In honour the late actor’s birthday (he would have been 65 today), we look back a some of his performances to explain what made him the star he was.
He made TV unpredictable
People forget that the crazy alien Mork was introduced during a particularly bizarre episode of family sitcom ‘Happy Days’ and involved the comedian freaking out the Fonz.
But watch an episode of the subsequent series ‘Mork & Mindy’ (ABC had no choice but to commission a spin-off when they saw how hilarious Williams was in the role) and you really get a sense of his improv abilities.
So good was he that the writers eventually started putting a stage direction in the scripts – “Robin goes off here” – where Williams was just expected to riff for the duration of the scene. That led to some amazing moments and castmates desperately trying not to giggle.
He inspired a generation of teachers
“Oh captain, my captain”, “Carpe diem” – these were phrases from 1989’s ‘Dead Poets Society’ that made a host of wannabe educationalists think they could change the world.
‘Dead Poets’ has its flaws (though Williams was rightly nominated for the Best Actor Oscar) but watching the actor as Mr Keating jumping on desks, doing classes outside and inspiring his pupils to defy authority (a bit) was stirring to many.
When he died, Twitter users jumped onto the network to proclaim how influential he’d been.
“’Dead Poets Society’ made me want to be a teacher,” wrote @TheLakePoets. “I wanted to be a journalist, saw ‘Dead Poets Society’, changed plans and became a teacher,” said Jacqueline Prins.
As she added, “Good actors do change the world.”
He wasn’t afraid to shock his core audience
‘Insomnia’, ‘One Hour Photo’, even ‘Good Will Hunting’ – despite being a huggable comedian, the star was always in touch with his darker side.
Clearly, as his suicide attests, he had his personal demons. And unlike many actors hellbent on maintaining their cuddly, family-friendly image, Williams wasn’t against tapping into that negativity.
The result was some of his best performances. As a killer outfoxing Al Pacino in a town without night, ‘Insomnia’ is arguably one of Christopher Nolan’s best three films. Similarly, as Sean Maguire in ‘Hunting’, Williams made us empathise deeply with his loss, but also recognise the kernel of rage that drove him to help Matt Damon’s young prodigy.
Taking the mickey out of Pierce Brosnan; trying to pick up a woman forgetting that he’s dressed like an old woman; that final farcical scene in the restaurant…the 1993 comedy pretty much sums up the actor’s many on-screen skills. Eliciting pathos in the midst of chaos, it’s a role that ONLY Williams could have played.
He revolutionised animated voiceovers
Yes, there had been iconic cartoon voices before (Phil Harris as Baloo), but think how Williams’ turn as the Genie in ‘Aladdin’ shaped modern animated movie-making.
For starters, it became cool for stars to lend their vocals to films. Without the Genie, it’s unlikely we would have had Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy in ‘Shrek’, Tom Hanks in ‘Toy Story’ and so on.
Furthermore, his performance helped change the way animators worked with their voice artists.
The result is a quickfire, incredibly funny movie packed full of adult gags while aimed at kids. Few actors straddle that line as well as Robin Williams did.
Photos: Action Press/Rex_Shutterstock/Giphy/Everett