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17 Wildly Different Performances That Prove Robin Williams Could Do Everything

Updated September 7, 2020 1.6k votes 176 voters 3.3k views17 items

List RulesVote up the performances that made you love Robin Williams.

The comedic superstar is no longer with us, but the best Robin Williams performances will endure forever. Williams, who took his own life in 2014, had Lewy body dementia, a degenerative disorder that causes confusion, personality changes, and severe depression, among other symptoms. His passing was a sad end for someone who brought so much joy to the world. 

Despite that sadness, how can anyone look at his filmography and not smile? Williams started in stand-up comedy, became famous playing an alien on the hit sitcom Mork & Mindy, then jumped to the big screen. There, he spent decades surprising and delighting audiences with the scope of his talent. He could do every type of comedy, from silly slapstick to biting satire. As good as he was earning laughs, Williams was just as skilled at drama. His work in movies like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting made an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape. No wonder he was nominated for an Oscar four times.

The best Robin Williams roles tap into elements of his own personality. The star always spoke openly of the highs and lows he experienced in life. In the best of moments, those experiences infused themselves into his work. Without a doubt, he could do anything. 

  • Dead Poets Society was not the first dramatic role Williams played, but it was absolutely the one that opened the door for him to take his career in new directions. In this monster box office hit, he plays John Keating, a prep school English teacher whose unconventional methods inspire his students and occasionally irritate the headmaster. 

    A major reason why Williams works so well in this role is because we believe him as someone who would bring creativity to the classroom. It doesn't matter that he's not doing comedic riffing. His work as Keating takes what he's most associated with and presents it in a dramatic fashion. When Keating is fired in the end and his students stand on their desks, honoring him by saying "Oh, captain, my captain," we truly believe he has earned that loyalty. 

    Williams received his second Oscar nomination for the film.

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  • The Birdcage
    Photo: MGM

    Williams always had a personal interest in politics, so it makes total sense that he'd be drawn to The Birdcage, a 1996 remake of the French comedy classic La Cage aux Folles. He plays a gay nightclub owner whose son is engaged to the daughter of a very conservative, gay-unfriendly United States senator. To avoid upsetting that senator, he pretends to be straight, which is easier said than done. The movie skewers the type of moralism that often underlies homophobia.

    The Birdcage presents its gay characters as witty, funny, and outrageous in order to contrast them with the stuffy, judgemental politician. Williams works up hilarious chemistry with costar Nathan Lane while also making the perfect foil for the antagonist, played by Gene Hackman. Aside from being hilariously over-the-top, the actor gets to use his rapid-fire ad-libbing skills to infuse the film with more than a hint of social commentary.

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  • Jumanji found Williams in big-budget blockbuster territory. The high concept, FX-laden film is about a man freed from the board game he's been trapped in for 26 years. Two kids let him loose, but also bring out a horde of wild animals. They work together to get those animals back inside the game.

    Many scenes in the film require Williams to act against nothing since the beasts were added in later on. He slips naturally into this type of picture, thanks to the tremendous sense of imagination we know he had. Many actors would have gotten swallowed up by all the effects, but his intense charisma allows Williams to hold his own against the menagerie of CGI animals that were a major selling point of the picture. He's as big and magical as they are, and he refuses to be upstaged.

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  • Steven Spielberg's 1991 fantasy Hook casts Williams as Peter Banning, the grown-up version of Peter Pan. Of course, Peter doesn't remember his past life until old nemesis Captain Hook absconds with his children. Then he's got to return to Never Land in order to save them.

    Casting Williams as Peter was a masterstroke. For starters, he has the acting chops to make the character's adult unhappiness authentic. More importantly, Peter eventually rediscovers his playful side, and that's obviously where the actor can shine. Hook allows him to straddle a nice line, displaying some of his dramatic skills, then getting to cut loose and be fun. Peter's transformation comes alive because of the commitment Williams brings to both halves of the role. 

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