Since his death yesterday, Robin Williams has been memorialized through countless tributes, including Flavorwire’s own. As a performer, however, Williams will mostly live on through his work. A nearly four-decade career has left us with a wealth of characters, running the gamut from dramatic to comedic, stirring to hysterical. Here are some of the roles and performances that meant the most to Flavorwire staffers, from Dead Poets Society to Jumanji.
Late Night with David Letterman, 1989
Confession: I was something of a Robin Williams fanatic when I was younger. I loved Mork, I loved Popeye, hell, I even liked Club Paradise. So I couldn’t pick a favorite performance if I had to; instead, I went back this morning and rewatched this appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, circa summer 1989, to promote Dead Poets Society. My fandom was at its absolute zenith in that post-Good Morning, Vietnam period (no exaggeration: I had a cardboard standee of Williams in Vietnam, begged off my neighborhood video store, prominently displayed in the corner of my bedroom. Whaddaya want, I was 13), and I couldn’t have been more excited for Dead Poets, so I videotaped this Letterman appearance and watched it I don’t know how many times. In lieu of a clip from the film, and in a perfect marriage of Letterman’s inventiveness and Robin’s improvisation, Letterman sent a remote camera to a nearby theater showing Dead Poets, figuring they’d just wander in and shoot it off the screen. It doesn’t quite work out, but it’s awfully funny — and in a way that avoids the kind of weary schtick that his talk show appearances would too often lapse into in later years. — Jason Bailey, Film Editor
Honestly, who else but Robin Williams could have pulled off a middle-aged Peter Pan? Critics mostly hated this movie, but that’s because they don’t like joy. Hook is a weird, chugging fantasy, and boasts Williams at his most campy, even while he’s playing the straight-man hero for a change. Seriously, the man could do anything — even fly. Bangarang! — Emily Temple, Contributor/Literary Editor Emerita
Good Will Hunting
I saw Good Will Hunting in the theater. Repeatedly. While my peers were watching Titanic and crying, I was watching Will Hunting try to compile a life out of incredibly difficult circumstances, coping with being a smart townie, born into nothing, coming across something like an opportunity to make the world a better place because of your big old brain, but getting stuck, every time, because of all his pain. I’m not quite sure what the magic was that made the movie get under my skin — the sad, gossamer songs of Elliott Smith? The way Boston looked like a sepia-toned dream, even when beautiful boys are beating the shit out of other beautiful boys? The debuts of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck?
Or was it the sensitivity and listening that I saw in Robin Williams, tamping down his energy, broadening his A’s, and putting on a scally cap as the world’s best therapist, Sean Maguire? Williams’ role was a crucial part of the story. He’s what makes the film sing, and it’s because he’s a small, square, smart guy, and he’s able to call out Will on his bullshit, every time. He challenges him to really fall in love, to really feel feelings, and when Will hits the wall with all the trauma he’s been dealt in his life, Maguire has one reply: “It’s not your fault.” You remember that scene. “It’s not your fault.” Matt Damon is crying. “It’s not your fault.” And it’s really beautiful — there are those moments in therapy, in connection, and they can break your brain open and help you get over yourself. “It’s not your fault.” There was a lifetime’s worth of emotion in those lines. It made Will Hunting give up on his townie life, since he had to go see about a girl. — Elisabeth Donnelly, Nonfiction Editor
Dead Poets Society
All day I’ve wanted to stand on my desk and say, “O Captain! My Captain!” It feels like the most fitting tribute to Robin Williams (and yes, I’ve seen it happening online today, too), because we’ve already seen it enacted as a tribute to him, in that most famous scene from Dead Poets Society. I’ve felt an imagined kinship with Williams since his role as the warm John Keating, who teaches his students both to seize the day and to appreciate poetry for its feelings above its technical merits. I saw the film for the first time sophomore year of high school, when my wacky, Walt Whitman-loving English teacher played it for us. Surely she saw herself in Williams’ Keating, and we saw him in her as well.
Like Keating, Ms. Schellhous taught us about Whitman and his barbaric yawp, the Transcendentalists, the Beats, and Salinger in a way that made us appreciate literature in a richer, more personal way than we knew possible in the classroom. Williams, in the character of Keating and outside of it, has been a second beloved teacher to me since Dead Poets Society, and it is his performance on that DVD that I watch over and over when the drudgery of life threatens to drown out all the magic that literature can conjure up. He’s always there onscreen to remind us, as the living embodiment of Thoreau’s words, not to live a life of quiet desperation – even if he was living one himself. — Isabella Biedenharn, Editorial Apprentice
Before I watched Dead Poets Society, before I saw reruns of Mork and Mindy, before I knew some people got paid to talk into a microphone and be funny and Robin Williams was one of them, I was a ’90s kid hooked on Aladdin. The love story went over my six-year-old head, as did 80 percent of the plot, but Williams’ performance as the Genie made perfect sense. Channeling his versatility and lightning-fast pace through a medium that could match him joke for joke, Aladdin made Williams one of the most beloved performers of my childhood — even though it’d be years before I knew what he even looked like. — Alison Herman, Editorial Assistant
Robin Williams was an actor that kids could get behind. His uncanny knack for impersonations and voice manipulation — or, as he puts it in Mrs. Doubtfire, “I do voices!” — made him a character rather a man, even when he took a role as a mere mortal. Obviously, the point of being an actor is to be someone else — many someone elses, in fact — but Williams showed his ability to play multiple characters within a few of his family-focused features. His role in Mrs. Doubtfire was built around this ability to tear in and out of wildly different personalities, and in three separate montages in the film (the interview with his social worker, the makeover scene, and the telephone scene with Sally Field), Williams does this as if it’s his most natural state. Though he was likely improvising much of the dialogue in these scenes, his ridiculous lines — “I don’t work with the males cuz I used to be one,” “I am job,” “We’ve come to this planet searching for intelligent life… oops, we made a mistake” — became catchphrases in my childhood household. Everything became a little more joyful with a Doubtfire reference, and for that, I can’t thank Williams enough. — Jillian Mapes, Music Editor
Jumanji is, unquestionably, not Robin Williams’ best movie, but it’s definitely the one that I’ve watched the most. It was one of my absolute favorite films as a kid because I was into weird, idiosyncratic stories about other worlds. On the surface, it’s a children’s movie about a fantastical board game that brings the jungle to civilization, but upon watching it later, it’s easy to see how it’s also about escapism and trauma. Outside of all the fun visuals and childish adventure, Williams’ Alan Parrish is a deeply troubled and lonely man. His childhood was lost — and one of his last actions in the real world, before being sucked into the jungle for nearly 30 years — is a silly fight with his father that looms over the whole movie. Williams was ace at teetering the line between child and adult, between wild and civilian, and between sadness and joy. — Pilot Viruet, TV Editor