The Underrated Acting Legacy of Robin Williams

People are writing about Robin Williams. There will be much more writing about him. It started on social media, when the sad and horrifying news of his death, by apparent suicide, broke last night; it felt like we knew him, so long had he been a part of our lives, and we wanted to talk about him. Now there are obituaries and testimonials, remembrances and praise. Because Mr. Williams’ talent was so copious, because he did — and excelled at — so many things, there are many ways to consider him: as a groundbreaking stand-up comedian, as a childhood hero (if you’re my age, it’s from Mork and Popeye; for younger viewers, it’s Aladdin and Doubtfire and Jumanji), as a humanitarian, as a mentor, as an open book who shared his struggles with substances and mental health. He was all of those things. He was also one of our most talented and versatile actors—a man whose gifts were, through much of his life, wildly underappreciated.

Is it possible for an actor who was literally an Oscar winner to be underrated? In Williams’ case, absolutely. Over the course of a nearly 40-year career, he amassed something like 100 credits, and among them were a handful of performances as bracing, vivid, and gutsy as any actor of his generation. But there is a sense that, throughout his career (even on the night when he won that Oscar, or when he was nominated for three others), he was never really given his due as a Serious Actor, for three reasons.

First, he came from television — and in a very different era from our own, where actors traverse that divide with far greater frequency and ease. But Robin Williams gained worldwide fame from a television sitcom where he played a wacky alien, which is a considerable handicap when trying to get people to take you seriously. Second, there was always an assumption that, even in his dramatic work, he was “just” a comedian, another funny guy trying to impress us with his serious streak; the omnipresence of his comic persona, the often-exhausting talk show appearances where his rapid-fire, motor-mouthed turns frequently played like carefully-prepared schtick, made it seem like his real acting was just a lark, rather than the other way around.

And finally, he did do a lot of bad movies. There were desperate comedies like RV, Father’s Day, and License to Wed, which relied too heavily on his improvisational skills, and ended up with stand-alone riffs that alienated the performer from the narrative, and thus the audience from the film. After his Oscar win in 1997, there was a series of woefully syrupy films (What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams, Jakob the Liar) that played like a naked grab from another golden boy. There were “family films” like Flubber, Robots, and Old Dogs, which seemed designed as dares to the poor parents who had to sit through them. And there were inexplicable oddities like Toys, House of D, and Bicentennial Man, about which the less said, the better.

And yet. The sheer volume of work is remarkable; Williams kept working, constantly, and if one can wish he’d been choosier, it’s also worth noting that when you sift out those bad films, there are as many great performances — more, probably — than less prolific contemporaries like Bill Murray or Richard Gere (who are roughly the same age). The popular narrative, forwarded at the time and in place since, was that Williams never really found a proper screen vehicle until 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam, but that’s poppycock. His first starring role, in 1980’s Popeye (a film much maligned upon its release, steadily reappraised and rightfully beloved in the years since) is an astonishing bit of work that transcends mere mimicry; Williams isn’t just “doing” Popeye, but becomes him, disappears into the role so completely that it’s impossible to find him in it, and after a while you stop even looking. His first dramatic turn, in George Roy Hill’s adaptation of The World According to Garp, has also aged beautifully—Garp is, in many ways, a passive character, a man who things happen to, and yet there’s never a sense that Williams is playing him passively. His quiet melancholy, one of his best and least-praised qualities, rarely found a smoother fit. His warm and likable turn as a Russian musician defecting to the U.S. in Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson was another impressive immersion, and his searing work in the underseen 1986 television adaptation of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day is a master class in the playing of modest, everyday tragedy.

