teacher John Keating (Williams, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor) and the impressionable male students (Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke among them) who dubbed Keating “O Captain! My Captain!” It remains one of my all-time favorite movies in general, and is at least somewhat responsible for my love of language. Did you know that “Dead Poets Society” beat “Do the Right Thing” for the year’s Best Original Screenplay Oscar? I don’t know that it’s that great…but it is great…and possibly the best entry in the “inspirational teacher” genre.
- Good Will Hunting (1997): Arguably the most acclaimed movie in the filmography of Robin Williams, this double-Oscar winner scored Williams his only Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor. He played Sean Maguire, therapist to troubled Boston whiz kid Will Hunting (a very good Matt Damon, who penned the Oscar-winning screenplay with co-star Ben Affleck). One of the things that makes this movie hold up 17 years later is the fact that there isn’t a false note throughout. Another is the Damon/Williams dynamic. After all, it’s not the kid’s fault that his abusive childhood left him unwilling to trust people – and nor is it is true that his shrink is fully engaged in living life, either.
- Aladdin (1992): If “Aladdin” isn’t the high point of Disney’s creative resurgence that began in 1989 with “The Little Mermaid,” then the visually-dazzling, ten-laughs-a-minute musical comedy is a worthy candidate for that honor at the very least. Williams very famously voiced the genie in the lamp, and by now it’s well-known that the character was animated entirely around the actor’s manic free-form shtick, rarely more inspired than it was here. A delirious entertainment, and Williams gets much of the credit.
- Good Morning, Vietnam (1987): Many liberties were supposedly taken in this sort-of biopic about the short-lived Saigon stint by U.S. AFRC (Armed Forces Radio Services) disc jockey Adrian Cronauer (Williams, who scored his first Oscar nomination here). Rather predictably, the unorthdox deejay’s decidedly R-rated on-air material lands him in hot water. A less predictable subplot follows Cronauer’s budding relationship with a local Vietnamese woman (Chintara Sukapatana). I won’t say anymore in the event that you haven’t seen the film. (And if you haven’t, you should.) It would seem that Williams was born to play this role. “Good Morning, Vietnam” grossed over $120 million, which was serious box office in 1987.
- Mrs. Doubtfire (1993): One of the most uproariously funny movies in Williams’s oeuvre, made at the peak of his career (and supposedly being mined for a possible sequel at the time of his passing). In this end-of-year smash, Williams plays a doting, divorced, screw-up of a father who means well but risks losing custody of his three kids. After losing his job (he’s a bit of a non-conformist, like John Keating and Adrian Cronauer), he reinvents himself as the title character, a proper British nanny who cleans house, shapes up the kids, and even impresses mom (a game Sally Field). Like most Williams comedies, this one packs a fair amount of pathos to go along with the comedy, but the mix is just right.
- Awakenings (1990): Robin Williams should’ve received a Best Supporting Actor nomination and Robert DeNiro should have won Best Actor for “Awakenings.” The film is the Americanized telling of what really happened when a neurologist (Williams, restrained but touching) tries a new drug, L-Dopa, on encephalitis-afflicted catatonics. One patient in particular, Leonard (a stunning DeNiro, in the second-best performance of his career) exhibits new signs of life…but will the effect be short-lived? This is a moving film, sensitively directed by Penny Marshall. Williams dials down his usual mania – as he did in the previous year’s “Dead Poets Society” – and brings a light, humorous touch to proceedings that could have wandered into treacly Lifetime Channel territory if handled by lesser talent.
- Insomnia (2002): Twelve years or so ago, Williams starred in a trio of dark films, playing men you wouldn’t want as your next door neighbors. His character in Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia,” in particular, is a real creeper. In Nolan’s atmospheric remake (of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name), he plays Walter Finch, a reclusive crime novelist in remote Nightmute, Alaska who may or may not have killed a local teen. Williams is scary-good here, and spars well with co-star Al Pacino, who plays the cop on the case.
- The Fisher King (1991): It has been a long time since I last watched this 1991 comedy by “Brazil” director/”Monty Python” alumnus Terry Gilliam. Williams received his third Best Actor Oscar nomination as Parry, a homeless New Yorker on a quest to find the Holy Grail. Parry meets Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a suicidal radio shock jock, and enlists Jack’s help on his quest. The film I recall is wonderfully off-beat, with a full roster of terrific performances. Watch for Michael Jeter as a cross-dressing singing telegram deliverer.
- A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): I almost left this movie off the list as Williams has just one scene here – and a voice-only role at that. However, “A.I.” merits a mention simply for what it is. Ultimately, it is somewhat of a misfire, with a few under-written plot twists, a polarizing ending, and a bit too much third-act schmaltz. But it is an interesting misfire, directed by Steven Spielberg, who took over for the late Stanley Kubrick. Williams ably voices Dr. Know, a holographic “Ask Jeeves” of the post-apocalyptic future, called upon by a lonely android (Haley Joel Osment, two years after “The Sixth Sense”) with questions about his modus operandi.
- The Birdcage (1996): This is the last great Robin Williams film comedy, and thus constitutes a good choice to conclude this list. A remake of 1978’s “La Cage aux Folles,” it stars Williams and Nathan Lane as a happily-gay couple living in Miami as owner (Williams) and star (Lane) of a South Beach drag club. I won’t say much more except to say that it was directed by Mike Nichols of “The Graduate” fame; this movie works best when you don’t know much about what happens next.
What is your favorite Robin Williams movie, Loyal Reader? Please let us know in the comments section below!