Our Favorite Robin Williams Performances

We reflect on the Robin Williams performances that left impressions on our lives.

You wouldn’t expect to be so affected by the death of a man that you’ve never met. We never spoke to Robin Williams, but he surely spoke to all of us. With his bombastic, chameleon-like voice and bottle rocket energy, Williams was a comedic spark plug with a heart that seemed too large to fit his small stature. He came into the national consciousness playing an alien, which was fitting, because his talent and range were out of this world.

We knew he was funny. Williams sprinted across standup stages with a vigor and ferocity unmatched by his peers, practically pleading with audiences to forget their troubles and laugh at his, but when Williams started to gain traction on movie screens in the ‘80s, we saw that fierceness churning from within his tiny, kind eyes while tackling dramatic roles that called for delicate, tender emotion. There are too many iconic Williams roles to list. Often, it seemed like Robin Williams wasn’t just picking projects to entertain, he was taking parts that inspired, that lifted spirits, which brought families together and taught lessons about what it meant to be human.

Later in his career, Robin Williams reminded audiences just how masterful a dramatic actor he could be, subverting expectations and preconceived notions of his persona by bringing dark, complex, and decidedly non-family friendly characters to life. In these challenging roles, Williams brought pathos that merely scratched the surface of the multitude of issues the man faced in his life, and audiences could always empathize with him, no matter how ugly the characters could get.

Robin Williams was a true treasure whose vitality and expressiveness seeped off the screen and brought out laughter, tears, and thoughtfulness in all of us. Few actors have a filmography more diverse, and though he is gone, his legacy on film will last several lifetimes. Members of the Den of Geek staff have pooled together to talk about the Robin Williams roles that affected them the most. We have their reflections on this incredible performer below.

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Mrs. Doubtfire

Being younger than most of the Den of Geek staff, my impression of Robin Williams is probably a little different. For me, and most people my age, Robin Williams was the first movie star we could recognize. His films were such an integral part of mine and so many others’ childhoods that he was less an actor and more like an old, familiar friend, someone that had been there for us for our whole lives. I’m writing about the impact that Mrs. Doubtfire had on me, but I just as easily could be waxing on Hook, Aladdin, Jumanji, or Flubber – films that I’ve seen countless times, endlessly repeated, sometimes twice in one sitting. Williams had a warmth that drew you in and the rambunctious energy of a child that made him instantly relatable.

I’m the youngest of three children, and once my older sister could dial the phone, babysitters and “nannies” were few and far between. The television became my babysitter, and by proxy, I guess Mrs. Doubtfire did too. My brother, sister, and I played the Mrs. Doubtfire VHS so many times that it had to be replaced. We jumped up and down on the couch when Williams’ Daniel character blared House of Pain’s “Jump Around” at his kid’s birthday party. We cackled endlessly at Williams trying on different facial prosthetics applied by Harvey Fierstein, not noticing at the time that this was our first exposure to an openly gay character. When Daniel catches his bust on fire attempting to make dinner, or when he loses his dentures in a restaurant with his wife and her new love interest, Pierce Brosnan, who at that time we knew as James Bond, we couldn’t help but explode in laughter.

 My absolute favorite scene as a child was when Daniel had to meet with his social worker as both himself and Doubtfire. When he can’t apply his facemask quickly enough, he covers his face with whipped cream, emerging from the refrigerator with a big, “HELLLOOOOO,” then loses bits as it drips off into his and Mrs. Sellner’s coffee. You couldn’t let me near the Cool Whip, because I would surely try to imitate.

One of the biggest things that resonates now as I think about Mrs. Doubtfire is Williams’ role, not as a cross-dressing nanny, but as a desperate father just aching to spend more time with his kids. I’ve always had a very close relationship with my own father, and Williams’ anguish and extreme effort to be around his children reminded me of my own Dad and the way he would do everything in his power to spend time with me, and see me happy. Even as a child, the idea of kids being separated from their Dad was so unfair and saddening to me that I rooted for their reunion just as hard the 300th time I watched the movie as I did the very first. Mrs. Doubtfire may be a silly comedy with laughs mainly derived by a man in drag, but it also taught me about the harsh realities of a broken home.

