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Robin Williams’ most under appreciated performances

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With the news of Robin Williams’ shocking death Monday, the world lost a wonderful performer with a rich and diverse career. He made his name on his zany comedies and bananas stand-up and won an Oscar for his dramatic departure, but with over 100 acting credits to his name in nearly 40 years, some of his finest work that shows his range as an actor, along with his tenderness and charm as an everyman star, doesn’t even begin to show up in films like Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, Dead Poets Society or (oh boy) Mrs. Doubtfire. As tribute to this late great, Sound on Sight has compiled a list of some underrated, under-seen and under appreciated performances throughout his career. It’s work that characterizes Williams’ broadly comedic signature as well as his darkly dramatic depth, but most importantly, as his wife Susan Schneider put it, “the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Released in 1987 and directed by Barry Levinson, Good Morning, Vietnam stars Williams as Airman Second Class Adrian Cronauer, who works as a DJ for the Armed Forces Radio Service during the Vietnam War. Williams plays a man who brings not only the news to the troops, but comedy and some good old Rock ‘n’ Roll. Williams not only brought his comedic genius to the film but an incredible dramatic performance as well. His portrayal was honest, compelling and brought a far-away war close to home, and his relationship with the locals helped to humanize both sides of the war. His revelation at the end of the film, in realizing how important his job is to not only him but those around him, brought the piece full-circle. – Caitlin Marceau

The World According to Garp (1982) 

In 1982 Williams went from the alien Mork to a relatable everyman in George Roy Hill’s adaptation of the John Irving novel The World According to Garp. As the writer T.S. Garp (the T.S. stands for Terribly Sexy), Williams ages from a timid and imaginative high school student to a fulfilled yet short-tempered 30-something parent. Williams would give variations on the childlike innocence as well as the gruff, frustrated parent throughout his career, but as Garp he has so much range without ever truly playing for laughs. What he does with Roy Hill’s eloquent, yet loaded dialogue is turn Garp into someone inherently likable, compassionate and charming. For all of Williams’ antics and hamming it up on screen, he’s never been more the everyman than here. – Brian Welk 

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Patch Adams (1998)

Patch Adams has a lot of detractors, the 1998 biopic about a controversial medical student who treats patients with laughter, but Williams gave a solid performance here, and the plot, while syrupy and somewhat formulaic, is a sweet depiction of real-life physician Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams’s life. Williams is clearly having fun with the role, and his goofball doctor shtick is beautifully counterbalanced by his strong, serious desire to help those in need. The final speech he gives toward the end of the film in front of a hearing board to save his medical school career, while a bit cliché, is an eloquent and inspirational demonstration of rhetoric. – Randall Unger

Father’s Day (1997)

Williams and Billy Crystal collaborated many times over the years, perhaps most notably in their many Comic Relief specials, but they also did a film together that sadly fell through the cracks. That film is the 1997 Ivan Reitman comedy Father’s Day, which had Williams and Crystal playing total strangers who are both told that they are the father of a runaway teen. They then embark on a ridiculously funny adventure trying to find the snotty kid. Williams and Crystal are the perfect odd couple here and their chemistry couldn’t be more perfect. Williams is the zany, sometimes manic Dale Putley, a writer on the edge and Crystal plays Jack Lawrence, a successful but uptight lawyer. Released in the mid-90s, during Williams’ rapid-fire comedy film work period, Father’s Day may not be an Oscar-winner but it will make for a fun viewing experience. – Randall Unger

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One Hour Photo (2002)

In Mark Romanek’s 2002 psychological thriller One Hour Photo, Williams gave one of the most transformative performances of his career. Maybe his appearance isn’t that different, but his dark, villainous mannerism and tone make him almost unrecognizable in the role of Seymour “Sy” Parrish, an insanely creepy and obsessive photo technician at a one-hour photo developing clinic. He is a man leading a lonely life, with no apparent friends or family, so he lives vicariously through the photos he painstakingly develops of a particular family. Williams is brilliant in the role as the overly friendly and subtly odd man who transforms into a dark and overtly creepy menace. One Hour Photo, along with his role in Insomnia that same year, proved the actor’s versatility and that he could play unique, layered villains.  – Max Molinaro

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World’s Greatest Dad (2009)

Bobcat Goldthwait’s 2009 film World’s Greatest Dad is an incredible film from beginning to end, and it is filled with many memorable moments, but due to his death there are two that really stick out. Due to the tragic events and the subject matter of the film, it will be a tough watch. “Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems”, Williams says during the film.

One amazing scene in particular involves Williams returning home to find his son dead from autoerotic asphyxiation. Williams delivers a heartbreaking, purely visual performance to the tune of ‘Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Already Dead’ by Akron/Family. But hopefully it is the magical ending scene that audiences will remember and associate with Williams from here on. In slow motion with a smile on his face to the sound of ‘Under Pressure” Williams dives into a pool and experiences a metaphorical rebirth that helps him move on from his son’s suicide. It’s an exemplary moment of filmmaking and one of the best moments of Williams’ career. – Max Molinaro

Louie (2012)

Williams made his name and became a star on Mork and Mindy, but the television moment that stands out most is from his guest spot on the third season of Louie. The episode starts with Louie (Louis C.K.) and Williams, playing himself, both appearing at the funeral for a mutual acquaintance. Both men are the only attendees and after the proceedings they share their memories of the deceased at a nearby diner. As it turns out the man they came to mourn was largely hated by everyone, but neither Louie nor Williams let the man go with an empty funeral parlor. In a clever moment it turns out the deceased may have had an awful reputation, but in a different world at a local strip club, was renowned for his generosity. The episode is a short one, but Williams and C.K. both sell the humor and melancholy in the moments that require just the right touch. We are all just passing through each other’s lives, some for longer than others, but no one made more of an impact than Robin Williams in the world. He made us laugh, made us cry and entertained countless others. He will be missed. – Colin Biggs

Other notable performances

  • Insomnia (2002)
  • Awakenings (1990)
  • Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)
  • A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
  • What Dreams May Come (1998)

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