Entertainment

29 Great Performances By Robin Williams

From Mork and Mindy to Dead Poets Society, Aladdin to Good Will Hunting, and The Birdcage to The Crazy Ones, we will never see the likes of him again. Williams died at age 63 on Aug. 11.

1. Mork and Mindy (1978–1982) — Mork

Courtesy Everett Collection

A spin-off of Happy Days, Mork and Mindy was Robin Williams’ first real exposure to audiences. It remains an excellent first impression, the kind of television series that sounds silly on paper — an alien from the planet Ork arrives on Earth to observe human behavior — but works largely because Williams makes it work. His Mork is equal parts absurd and lovable, a combination Williams would bring to many of his future roles. —Louis Peitzman

2. Popeye (1980) — Popeye

Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

Popeye is Williams’ first on-screen performance and as the iconic sailor, the actor proves he is a comedian in his very soul. Williams nails the character, from his facial expressions and his walk to his talk, which, in this role, really solidified how truly remarkable he is at playing different an array of voices, even with a pipe in his mouth. Williams also shows off his musical talents: singing, dancing, and physically fighting along the way. —Emily Orley

3. The World According to Garp (1982) — T. S. Garp

Warner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection

In his first somewhat dramatic role, Williams gave audiences who knew him from Mork and Mindy and Popeye a glimpse at his range as an actor. Garp is a complex, troubling character who exists in a world that’s at time tragic but also darkly comedic. This is the kind of role perfectly suited to Williams, who is consistently able to find the humor in sadness, and the pathos in humor. —L.P.

4. Moscow on the Hudson (1984) — Vladimir Ivanoff

Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Made during the height of the Cold War, Williams plays a Russian musician who chooses to defect — in front of Connie Chung! — while shopping in Bloomingdale’s on an official trip to New York City. A true dramedy, Williams keeps his wilder impulses in check, playing instead the truth of the misery of Vladimir’s life in Moscow and the struggle to adjust to his new life in New York. —Adam B. Vary

5. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) — Adrian Cronauer

Touchstone Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Based on real events, Williams plays a freewheeling DJ who wildly bucks authority on U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service during the Vietnam War. The DJ scenes allowed Williams’ comic id its freest expression yet, and it earned him his first Oscar nomination. —A.B.V.

6. Dead Poets Society (1989) — John Keating

Mary Evans / TOUCHSTONE PICTURES / Ronald Grant / Everett Collection

Mr. Keating’s classroom is special and that is due to what Williams brings to the table. Williams provides such an infectious energy, he creates a place where his students can be entirely individuals and the truest forms of themselves. And he teaches in such a manner that not only inspires his students, but all teenagers who view the film, showing a different and engaging way to approach literature and life. In a traditional and rigid school, Mr. Keating teaches how to read analytically, appreciate poetry, write creatively, and literally rip up the rulebook. And when, in the end, one of the minds he molded takes his own life, Williams juxtaposes his characters’ normal enthusiasm with inconsolable heartbreak — and a performance that won him his second Oscar nomination. —E.O.

7. Awakenings (1990) — Dr. Malcolm Sayer

Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Although Robert De Niro earned the Best Actor Oscar nomination for Awakenings — and deservedly so — Williams’ powerful performance as the dedicated, compassionate Dr. Malcolm Sawyer is equally essential the film’s success. The bond he shares with his patient is the core of the movie, and makes the film all the more devastating. —L.P.

8. The Fisher King (1991) — Parry

TriStar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Williams steps into this dark comedy and demonstrates his true range, swiftly transitioning through an array of emotions and holding his own next to Jeff Bridges. As an unhinged homeless man, Williams is at times fierce and frightening, and at others, he shows a painfully raw side to Parry while maintaining a straight face. But in most moments, he is a truly sympathetic (and sometimes funny) character. —E.O.

9. Hook (1991) — Peter Banning / Peter Pan

TriStar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s hard to imagine an actor better suited to playing a grown-up version of Peter Pan than Williams. He is so convincing as the buttoned-up, too grown-up Peter Banning — who has long since forgotten that he used to be Peter Pan — that when Banning finally does accept himself as Peter Pan, it comes as a massive relief for the audience. We just want to see Williams fly. —A.B.V.

