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Robin Williams: A Man of a Million Voices

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Yesterday we ran a story on some of Robin Williams’ most under appreciated performances. But as the remembrances keep rolling in and as new, gruesome details about his suicide become apparent, it became clear that Williams didn’t just have depth in his filmography; he was an actor and performer who displayed worlds of expression and moved so many in remarkable and distinct ways.

Rather than ask our staff to rattle off more of their favorites, we asked them to recall Williams’ personality and the legacy his work left on their lives. We’re looking at each side of his many faces as a comedian, a movie star, a voice actor and a true character, offering our final goodbye to a man who gave us so much.

Zany, Charismatic Exuberance

Say what you will about Robin Williams’ quiet, dramatic abilities or his subtle grace notes of acting, but Williams at his best and his most personal was when he went bananas. He became a true movie star for his zany, charismatic exuberance out of character just as much as while in character. Because when you put him in front of a camera you simply could not turn him off. Williams was the only person who could lead the silliest singalong the Oscars have ever seen. He’s the only person who could take something as insignificant as a stick and use it to insult both Lawrence Welk and Gene Shalit in front of a bewildered ElmoWilliams could globetrot the world with Craig Ferguson with an accent a minute. He alone could sell the idea of Christopher Walken in a porno. Even Johnny Carson could hardly get him to sit down and be asked a serious question. When Williams took this degree of enthusiasm to every morning show to promote Old Dogs or RV, he’d quickly prove anathema to his critics, but there’s no questioning that there will now be a void where his rapid fire, off the wall voice once lied. – Brian Welk

The Consummate Performer

Though his filmography is packed with iconic performances, what made Robin Williams such a respected actor was his willingness to tackle challenging roles, most of them in films with limited commercial viability. Classically trained at the illustrious Juilliard School, Williams was the consummate professional. Whether the role called for him to play the fool or to be painfully earnest, Williams approached each character with the intelligence and dignity they deserved. Even after finding mainstream success, he never stopped taking chances, harnessing his inner turmoil to explore darker and more insecure characters than ever before.  Actors like Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman are truly rare birds, not because they were capable of flying so high, but because they weren’t afraid to crash to the earth. – J.R. Kinnard

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Barely Concealed Frustration

Robin Williams has a well-deserved rep as the go-to for scenery chewing comedic performances. But Williams was at his funniest as the (gay) straight-man Armand Goldman in Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage. The campy physical comedy is kept firmly on solid ground by Williams’ dry, beleaguered performance as the director of a drag cabaret. Part of the genius of Williams in the role is that his restraint is tempered by the audience’s full knowledge of the manic performer within. He channels his usual energy into barely concealed frustration with the insanity around him: Nathan Lane going balls-out diva as Armand’s husband Albert, Hank Azaria’s flamboyant housekeeper, and a hilariously uptight Gene Hackman. Williams’ biggest laugh comes when Armand takes it upon himself to teach the effeminate Albert to pass as straight. Trying to correct Albert’s “swishy” walk, he tells his husband to “walk like John Wayne.” Albert’s ridiculous attempt is met with Williams’ perfect deadpan timing: “It was perfect. I just never realized John Wayne walked like that.” – Mallory Andrews

A Man of Poignant Subtlety

My generation grew up in something of a reactionary state toward Robin Williams state. I was the first to call him a hack when he did films like RV or criticize his stand-up comedy, his own stream of consciousness claptrap with little to no structure. His loud, boisterous persona could be off-putting, but he was also a man of poignant subtlety. Both seemingly incongruous approaches were never better displayed than in Terry Gilliam’s 1991 redemption story The Fisher King. Williams’ role as a wandering, crazed homeless man searching for the Holy Grail in modern New York is certainly cartoonish enough, however even the tiniest quiver in his voice betrays all that to reveal a man with great depth and emotion. Monday we learned the sad truth that you just can’t keep that much manic, charisma encased in one human being for too long. – Kenny Hedges

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Blazing Humor and Compassion

I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw 1989’s Dead Poets Society. Any kid who grew up in the ’90s had Mrs. Doubtfire or Aladdin on a near constant loop. But something about Dead Poets Society stuck with me in a way that neither of those films ever did. Of course everyone remembers that moment in Dead Poets Society as all the young men inspired by their English teacher John Keating (Williams) stand on their desks for a final goodbye. But when Keating is told that his student Neil has killed himself, every agonizing, hurt, guilty, and angry feeling crosses Keating’s face. It’s one of Williams’ finest acting moments in a movie full of them. Williams’ John Keating is a fiery, fierce, and passionate inspiration to his repressed students and is easily one of his finest performances. In a career defined by straddling the line between blazing humor and compassion Dead Poets Society is a culmination of both of those things.  – Tressa Eckermann

A Man of a Million Voices

Robin Williams’ talents extended itself far from just physical performances. He made us laugh hysterically, cry uncontrollably and allowed us to believe animated characters were real. He was a man of a million voices. Best known for his animated work as Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, his voice over range allowed for endless possibilities for the actor. The Academy Awards rejected the nomination for Aladdin‘s script in the Best Adapted Screenplay category in part because so much of Williams’ role was improvised. According to producer John Musker, Williams ended up improvising nearly 70 impressions, everyone from Jack Nicholson to Rodney Dangerfield. But Williams often played two characters in his animated films. He wasn’t just Genie in Aladdin but a street peddler. He was the suave Ramon in both Happy Feet films, as well as the questionably preachy yet profoundly prolific Lovelace. When he wasn’t making us laugh, Williams taught us will rap and song. One of his best voiceover performances, and soon forgotten, was that of Batty Koda in FernGully: The Last Rainforest. Playing a bat who was animal tested by a group of human scientists, Williams characterized Batty as an alien abductee with many bizarre stories to tell. With a fast paced rhythm and energy only conceivable by Williams himself, Batty educated us about the cruelty of animal captivation in a tongue and cheek way. Williams had a knack for presenting very heavy topics in a very lighthearted tone. Weather it was coping with divorce in Mrs. Doubtfire or handling death in What Dreams May Come, Williams did and said it all with grace and a smile. – Christopher Clemente

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