I have so many fond memories huddled on the couch with my siblings, laughing at Robin Williams in this movie, but as I said, the same could be said about Jumanji and Aladdin. I never had a friend like Robin, but I watched so often because I wanted one. Thank you for laughs, Mr. Williams. If you only knew how much you meant to so many. – Nick Harley

Popeye

I’m going to get this out of the way right up front: Robert Altman’s Popeye isn’t necessarily a very good movie, and it’s not even my favorite Robin Williams movie (that would be The Fisher King). It was, however, my first real exposure to Robin Williams. Inescapable on HBO during my childhood, I’ve probably seen Popeye in fragments more than any other film, but could count the number of times I’ve seen it straight through on one hand. Watching it as a grown-up, Popeye borders on interminable at times (particularly the final few minutes), but Williams, in his first starring role, gives it everything he’s got.

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I have to wonder just how many of Popeye‘s many mumbled asides were ad-libbed by Williams. In particular, during the movie’s best moment, when he comes face to face with Ray Walston as Popeye’s pop, Poopdeck Pappy. “His mother ups and dies, and he wouldn’t eat his spinach!” To which, barely audible, Williams replies with an almost apologetic shrug, “She choked on it, Pa.” 

Perhaps another actor could have nailed the broad mannerisms of the beloved cartoon icon, but not the timing (his reaction when someone’s fashion accessory suddenly looks up and growls at him) or the physical comedy (despite Popeye’s awkward, swaggering walk, he has a few remarkably jaunty bandy-legged dance moves, executed with perfect grace). Could anyone else have done all that AND delivered songs like “Blow me Down” with a straight face or “Swee’Pea’s Lullaby” with the necessary sincerity? I doubt it. If Robin could believe he was Popeye, then so could I.

A year or two later, I’d sneak viewings of Williams’ far too dirty for my young brain standup specials on HBO. Watching Williams swear with impunity and talk openly (and at tremendous volume and speed) about subjects I knew nothing of, like drugs, sex, and booze in front of throngs of delighted grown-ups was fun, but the adults in the audience got all the jokes that I didn’t, which was most of them. That was alright, though…those jokes were for them. Kids my age had Popeye. – Mike Cecchini

Flubber and Jumanji

When a celebrity, in this case an actor, passes away, any normal person would reflect on his or her best roles. I thought of Flubber. The roles that would come to define Robin Williams’ career—the ones that have been quoted and memorialized on social media and will be reflected on by my colleagues and fans for years to come—I mostly haven’t seen. For those films are Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, and, gasp, Good Will Hunting.

So, now Robin Williams is gone, and as someone who’s appreciated his contributions to the standup community, I’m saddened that only now do I feel the urgency to view his most praised film work. For the sake of tribute, when I heard of Mr. Williams’ passing, I immediately thought back to the films I grew up with. What I knew Robin Williams for. I’m left here to talk about his film career through the prism of Jumanji, and yes, even Flubber, like the cinema-deprived ‘90s child that I am.

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Admittedly, I haven’t seen either film in years, though Jumanji was one of my childhood favorites. Flubber sticks with me because most people would consider it his worst film. From the premise, to the writing and execution, even as a child I could tell that movie stunk. But it was memorable, not because it was a Disney movie, but because of Robin.

How often do you remember the specific work of one actor in a bad children’s movie? I’m sure I’ve seen hundreds of other crappy, forgettable children’s movies and I’d be hard pressed to find a talent that stood out as much as Robin Williams did in his worst film. When one actor can pick up an entire film and leave a lasting impression on a generation unfamiliar with your work, that’s truly the sign of a brilliant talent.

Under that rationale, it feels right to remember Robin Williams for his work in Flubber. Still, I threw on Jumanji earlier today because I wanted something with a little more substance. I couldn’t get past the first turn around the board. “Jumanji: a game for those to seek to find, a way to leave their world behind.”

Seems chilling now, doesn’t it? – Chris Longo

Aladdin

As one of the resident film critics at Den of Geek, I normally would feel obligated to discuss the Williams films that challenged me at either a young age (The Birdcage) or as an adult (The Fisher King). Or, I could reflect on my adolescent idealism finding euphoric confirmation from Williams’ most inspirational efforts, which is when Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting grabbed my imagination and never let go.

And yet, like many of my colleagues, I instead gravitate toward the films that first introduced Robin to me at a young age, and ingratiated himself into my family for every year hence. The first Robin Williams movie I ever saw was Hook, which is also one of my earliest theatergoing experiences. I know well that adults of that era, including critics, my own parents, and even Steven Spielberg himself, have grievous issues with that film, but not I. The soaring transcendence of John Williams’ score still glides in the back of my most unencumbered imagination. And it is there that Robin Williams’ performance as a father who recaptures a boyhood, which the actor never really lost, flies too, crowing defiance at Captain James T. Hook. As per usual, Spielberg summed it up best: “Robin Williams was a lightning storm of comic genius, and our laughter was the thunder that sustained him.”