10. Aladdin (1992) — Genie

Walt Disney Co. / Courtesy Everett Collection

Williams’ voiceover work shows off his incredible physicality, and that’s all without actually seeing him perform. He brings so much energy and movement to the Genie just through his voice that you can easily envision him acting out the role. It’s hard to imagine another actor capturing the same balance of manic intensity and Disney heart. —L.P.

11. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) — Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Doubtfire

20thCentFox / Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s a testament to Williams’ abilities that he turns what could have been an over-the-top performance into one of his greatest and most emotionally resonant roles. Yes, Mrs. Doubtfire is hilarious, and it offers Williams ample opportunity to act out. But he also completely disappears into his Mrs. Doubtfire persona, leading to some of the film’s most moving moments. —L.P.

12. Jumanji (1995) — Alan Parrish

Columbia Tristar / Courtesy Everett Collection

Williams holds his own against CGI animals coming from all directions. There is always so much happening in Jumanji, Williams becomes a kind of straight man, suppressing his usual antics to play a more subdued hero. And yet, of course, he still has his moments, as when he emerges back to reality after years trapped in the game. —L.P.

13. The Birdcage (1996) — Armand Goldman

United Artists / Courtesy Everett Collection

Nathan Lane gets the flashier drag role in this American update of La Cage aux Folles, but it’s impossible to overlook the stellar comedic work Williams does here. As Armand, he’s tasked with maintaining a charade of heterosexual “normalcy” that allows Williams to play it straight while also flirting with his wilder camp sensibilities. —L.P.

14. Flubber (1997) — Philip Brainard

Buena Vista Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s hard to stand out when your co-star is “Flubber,” but somehow Williams manages it. In fact, the film — while more for kids than the parents who got dragged along — is the perfect vehicle for Williams’ freeform exuberance. Even without an assist from Flubber, he can bounce off the walls. Metaphorically speaking, at least. —L.P.

15. Good Will Hunting (1997) — Sean Maguire

Miramax / Courtesy Everett Collection

As a gently honest Boston psychologist unwilling to put up with any bullshit, Maguire forces his patient Will Hunting (Matt Damon) to face his fears and offers the exact encouragement the boy needs. It’s the best example of Williams’ ability to mix raw emotion with a tough demeanor, all while continuously delivering powerful, moving pieces of advice — and it won him his first and only Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor. —E.O.

16. What Dreams May Come (1998) — Chris Nielsen

Polygram Filmed Entertainment / Courtesy Everett Collection

Williams approaches Chris Nielsen’s tragic life and death with truly touching emotion. Forced to deal with the death of his children and the subsequent demise of his marriage, and then his own inability to recognize his own untimely death and resistance to let go of his love, Williams pulls every emotion to the surface without seeming overly dramatic. The sadness he brings to the character demonstrates his range as a truly astonishing actor, allowing him to bring Nielsen, and viewers, to a place of true affliction. —E.O.

17. Patch Adams (1998) — Patch Adams

Universal / Courtesy Everett Collection

This role allows Williams to address the serious and silly components of life when faced with the most somber situations. A medical student who works to help patients heal physically and emotionally, Williams’ character echoes the actor’s persona and counters the norm. Adams wears what becomes an infamous red nose during his rounds, and he fights, nearly to the brink of his career, for the right to establish relationships with those he tends to in the hospital. Adams proves that, of all the medicine you can take, laughter is often the best. —E.O.

18. Bicentennial Man (1999) — Andrew Martin

Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Chris Columbus’ sci-fi family film is never quite what you expect it to be, shifting in tone throughout as it moves toward a truly heartbreaking conclusion. As the robot at its center, Williams anchors it all. Because he can switch effortlessly between silly quips and genuine pathos, he’s uniquely adept at portraying Andrew in his ongoing search for humanity. —L.P.

19. Death to Smoochy (2002) — “Rainbow” Randolph Smiley

Warner Brothers / Courtesy Everett Collection

A vastly misunderstood film, Death to Smoochy was an apt reminder of the complexity Williams brings to his roles. The part of a corrupt children’s host isn’t as straightforward as it sounds: He has to play a figure who could believably entertain kids, while also revealing the darkness underneath. Williams walks a line between silly and psychotic, and he makes it look easy. —L.P.