But Good Morning, Vietnam was the picture that made him a movie star at long last, and it couldn’t have been more custom-made for the task; Airman Adrian Cronauer’s on-air monologues gave Williams the opportunity to let his improvisational gifts run riot, while director Barry Levinson carefully constructed a serious war-movie framework that took the smile off Williams’ face (much as the real war did for his character). It got him his first Oscar nomination; he nabbed another two years later for Dead Poets Society, and another two years after that for The Fisher King. All three films — along with Bobcat Goldthwait’s gutty and extraordinary World’s Greatest Dad, which features Williams’ most unfairly overlooked performance — showcased what he could do when his comic and serious sensibilities merged; all gave him juicy dramatic beats to tackle, while indulging complimentary moments of levity. They showed us funny men, and showed the pain that made them tick; they may turn out to be the closest we get to autobiography.

But Williams the actor was most impressive when he took on roles that straight-jacketed his comic instincts entirely. They took away his safety net, and watching an extrovert like Williams play a painfully shy introvert like Dr. Malcolm Sayer in Awakenings is as stunning a display of versatility and skill now as it was when the picture first unspooled in 1990. The overwhelming sorrow harnessed in his 1994 appearance on Homicide: Life on the Streets, the emotional intensity of his work in 2002’s One Hour Photo, the transcendence of “evil villain” tropes in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia remake — these rank among the very best film acting of our time. This was not a funny guy showing off; this was a Julliard-trained actor seeking out new challenges and exploring the edges of his considerable gifts. Even movies that don’t work overall, like Being Human, The Final Cut, and The Night Listener, have moments where Williams finds a gesture, a look, or an offhand line reading that brings the entire character into sharp focus.

But what was most striking about Robin Williams was his generosity as an actor. When he made The Birdcage in 1996, he was a bigger comic star than Nathan Lane, by far; yet he plays the “straight man” in their uproarious two-act, ceding the picture to his wildly funny co-star, instead finding the truth (and humor) in being the stable one in their sweet relationship (which was, by the way, the kind of lived-in, homey homosexual relationship that rarely made it to the screen then — hell, even now). He has two big scenes in Good Will Hunting, the 1997 film that finally got him that Oscar, but here’s what’s interesting about them: he underplays both. The park bench scene between him and Matt Damon’s title character is all his words, and it starts in a single close-up of the speaker. But director Gus Van Sant slowly, carefully moves and widens, bringing Damon into the edge of the frame — and then he switches angles, centering Damon, even though he says not one single word. He understood, as Williams did, that the focus of the scene wasn’t the therapist’s words; it was Will hearing them.

But the key scene, the one that makes this viewer weep every time I watch that film and provoked the same response (times ten) when viewing it as a standalone last night, is the long-awaited “breakthrough,” where Williams’ Sean finally brings up the horrifying violence his patient was subjected to in his youth, and says four, simple, direct words to him: “It’s not your fault.” Will shrugs it off, yeah, sure, I know. But Sean keeps saying them, over and over, like an incantation, until they get through, and Williams’ acting is so clean and uncomplicated, he makes what could have been a hoary melodrama into something utterly heartbreaking. He doesn’t raise his voice and he doesn’t overact—if anything, he does less each time he says those four words. It is Damon’s scene, and the emoting is Damon’s to do. Williams’ job is to get him there, with the simplicity of the language. And he does so, magnificently.

The scene is particularly hard to watch now because of what we know of Williams’ struggles with mental illness, which seem to have ultimately taken his life; he could deliver the powerful message that “it’s not your fault” in a scene, but could not hear it in his life. But there is an honesty in that scene, and in the best of what he did onscreen, that could not be faked. It was shocking to hear, in yesterday’s police reports, that Williams was 63 years old — sure, he’d been around forever, but he seemed so much younger than that, so vibrant, so energetic, so full of life and high on its possibilities. But 63 is still young for an actor, and now it seems inescapable that we were robbed of the opportunity to watch him become a crusty old character actor. Yet the body of work that remains is astonishing: Popeye, Garp, Moscow on the Hudson, Seize the Day, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Dead Again, The Fisher King, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage, Good Will Hunting, Insomnia, One Hour Photo, World’s Greatest Dad, Homicide, Louie. Any actor worth his salt would pray for a resumé like that. Robin Williams was many things to many people, but to me, he was always an actor, first and foremost — and one of our best.