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That everlasting rumble from the heavens’ guffawing is probably why my mind most goes though to the second Robin Williams movie that I ever saw, also in theaters: Aladdin. I cannot guess if my five-year-old self understood at the time that this was the Peter Pan I’d seen being bangarang a year prior, but I do know the Genie was a true friend to me for the rest of my youngest memories. Williams didn’t play an animated character—the animation bent to playing Robin Williams. As a comedian whose free flowing stream of consciousness could never be anything less than shackled to the constraints of reality, in this song-and-dance blue puff, Williams never enjoyed more freedom. Finally, something could keep pace with his most esoteric transitions and unbridled hilarity. I surely did not know who Jack Nicholson, Bob Hope, Ed Sullivan, Robert De Niro, or Rodney Dangerfield were in 1992, but that obliviousness made revisiting Aladdin years later all the more rewarding.

More than any other voice actor, Robin Williams bent animation to his will and as a result made countless fans for life, including myself, who still grins like a fool during “Prince Ali.” The fact that so many animation studios in the last decade have attempted to mimic (they all failed) what Williams did with other celebrity voices says more than I ever could.

Williams would go on to stun and galvanize me in the following years when I saw most of his body of work. But I will always first remember when he came out of that lamp. – David Crow

The Standup Comic

I got the news that Robin Williams died via a blast from Variety. It came a moment after David Crow sent me a trailer link to write up. I was hit with a wave of sadness that defied words, a mild state of actual shock. I copied the link, without reading it, and sent it to David explaining that I would do the trailer just as long as I didn’t have to write the news. David reacted similarly. So similarly that I sent the link to Mike Cecchini, hoping he would take on the burden of breaking the news to our readership. Mike was still processing the news when we all got an email from Robert Bernstein with the link and the words “too sad,” which I took to mean he also was too personally sad to write it as news. To me, that was a genuinely shared moment of grief that the staff of Den of Geek felt. Robin Williams really knew how to bring people together.

Williams brought those moments to people because he knew how to connect. Dave Crow asked us to write about our favorite Robin Williams movie. We all have them. He had great range and moved so easily between comedy, tragedy, and surreal experimentation, sometimes within the same movie. Sometimes, within the same line. Williams fired on all cylinders all the time. But Williams’ film and TV work pales in comparison to his standup and his improv. That’s where we, the audience, really saw Robin Williams. It never looked like he rehearsed. Everything seemed to explode from him spontaneously, unfiltered. It was the real deal.

Williams’ standup wasn’t just where he was himself. It was also where he did the best acting. He could conjure any emotion, twist it, turn it, and make you gag on your own laughter because there was something too human in it. A trait he shared with the early Whoopi Goldberg, who along with Billy Crystal and Williams, made up a comic trio extraordinaire, but who only went after the laughs together if they did some good. Cured a disease or fixed some natural disaster. Laughter was the medicine they knew and they had the best delivery system.

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As a Richard Pryor fan, I got an early glimpse of Robin Williams. Williams had been in the regular cast of The Richard Pryor Show. It only lasted a month, but he was already unforgettable. I recognized him when he was on Happy Days. I actually watched that episode, the birth of Mork from Ork, because I recognized Williams in the commercial. The day after Robin Williams’ first HBO special, I walked around in the happiest of clouds because this was a comedic voice that had no real precedent. The best of any art is a true original.

I used to bartend at a comedy improv theater called The First Amendment Theatre. There were pictures all over the walls of the cast with Robin Williams. He would just show up and jam with these players all night. You get the sense that he would have done it whether they were there or not. When he did standup, it really looked like Williams wanted to include everyone. When comedians do a good performance, they say they killed the audience. Williams’ humor was an automatic weapon. You could hate him, though I don’t know anyone who did, and there would still be at least five jokes that would make you laugh in spite of yourself. If you loved him, you missed half the jokes because you laughed over them.

Robin Williams standup could be rude, crude, loud, soft, silly, or deeply profound. It was never stupid. It never played to the lowest comic denominator, even if he was a performer who wasn’t above dropping his pants for a giggle. He could be topical, political or folksy. Everything was fair game. Nothing and everything was sacred. It was unadulterated hilarity that couldn’t be bottled like a genie and when he did bottle it as the Genie they had to make him a cartoon. People just can’t be that funny. It breaks the law of physics.

It really looked like he would never be happy unless everyone was laughing. – Tony Sokol

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