20. Insomnia (2002) — Walter Finch

Warner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection

After so many high profile Hollywood comedies and family films, Williams shifted gears into a series of downbeat and dramatic roles, starting with this part of an Alaskan murderer who torments a morally murky cop (played by Al Pacino) plagued by sleeplessness. With not a punch line in sight, Williams turns to reserves of simmering anger and darkness that he rarely tapped into over his vast career, and even more remarkably, he keeps it all bottled up tight. —A.B.V.

21. One Hour Photo (2002) — Seymour Parrish

20thCentFox / Courtesy Everett Collection

Things got even darker in this film about a photo development technician — played by a bleached-blond, tightly wound Williams — who works in an anonymous big box supermarket and becomes dangerously obsessed with a seemingly perfect family who frequently drop off their film. Williams’ climactic scene, where we learn what caused Parrish’s fixation with the perfect photo — and the perfect life — is as chilling a performance as the actor has ever given. —A.B.V.

22. The Night Listener (2006) — Gabriel Noone

IFC Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

Another dark indie film, this time with Williams on the receiving end of some creepy bad behavior. Based on a real experience by author Armistead Maupin, Williams plays a radio host who gets pulled into a series of bizarre events after a young fan reaches out to him on the phone — but isn’t who he seems to be. It’s another understated performance from Williams, but no less compelling. —A.B.V.

23. Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two (2006, 2011) — Ramon and Lovelace

Warner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection

Post-Aladdin, Williams did animated voice work a few more times, none with quite as much exuberance as his double performance in these films as two wildly eccentric penguins, both with love on their minds. —A.B.V.

24. Night at the Museum and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2006, 2009) — Teddy Roosevelt

20thCentFox / Courtesy Everett Collection

A “statue” in the Museum of Natural History, Williams plays the 26th U.S. president, who at night climbs down off his horse and wanders around to protect the museum. A sillier role for the actor, it allows Williams to channel his comedic side — and he’ll appear one more time in the role this fall, in 2014’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. —E.O.

25. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, “Authority” — Merritt Rook

James Devaney / WireImage

In order to play the sadistic, manipulative villain in this episode inspired by actual events, Williams shows the dark side of charisma. As Merritt, he coerces people into rebelling against authority. He’s so effective that even when he’s doing very bad things, you can understand why people are listening. It’s not a pleasant performance to watch, but it’s one of his most powerful. —L.P.

26. World’s Greatest Dad (2009) — Lance Clayton

Magnolia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

In playing the titular character in Bobcat Goldthwait’s relentlessly bleak comedy, Williams balances his affable charm with darkness, creating a complicated but ultimately sympathetic portrait of a man who covers up his son’s accidental death by forging a suicide note on his behalf. Williams brings humanity to Lance, delivering an emotional honesty that elevates the film past satire. —L.P.

27. Louie, “Barney/Never” (2012) — Robin Williams

Plenty of comedians have played themselves on Louie, with the portrayals ranging from flattering to… not at all. Williams falls somewhere in the middle, as he attends a funeral with Louie, after which both admit they hated the guy who died. It’s an honest reflection on the way we talk about people after they pass, articulated by two comedians who aren’t afraid to speak uncomfortable truths. —L.P.

28. Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) — Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Weinstein Company

Williams’ performance as President Eisenhower during the height of the school segregation crisis in the 1950s is not much more than a cameo, but he poignantly captures the weight of the hard decisions facing Eisenhower with subtle grace. —A.B.V.

29. The Crazy Ones (2013–2014) — Simon Roberts

Trae Patton / Fox

Williams’ first regular role on a TV series since Mork and Mindy hewed pretty close to his public persona as a larger-than-life genius with a tendency to let his mind wander far afield — only on the show, it was as an ad executive, instead of an Oscar-winning actor-comedian. Co-starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, The Crazy Ones was largely well-received, especially as the show found its footing, but it nonetheless lasted just one season. For those who watched, it was a welcome if all-too-short reminder of how fleet and funny Williams still could be. —A.B.V.

What were your favorite performances by Robin Williams?

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