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17 Wildly Different Performances That Prove Robin Williams Could Do Everything

Updated September 7, 2020 1.4k votes 154 voters 2.8k 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. 

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  • Williams's Oscar-winning dramatic turn in Good Will Hunting gave audiences the exact opposite of his regular persona. Instead of being loud and outrageous, his character, therapist Sean Maguire, is quiet and introspective. He listens intently rather than talking a mile a minute, as Williams did onstage and in many of his comedy films. 

    It's not just the change of affect that makes the performance memorable. The actor conveys the qualities any good therapist needs to have - patience, empathy, and compassion. Williams's performance exudes those things, giving the movie an emotional punch as Maguire aids Will Hunting in healing from trauma. 

    Considering his presence on screen was always comforting, the casting of Robin Williams as a therapist was nothing less than inspired.

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  • Hiring celebrities to do voice work in animated features is common. Less common is when one of those celebrities single-handedly makes a character indelible. You will find no better example of this than Williams's performance as the Genie in Disney's Aladdin. He's both Robin Williams and not Robin Williams at the same time.

    Getting to play a magical character completely liberated the actor. He was allowed to improvise however he wanted, resulting in a madcap turn that adds a ton of color to the film. Although Genie is often hilariously riffing, the star was shrewd enough to know that couldn't be all there was to him. Underneath the wisecracks, puns, and celebrity impersonations, Williams made sure to convey how happy the character is to finally be freed from his bottle, and how he's subsequently eager to help the titular hero in any way he can.

    The actor's work in Aladdin is widely considered to be one of the finest voice acting performances of all time.

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  • There's a long history of having men dress up as women to earn laughs, from Billy Wilder's classic Some Like It Hot to the Tom Hanks TV series Bosom Buddies to Mrs. Doubtfire, the 1993 comedy that finds Williams portraying a divorced dad who poses as an older woman. In this guise, he gets a job as his ex-wife's housekeeper so that he can spend more time around his children after he loses a custody battle. 

    In this case, the scenario isn't only played for laughs, although there are certainly a lot of those in the early scenes, which find him struggling to adapt to life as a woman. Williams eventually digs deeper, going beyond the broad comedy of the "man in drag" premise to find the heart in the character. He makes Mrs. Doubtfire a person in her own right, and that elevates the entire movie, turning it into a deeply touching story about a father's love for his children. 

    Mrs. Doubtfire remains a family favorite decades after its original release.

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  • 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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