Robin Williams' Career Saw Him Find Laughter in Pathos and Darkness in Humor

In remembering the life and career of Robin Williams, especially in light of his death, the temptation is to reference the sad clown, if not in name then certainly in spirit. 

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In remembering the life and career of Robin Williams, especially in light of his death, the temptation is to reference the sad clown, if not in name then certainly in spirit. Williams was one of the marquee comic talents of the 1980s, having crossed over from television's Mork and Mindy to films like Popeye and Moscow on the Hudson and Good Morning, Vietnam, along the way delivering some towering, madly energetic stand-up comedy (A Night at the Met).

In 1989, Williams made Dead Poets Society for director Peter Weir, playing a rabble-rousing prep school teacher, earning his second Oscar nomination in three years, and establishing the first fork in his career, this path leading towards earnest dramatic work. In later years, filmmakers would tap into his capacity for darkness, in films like One Hour Photo and Insomnia. He never abandoned his original comedic roots, of course. For a while there in the 1990s, he had a run of films — Hook to Aladdin to Mrs. Doubtfire to Jumanji — that saw him basically owning the realm of kid-friendly blockbuster comedies.

Williams established himself as an actor who could slot easily into any number of temperaments and tones, from pure comedy (The Birdcage) to pitch dark (The Night Listener) to almost mawkishly sincere (Patch Adams), but what he mostly excelled at were films that blended the line between any of the three. The Fisher King, Awakenings, What Dreams May Come, Death to Smoochy, Man of the Year, these were all films that capitalized on the way Williams shows humor masking pain, kindness masking madness, serenity masking danger, professionalism masking goofiness. On screen, Williams very often lived in the blurriness between those lines, and directors from Barry Levinson to Gus Van Sant to Steven Spielberg to Christopher Nolan were drawn to that.

The temptation, in death, is to look at those places of convergence between humor and pathos and darkness and see that sad clown cliché, to nod like we know anything. There are truths to be known about Williams' life and death, truths about depression and addiction and struggle. But there's also the simple fact that Williams had a rich career, and his work touched millions.

Look at the moment when he won his Academy Award, for his 1997 performance in Good Will Hunting. Look at the reaction in the room. This is no obligatory, begrudging standing ovation. That kind of thing doesn't come for an actor in the prime of his career. But after the deafening cheer goes up, pockets of Williams' contemporaries leap to their feet to applaud his victory. Billy Crystal, Oscar host that year and of course Williams' old friend, from their Comic Relief days and beyond, beams from across the stage. This was a man whose career made people love him.

Behind all of Robin Williams' funny voices was a Juilliard-trained actor. Here we remember some of his greatest movie moments.

Good Morning, Vietnam 

In his New York Times review of the film Vincent Canby wrote that up until Good Morning, Vietnam "there was always the feeling that an oddball natural resource was being inefficiently used, as if Arnold Schwarzenegger had been asked to host Masterpiece Theater." But this film changed that: "Just how much of the fresh, cheeky Williams brilliance was going up the chimney can now be seen in Good Morning, Vietnam."  

Dead Poets Society

Williams' John Keating was part of a long cinematic tradition of inspirational teachers, but that didn't stop everyone from hoping someone would whisper "carpe diem" in their ears.

Good Will Hunting

Though he was nominated four times, Williams won his only Oscar for his supporting role as the title character's pyschologist in Good Will Hunting. Williams' turns in scenes like this one as his character relates to Will with exuberance only to draw him back into harsh reality are part of what make the performance so special.


Though the movie only featured his voice, Aladdin, especially in the show-stopping number "Friend Like Me," was quintessentially Williams. The impressions! The speed of it!

Mrs. Doubtfire 

In one of his most beloved film roles, Williams mixed his uncanny ability to transform his voice with true pathos, as evident in the scene when his kids finally discover who he really is.

The Birdcage

Williams was originally offered Nathan Lane's role in the American version of La Cage Aux Folles, but he chose to play Armand instead. No matter, his and Lane's chemistry was perfect in the famous "John Wayne" scene.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.