Robin Williams: A Huge Funny/Dramatic Talent Who Proved He Could Do It All — An Appreciation

I didn’t see Robin Williams‘ attempt at a new sitcom, CBS’ The Crazy OnesI 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 THE-BUTLER-Robin-Williams-450x316seemed 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.

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11355848_galHe 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.

Related: President Obama On Death Of Robin Williams

Good-Morning-Vietnam-robin-williams-25340599-2348-1599Of 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 11_gwhgay 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?

Related: On Stage, Williams’ Comedy Was Rooted In Sweet Sadness

KobalIn 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.

Related: Hot Trailer: ‘Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb’

aladdin_lAnd 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.

Night-at-the-Museum-robin-williams-23589840-852-480Williams 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.

 

  1. It would be lovely if he got a posthumous nomination for his astounding performance in THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN earlier this year, but nobody votes for movies they don’t see. :-(

  2. Pete, I’m sure you’re well-intentioned but opening your tribute with hand-wringing about his perceived fallen status is exactly the kind of hierarchy obsession that contributes to actors’ insecurity and depression. I’ve never seen the show so can’t speak to the quality but couldn’t it just be that Williams liked the material, or wanted to work regularly, or was feeling nostalgic about his days on TV? Why characterize it as a stain on his career? Subtle backhanded comments like this wear on people, even world-famous performers.

    1. Making people happy by making them laugh. Can’t think of a better legacy. Kudos to the Gorton School Class Clown.

  3. Too many tortured souls leave us this way. They seem to have so much and it seems such a waste. You would think they could find a way to get the help they need. They certainly have the resources. Perhaps some kinds of genius takes its toll.

  4. I had the good fortune of seeing Robin perform in an improv theatre in Hollywood, in the summer of ’78. He stole the show from the other nine actors. Everybody was asking, who is this guy? At the end of the performance we were told to watch for Robin Williams in the upcoming sitcom Mork and Mindy, debuting that September. And the rest, as they say, is history!

  5. I thought you captured my own sentiments about a global (not just American) talent. As a young Zimbabwean boarder at an elite school his portrayal of John Keating in “Dead Poets Society” has remained with me for 25 years.

    Thank you for your piece Pete Hammond

  6. I had the pleasure of meeting Robin Williams several years ago during a job interview for a development position at the company run by Robin and his then wife Marcia. After the introductions, I was immediately struck by how friendly and down to earth Robin was. I was understandably a little nervous at the prospect of meeting him, but he was so kind and funny that he made me feel completely comfortable. At one point during the interview he asked me if I’d like a glass of water, only to find that the water pitcher was empty. I told him it didn’t matter, but he quickly got up and left the room, returning shortly with a full pitcher of water that he must have gotten from the kitchen. It was a little thing but it spoke volumes about him. In a business of egos and temperaments, he was truly one of a kind.

  7. I absolutely loved “The Crazy Ones”. You should watch it. Pure smart comic genius. I was so disappointed in CBS for cancelling it. I grew up with Robin Williams and feel a definite hole in my heart with the way his life ended. I will treasure all of the times he’s made me laugh and made me cry and made me feel in awe of his character portrayals. Goodbye to a one-of-a-kind….

  8. I’d like to take a break from the non-stop kudos to point out that many comedians were afraid to take the stage when Robin would enter a comedy club lest he pilfer their material.

    I’m sure Deadline won’t let this comment stand, since it’s all about “positivity.” I’m sorry. A man is dead. A flawed man. A man many enjoyed. A man who was apparently nice to his neighbors and co-workers based on all accounts.

  9. He killed himself because of depression. He was depressed because of financial problems, among others reasons. He had financial problems because of a divorce. Men are unfairly treated by the family court system in the US. Men need to start insisting on a prenup, or else not getting married. Otherwise, you will end up old, ugly, poor and depressed while your ex-wife spends your money and lives in your house. You will end up a loser and completely alone if you don’t get a prenup. You have been warned.

  10. Personally, I prefer the opportunity that a good TV role gives actors and their stories to unfold. The best example of that in my opinion was Northern Exposure. I bought all six years of the story in DVDs, and simply adore the arch that the characters were able to develop, and the arch of the story in general.

    Robin did not step down to TV, he simply stepped over to it. I wish CBS would have allowed the actors and the writers a bit of time to find their stride and their audience with this new series. It was bound to be stellar like everything else that Robin did.

    It comes to mind that most times, Secretariat started the race from behind.

    Gosh, this is such a terrible tragedy for such a beautiful soul. This is truly hard.

  11. Wonderful tribute and well written. Thank you! I loved Patch Adams, GWH, and DPS as much as any of his great films, but Garp will always be in my heart.

  12. I really wish that somewhere in this article there would have been something said about his roll in “Hook” he played as Petter Pan. That movie is one of my all time favorites, he did an awesome job in it! R.I.P Robin, you will be missed!

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