Essays · Movies

Remembering Robin Williams Through The Performances He Left Behind

Gutted by the sudden and tragic loss of Robin Williams, we remember the great performances he left behind.
Robin Williams Dead Poets Society
By  · Published on August 13th, 2014

The sudden and tragic passing of Robin Williams has had an effect on all of us, it would seem. Even tech giant Apple paid tribute to him on the homepage of, an honor previously only bestowed upon Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and board member Jerry York. That’s the kind of company Williams was in ‐ he was a significant talent whose comedy and passion touched multiple generations. Whether you grew up watching him on Mork & Mindy or you were born later and didn’t catch on until his Mrs. Doubtfire era of silver screen success. Or even if you knew him through his more serious work, the kind that ended with him accepting an Oscar. Somewhere along the line, we all have our great Robin Williams memories. He was an epic talent. And we’d like to remember him as such, through the best moments of his career.

Personally, I’ve always remembered Mrs. Doubtfire. Not because it was a particularly great movie, but because it’s the last time I remember my entire family going out and seeing a movie together before my parents divorced. It was a hot, crowded theater on Christmas Day and we sat in the fourth row. That evening, Robin Williams was to my 10-year old eyes a giant silly man. Yet he made silly so easy to enjoy. He made the kind of movies, at least during that period of his career, that made you feel better about the darker moments of childhood such as divorce or random story books coming alive in your living room.

To honor Mr. Williams and his wonderful career, I’ve asked the Film School Rejects staff to join me in sharing our favorite performances and memories from his work. He left the world far sooner than we expected, in a way that can’t be described as anything but sad, but he also left us with so much joy in the moments we’ve already shared.

Scott Beggs: There are two moments that stand slightly above a million others. After all, Williams was the kind of actor who would pop up unexpectedly, drop your jaw and then Buffalo Step off stage for a while. Even now there are surprises waiting inside his filmography, small reminders of his range. One that I’ll never get wholly used to is his performance in The Fisher King. Seeing him personify raw, frightened optimism is something I never want to recover from. Terry Gilliam keeps struggling to make his Don Quixote movie, but he’s already done it, and Williams was soul-slappingly brilliant in it.

Then there’s Robin Williams: Live on Broadway. Less than a year after 9/11, Williams owned an expansive stage with an absurd amount of water bottles and kept everyone laughing for what I believe was 30 to 40 hours without stopping to eat or sleep. It came at a time when he was doing darker, indie-ish movies, acting as a potent reminder that the guy who won an Oscar for breaking our hearts in Good Will Hunting was also ten times funnier than anyone else around. They say hitting a fastball is the hardest thing to do in sports, but it happens all the time. There are maybe 3 people who could make an entire nation laugh after great tragedy, Robin Williams was one of them, and now he’s gone. It speaks to his legacy that I’ve now seen 21 people say they were watching a specific movie today in his honor, and none of them has mentioned the same one.

Plus, there’s this:

Christopher Campbell: I’ve always been more a fan of the serious, typically bearded Robin Williams roles, particularly The Fisher King, which is one of my top five favorite films of all time. Meanwhile, I never cared much for the broader comedies, especially Mrs. Doubtfire ‐ except last night I realized that I did, in a way. For almost all of my two-year-old’s life, I’ve been making him laugh by saying “helloooooooo” in a silly, high-pitched British accent. I’d thought that I got it from Jon Stewart’s impression of Queen Elizabeth, but while watching Williams clips after the news of his death, it became clear to me that I’ve been doing Mrs. Doubtfire (maybe Stewart is too). Williams had that power to permeate and stick inside, whether I liked it or not. And most of the time I did like it. With his Doubtfire performance, though, I now love it and appreciate it on a level I haven’t experienced with any other yet. He reached my son through me and gifted yet another person laughter. To Williams I can’t yet say goodbye, so I’ll just say “hellooooooo!”

Kevin Carr: Like many people my age, I was first introduced to Robin Williams on television, first with guest spots on Happy Days and later in the spin-off show Mork & Mindy. Back in the early 80s, Williams’ portrayal of Mork was a cultural phenomenon, with him being featured on the cover of kids magazines like “Dynamite” and “Bananas.” (I think I still have a couple of those issues buried in my parents’ attic.) Many of my classmates bought rainbow-colored suspenders and said “Na-noo na-noo” while shaking hands with Mork’s Orkan offshoot of Spock’s Vulcan hand symbol.

However, I will probably remember Williams most for how he bridged the gap between comedy and drama. In the 80s and early 90s, Hollywood pigeon-holed its actors: you either did comedy, or you did drama, but never both. Williams helped changed that, first by taking dramatic roles with comedic angles in movies like Good Morning, Vietnam. My favorite of his performances aren’t the most obvious ones, but rather the more subtle ones that showed his darker side, from a bit part in Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again to fiercely grim roles in Insomnia and One Hour Photo, as well as Omar Naim’s forgotten 2004 film The Final Cut.

Allison Loring: Robin Williams was a part of my childhood, as he was for so many of us. From laughing with his Genie in Aladdin to learning from his John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society to the random Mork & Mindy episode on Nick at Night. Williams was always there ‐ always ready to make us laugh or make us think.

