I didn’t see Robin Williams‘ attempt at a new sitcom, CBS’ The Crazy Ones. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to think that the great Robin was, at only 62, already making the trip back to weekly TV half-hours after such a stellar, Oscar-winning career in films and such a bright, unhinged light on comedy stages for all of his career. It’s just too constricting for this kind of talent. It’s even sadder to think the show got cancelled after one season, a failure that must have been hard to take. No, my most recent memories of Robin Williams are on the big screen, where he seemed to be heading for a place of renewal, not only as the funnyman everyone knew, but really a fine dramatic actor. In this year’s The Face Of Love he played a supporting role as a man heartbreakingly trying to start a romantic relationship with the widowed Annette Bening. And although it was a small role, he was excellent, and unrecognizable, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. I thought it would be so nice to see Williams really spread his wings again in roles worthy of his talent. And it appears there are a few on the horizon that he left behind. We can look forward to those.
He was that rare talent who could be just as effective as a wild, crazy, off-the-wall comic as in Oscar-nominated roles like a homeless man in the brilliant The Fisher King, the compassionate English teacher in Dead Poets Society and his Academy Award-winning supporting turn as a psychologist in 1997’s Good Will Hunting. His work opposite Robert De Niro in 1990’s Awakenings was exceptional, and a list of other dramatic performances that left a strong impression include the wonderful The World According To Garp (1982), which merged his comic and dramatic abilities seamlessly; the underappreciated 1998 What Dreams May Come, which explored a man’s world after his death; as well as chilling work in thrillers including Insomnia, One Hour Photo and The Final Cut, to name a few movies. He was really a creepy and convincing villain, folks. But mention the name Robin Williams, and most people will just have a smile on their face. The man’s prodigious dramatic talents were far overshadowed by his singular, frenetic, manic gift for comedy. I am certain that’s how fans want to remember him.
Of course, he displayed it in full early force on Mork & Mindy, his hit ABC sitcom that ran for four years beginning in 1978. But he got to show it off in some pretty good movies too, most memorably as DJ Adrian Cronauer in 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam, the rare comedic performance to nab a Best Actor Oscar nomination (his first). He was terrific as a gay cabaret owner in 1996’s The Birdcage, Mike Nichols’ Americanized version of La Cage Aux Folles. He underplayed that role beautifully and let co-star Nathan Lane have all the histrionics we knew Williams could also probably do in his sleep. He had already done the drag act earlier in 1993’s comic classic Mrs. Doubtfire as a nanny we’ll never forget. There has been talk over the past two decades about an inevitable sequel. Scripts have been written but nothing materialized, though word is the project is active once again. It would have been fun to see him revisit that role, but the fact is Robin Williams didn’t do sequels and was loath to repeat himself onscreen. How rare is that these days?
In fact, the only live-action film in which he repeated a role was as his hilarious Teddy Roosevelt (a far cry from his Dwight Eisenhower to be sure) in the Night At The Museum pictures, but it was just a supporting turn. We will see him go ’round with Teddy one more time this holiday season when Fox releases the third film in the series that stars Ben Stiller. Williams had the rare talent also to be touching and funny onscreen without getting maudlin. His work in films that moved us to both tears and laughs were on great display (even if some critics balked) in 1998’s Patch Adams and 1996’s Jack, directed by Francis Ford Coppola — in my opinion, a highly underrated work about a boy who ages four times faster than average. It beat The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button to the punch and did it with comedy.
And then there’s Aladdin. Has there ever been a voice-over performance in an animated film that was so married to a performer? His Genie was one for the ages, and though audiences on Broadway are currently seeing another actor take it on in the stage version of that 1992 Disney smash, no one will ever top Williams’ brilliant vocal work. If there was an Oscar for voice-over, it easily would have been his.
Williams was so good it seemed doubly disappointing when he lent his talents to unworthy projects in recent years, such as The Big Wedding, Old Dogs, License To Wed, Man Of The Year and the ilk of mediocre material that couldn’t contain a talent as big as Williams. My one and only encounter with him was in 1992. I was a writer-producer on The Arsenio Hall Show, and Robin was the one big comic star who had never done the show in its previous four years. But the studio got him to agree to go on for his new movie, Toys, and so we had finally nailed the dream guest of any talk show. Have you ever seen a talk show appearance with Williams that wasn’t comic gold? This one wasn’t. We couldn’t explain why. It was disappointing, but the chemistry between Robin and Arsenio just didn’t click. The movie he was promoting didn’t really work well either.
I realized then the pressures this man had to be under to be brilliant every time out. This guy was a rare shooting star. He wasn’t one to phone it in, so when it didn’t work, it just seemed sad. But in the some-35 years or so Robin Williams was sewn into America’s consciousness, the number of times he hit it out of the park far outnumbered those times he didn’t. There was method to his madness, the heart of a clown and the kind of talent that comes around once in a generation. It’s good enough to note for now that we can be thankful our generation had Robin.