You could never hope to run with Robin Williams. All you could do was maybe catch up, or get swept along in his manic whirlwind of voices, characters and tangents. The late actor, who died on Monday at the age of 63 of an apparent suicide, was a rare Hollywood triple-threat: stand-up genius as well as an accomplished dramatic and comedic big screen star.
From the time he burst onto the comedy club scene in the late 1970s, Williams — who studied at the prestigious Julliard performing arts school — announced his presence with a style that relied less on set-up/punchline and more on his seemingly bottomless collection of impersonations and stream-of-consciousness rants. In a career that included TV, movies and his longterm charity project for the homeless, “Comic Relief,” Williams touched lives across generations.
With so many highlights, here are 19 highly quotable roles you have to check out to really understand Williams’ genius:
1. “Happy Days”
Williams’ first big break came in 1978 when TV producer Garry Marshall cast him as the alien Mork from Ork on the then-popular sitcom “Happy Days.” In a show that traded on nostalgia for the square 1950s, Williams was a time-freezing, manic shot of the future amid all the leather jackets and home-cooked casseroles.
2. “Mork & Mindy”
From 1978-1982, Williams was the star of his own sitcom, a practically unheard-of out-of-the-gate showcase for a comedian so early is his career. The show was pretty predictable, but Williams’ Ork was like no other sitcom character before or since: weird, lovable, coldly robotic and sweetly inquisitive.
During his run on “Mork,” Williams scored his first starring movie role as the spinach-loving, bulging armed cartoon character in this critically slammed live-action musical take on the sailor man. Directed by famed auteur Robert Altman, the movie was a bomb, but Williams was genius as the irascible, mumbly title character.
4. “The World According To Garp”
Looking back, it’s hard to believe what an incredible run Williams had so quickly in his career. In this madcap 1982 adaptation of the John Irving novel he played the title character, the bastard son of a feminist writer whose range of emotions was an early indication of the actor’s talents in both comedy and drama.
5. “Moscow on the Hudson”
This 1984 film about a Soviet saxophone player with the Moscow circus defecting during the waning years of the Cold War might not make most critic’s lists, but it’s a small, sweet role where Williams turned what could have been a one-note impression into a touching portrait of a sensitive artist falling in love in America.
6. “Good Morning, Vietnam”
After a few clunkers, Williams scored his first Oscar nomination for his role as Vietnam-era radio DJ Adrian Cronaeur. It’s truly a showcase for everything that made Williams a star: the rapid-fire, off-the-cuff improvisation of an Armed Forces radio jock bringing some light into the otherwise dark lives of young soldiers and the sad sensitivity of a good man who knows he’s been sent into an unwinnable situation.
7. “Dead Poets Society“
By 1989, Williams had established two things: he was one of the most talented, unpredictable stand-up comedians around and he was a funny man who could tap into a deep well of emotion. As english teacher John Keating in “Society,” Williams triumphed in a role in which he was mentor, friend and life coach to a group of young men trying to fight their way through adolescent angst.
8. “The Fisher King”
After five years of headlining the annual “Comic Relief” HBO benefits for homeless Americans, Williams took on a role that could have fallen into parody in someone else’s hands with Parry, a homeless man on a mission to find the Holy Grail and save Jeff Bridges’ suicidal radio talk show host from himself. Playing the wise fool, Williams once again mixed his high-energy comedic style with dark moments of pathos.
In this 1991 re-telling of the Peter Pan story, Williams played Peter Banning, a dad forced to re-live his life in Neverland in order to save his kids and face his old demons again. With an all-star cast and that signature twinkle in his eye, Williams soared while reaching a whole new generation of fans.
Playing a toy-making version of Willy Wonka, this trippy, feel-good movie about a boy man who refuses to grow up as he battles against his war-mongering kin was slight, but Williams, as usual, was impossible to take your eyes off.
What would a G-rated, animated version of Williams doing his motor-mouth schtick look like? A giant, lovable blue genie that became an instant Disney classic.
12. “Mrs. Doubtfire”
Robin Williams as a divorced dad who dresses in drag as a sassy housekeeper to spend time with his kids. There was no bigger slam dunk than this.
In another story about a man caught in his past (sense a theme here?), Williams played Alan Parrish, who escapes from the Jumanji game 26 years after getting trapped in it as a child. With the help of young Kristen Durst, he goes back in to finish the game alongside a menagerie of CG zoo animals.
14. “The Birdcage”
This 1996 adaptation of the French farce “La Cage aux Folles” cast Williams as the owner of a South Beach drag club and gay dad whose son’s fiancee has to hide his identity from her arch conservative Ohio Senator father. When the parents meet, well, let’s say Williams did farce like nobody else.
15. “Good Will Hunting”
Williams won an Oscar for his role as Dr. Sean Maguire, who counsels troubled math genius Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in the film that helped make Damon and bestie Ben Affleck superstars (and Oscar winners for the screenplay). It’s another sensitive, nuanced performance that stays with you long after the film is over.
16/17. “Insomnia/One Hour Photo”
These two 2002 films cast Williams in a different, much darker light. In “Insomnia” he plays a creepy crime writer who gets caught up in a murder investigation in a small Alaskan fishing town. That same year he also took on the role of Seymour Parrish, a solitary, desperately lonely photo lab technician who becomes obsessed with a family whose photos he develops.
18. “Night at the Museum” (2006)
In the first of three turns as Theodore Roosevelt in this series of fantasy films, Williams proved that his deft touch at physical and voice comedy is undiminished after more than three decades in the business. (The third edition has not yet been released.)
19. “Happy Feet”
Haven proven himself in comedy and drama, Williams returned to animation in 2006 to play Latin penguin Ramon, who tries to teach young Mumble (Elijah Wood) about the ins-and-out of mating season.