But when I think of Robin Williams I think of how he (the seemingly “real-life Peter Pan”) brought that role to life in Hook. My dad used to pick out one movie every Friday night from the video store (remember those?) for our whole family to watch together and I distinctly remember the night he brought home Hook. I had seen the animated Disney version countless times (and even dressed as Wendy for Halloween one year), but Hook had all these amazing layers and backstory and nods and new ideas that had me demanding we all re-watch the movie the moment it ended. The idea of Peter Pan is played by an adult (and throwing out the idea that Peter Pan/Peter Banning did one day grow up) never would have worked for me as a kid if it had been anyone other than Williams playing the part. The moment when one of the Lost Boys touches Peter’s/Williams’ face and says, “There you are Peter!” is one when I remembering actually feeling that idea of movie magic. Maybe Williams really was Peter Pan, maybe this really was a true story. I will always be thankful to Williams for giving me that feeling of magic and mystery. It is a moment I think back on whenever I start to feel too jaded and want to remember what it feels like to be a kid full of wonder and that belief that magic is real. Williams was real, and so was that feeling of real-life magic he inspired.

Jack Giroux: Mrs. Doubtfire isn’t a movie that’s aged well for me. The last time I watched it I found myself rooting for Stu (Pierce Brosnan), a man who Daniel/Mrs. Doubtfire (Robin Williams) picks on, despite the fact Stu adores his children. However, when I was younger, Daniel’s quest to get his kids back was incredibly touching. I still remember how heartbroken the scene left me when Daniel isn’t granted joint custody. Williams played it like Daniel was in the worst nightmare of his life when he’s given the news, and it’s certainly the way I wish my dad acted when my parents got divorced.

It’s a powerful moment in an otherwise light kids movie. That’s what Williams was always great at, though. I can vividly remember discovering his performances for the first time in Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Insomnia, and One Hour Photo. It’s one thing to have range as an actor, but it’s a whole other matter to consistently surprise an audience over a career as long and as fruitful as Williams’.

Adam Bellotto: Like a lot of people who grew up in the nineties, my early life was marked off by a series of Robin Williams films: Hook, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji (and yes, even things like Jack and Flubber). Films that, because of the presence of Williams, were basically required viewing at the time. But there’s something about Mrs. Doubtfire that stands out- specifically that little scene where Williams, free of his genteel Scottish lady persona, improvs his way through a pile of plastic dinosaurs. In that machine-gun delivery of dinosaur puns, Williams doesn’t even seem like he’s acting; like he’s trying to perform as doting dad Daniel Hillard. He’s just Robin Williams. And Robin Williams seems like a guy who would view a few toys and five minutes of free time like an overstuffed treasure chest.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the applause at the end of that bit was just as genuine.

Adam Charles: Really long road trips were prevalent throughout much of my life. I come from a big family and for as easily as my Mother gets airsick we had to drive Griswold-style at least once a year to see our relatives for the holidays. When the time came that my older brother and I could take the trips on our own we found that we could more easily keep ourselves entertained by listening to stand-up comedy tapes and cd’s through the ever-lovely terrains of Arkansas. This got much better when smart phones and streaming radio took off. We would hear five-minute clips of routines from one comic before moving on to the next, which was a godsend because the Andrew “Dice” Clay 42 Long cassette was worn out.

Sandwiched somewhere in between a Daniel Tosh gag and probably an older George Carlin clip was Robin Williams, going on about how you can’t understand Scotsmen once they get drunk and how their constant inebriation ultimately led to the creation of golf. From the moment Williams began his impression of a drunken Scot, blurring incomprehensible words together we couldn’t stop laughing, hysterically. As he segued that into the evolution of the game of golf each subsequent laugh was stronger than the one that was just five seconds before it. It was such a brilliant deconstruction that to continue to listen to it meant that we were going to feel asphyxiated after one minute, and yet there was still another 2 minutes after that. We simply could nott breathe. Our bodies couldn’t suck in air faster than hearing him yell “F$%^ NUH “BOWLING!!”” could expel it from our lungs. The intensity of the laugh lasted so long that my head throbbed ceaselessly through three cities that I don’t even recall traveling through. “F&%^ Croquet!!” became the motto of that trip.

I don’t remember many of the other routines we heard, but I’ll never forget that trip, if for no other reason than because I can never forget that laugh.

Samantha Wilson: Robin Williams was a performer who had such an extensive range of beautiful, varied roles, that there are always surprises in his filmography between his beloved characters. As a teenager, I happened across The Birdcage on late-night TV and fell in love. Of course, Williams was a comedic genius who had decades under his belt delighting audiences, but as the owner of South Beach’s premier drag club, Armand Goldman, Williams was something magical and it sealed the deal that I was witnessing someone great every time I saw him onscreen.

Williams had a brand of comedy that wasn’t cruel or derogatory to anyone he portrayed or interacted with onscreen. He could be brash or inappropriate, but at the end of the day, it was about him doing something silly when he stepped into a role. As Armand, the man who made The Birdcage the most popular destination in South Beach, it was a hilarious and impressive performance watching Williams transform from a boisterous and lively life of the party into the conservative, unassuming, heterosexual all-American man that he needed to embody for his son and future daughter-in-law’s (Dan Futterman and Calista Flockhart) farce to work. His interactions with domestic partner Albert (Nathan Lane), especially once Albert dons his “Mrs. Coleman” getup, are wonderful; he loves his partner and he’s trying to keep it together to not blow their cover, but you can see the joy in Williams’ performance underneath his “straight man” persona. This is something he wanted to play, and he played it well. It’s an honor that we got to witness it.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)