After the initial shock of Robin Williams’ suicide Monday night — Why’d he do it? How did he do it? How could he do it? — the surprise and grief subside along with the minute-by-minute news coverage repeating the same nuggets of information interspersed with vintage interview clips. What we’re left with now is the man’s work — his legacy — and like Williams himself, it defies description.
Ever since he emerged from that giant egg in the hit ABC 1978 sitcom Mork & Mindy, here was an actor who seemed like no other — who really did act like he came from outer space. Although the show only lasted five seasons, Williams’ career immediately took off. He landed leading roles in major pictures even while the sitcom was still on the air.
One of the surprising things about his film choices, right from the start, is that they often weren’t comedies: Here was a man, possessed by a manic, stream-of-consciousness talent to make you laugh and blow your mind at the same time, gravitating toward projects that didn’t necessarily exploit that skill.
Williams saved his over-the-top comedy for his live performances, which were as breathless and unpredictable as a rock concert. But on film, he often opted to show a calmer, quieter, more contemplative and even tragic side. There seemed to be no limit to what he could do.
Williams took chances, and not all of them paid off. He starred in Barry Levinson’s high-concept fantasy Toys, a work of freeze-dried whimsy with no magic in it. As Peter Pan, he was drowned out by Steven Spielberg’s gargantuan sets and lack of focus in Hook. He played a boy trapped in a man’s body in Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, perhaps the worst of the acclaimed director’s films. Patch Adams, in which Williams played a doctor who used humor to treat terminally ill patients, was so saccharine and manipulative that John Waters took a swipe at it in his anti-Hollywood diatribe Cecil B. Demented by setting a scene at a multiplex showing Patch Adams: The Director’s Cut. That bit was the picture’s biggest laugh. And the less said about Jakob the Liar, a comedy-drama set during the Holocaust, the better.
But with great actors, the bad movies fade away and the good ones stay with us forever. I was not a fan of the much-beloved Good Will Hunting, in which Williams played a psychologist with all the personality of a brown sweater, but it won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1998 and cemented his status as a real actor, not just a funny man with the ability to play serious. Many of his best movies combined both halves of his persona. Here is a subjective list of Williams’ 10 best movies:
10: Moscow on the Hudson (1984). Paul Mazursky’s comedy about a Russian (Williams) who defects to the United States and must learn to navigate life in the free world was subtle, illuminating and unusually perceptive to the plight of immigrants.
9: One Hour Photo (2002). Yes, it was a stunt — let’s cast Williams as a loner weirdo who stalks the families whose photo negatives he develops! — but his performance was far creepier and disturbing than merely placing a clown in the role of a psycho, and it was much scarier than his similar against-type turn as a killer in Christopher Nolan’s 2002 Insomnia.
8: Cadillac Man (1990). As alien as he could sometimes seem, Williams also knew how to play ordinary men with real lives and real problems. This comedy about a car salesman assigned to sell 12 cars in two days — and held hostage by a loony (Tim Robbins) with a machine gun — was a beautiful example of Williams trying to hold it together like you or I would.
7: Aladdin (1992). Williams’ performance as the voice of the peripatetic genie in the Disney animated classic must have been a thriller for the artists to bring to life. He went so far and so fast, you can imagine the pencillers taking a break to catch their breath.
6: The Fisher King (1991). Terry Gilliam’s comedy-drama about a suicidal man (Jeff Bridges) who is led out of the dark by a deranged homeless man (Williams) was funny, affecting and contained some of the most heartfelt acting in Williams’ career.
5: Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis had done it in Some Like it Hot. Dustin Hoffman did it in Tootsie. But only Williams could wring this many belly laughs from the sight of a man dressed in drag as a frumpy housekeeper. The costume freed something in Williams: He was never funnier than he was here.
4: Good Morning, Vietnam 1987). As a motor-mouthed armed forces radio DJ who becomes popular among soldiers in Vietnam, Williams managed to bridge the horrific — war — with the humane. Man, could that guy talk.
3: The Birdcage (1996). Williams toned down his schtick and ceded the spotlight to co-star Nathan Lane as they played a gay couple on South Beach who must pretend to be straight during a dinner with the parents of their son’s fiancee. Lane got all the laughs, but it was Williams’ quiet reactions and mounting pressure that gave the film its heart.
2: Popeye (1980). Robert Altman’s live-action adaptation of the long-running comic strip, which starred Williams at the peak of his Mork & Mindy mania, was reviled by the public and critics alike at the time of release. But Altman, who was always a bit ahead of his time, and Williams, who went full Method for the role, knew what they were doing. Still frantic and boisterous, but try watching it again today.
1: Dead Poets Society (1989). Peter Weir’s drama about the relationship between an English poetry teacher and his New England prep school students was deemed schmaltzy by critics, but it became a huge hit and earned Williams a Best Oscar nomination. Over the years, it has also become arguably his most beloved film, and also his most quotable. “Boys, you must strive to find your own voice,” Williams tells his pupils in one scene. “Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don't be resigned to that. Break out!”
For 63 years, Williams tried to do just that.