The Robin Williams Performances We Remember

The Wire staff looks back on our favorite Robin Williams performances – which do you remember most fondly?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

In his long, varied, incredibly accomplished career, Robin Williams has left quite the legacy, with films and television appearances that have made indelible impressions on fans and entertainment professionals alike. (For instance, do yourselves a favor and read Dashiell Bennett on a particularly notable Mork and Mindy episode.) The Wire staff is no exception, and we present here some of the most personally significant and notable Williams performances.


Steven Spielberg’s Hook was one of the first films I saw in theaters and certainly my first Robin Williams performance—it marked the beginning of a long association with him for kids of my generation. After Hook came Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Flubber and others; his career never stopped being eclectic, but Hook marked the beginning of his work as an actor who any child would recognize. And it’s neither his best performance nor a great film, not by a long way, but there is something irrepressible and perfect about him being cast as Peter Pan, and it’s remarkable to think that this was the first movie he made aimed at a young audience.

Because Spielberg obviously recognized that Williams was talented enough to play Peter Banning, a grown-up stick-in-the-mud who has banished the fantastic thoughts of Neverland from his mind, but that there would be something actually transformative and magical on-screen when he regained those memories. Williams’ energy was just that electrifying—it doesn’t seem weird when an overgrown 40-year-old starts flying around with a bunch of Lost Boys acting like Peter Pan again. Williams brought all his best tricks to the movie—free-associative comic rambling, ad-libbed zingers, screen chemistry with pretty much every actor he played across from—but it’s undoubtedly a lesser work in his filmography. Still, even at age 5, seeing him onscreen for the first time, I recognized what a unique movie star and comic talent he was. –DS

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson's farewell to The Tonight Show was a huge deal back in 1992, and the fact that Robin Williams was one of Carson's last two guests on his penultimate show (the finale proper was a clip show) always said more to me than the Oscar nominations or the box-office numbers about Williams' place in Hollywood. The clip below is that entire episode, but Williams comes on around 6:35.

There's so much about Williams' comic persona that's on display there. The rapidly changing kaleidoscope of cultural references and voices, topical of course (Bush, Quayle, Reagan). He's blond-haired for his role in the upcoming Toys, a movie that would pretty well bomb. Carson asks him if it's a comic picture with serious overtones or vice versa, a nod to Williams' facility with the hazy space in between both.

Williams is funny, yes (the John Wayne/George Bush bit is a killer, and Johnny agrees with me). He's a whirlwind in motion, sure. But watch the way Carson constantly seeks to engage with him. To get in on the joke and participate. Watch especially the part at 10:22 when Carson makes a Jerry Brown joke. He absolutely slays WIlliams with it, and getting that reaction makes Hollywood legend Johnny Carson, on the eve of his retirement, beam with pride. He even outright asks Robin if he liked that one. If you're looking for a statement about how the entertainment community saw Robin Williams, this is as good a start as any. [Also feel free to stick around for Bette Midler in the episode's latter half, just if you're in the mood for even more of an emotional wallop today.] –JR

Mrs. Doubtfire

I remember watching Mrs. Doubtfire for the first time on TV, when I was still young. At the time, Robin-as-father-as-British-nanny was the funniest damn thing I'd ever seen. Seeing him faceplant into a cake had me howling; watching him so ably switch between accents in the phone-call scene was a marvel to watch. Thinking of lines like "run-by fruiting" – come to think of it, his performance might still be the funniest thing I've ever seen.

But I distinctly remember flinching at the movie's final moments. The parents don't get back together again. It was the first movie I saw as a kid that didn't have a totally happy ending. In the years since, though, as I really grasped what power the bittersweet ending has, it's become my favorite part of the film. That last voiceover monologue, as Mrs. Doubtfire addresses one of the viewers of her show whose parents are divorcing, is so affecting. Robin's melancholic tone is perfect – not overly sentimental, but comforting. The line where I always lose it: "But if there's love, dear, those are the ties that bind."

Crying over a man dressed as a British nanny should feel supremely silly. And yet the tears are still flowing. –KO


I was blown away by Williams' performance as the Genie in Aladdin. I was nine years old, and it was the first time I can remember recognizing the voice of any actor in an animated movie. To say he stole the entire film doesn't do his performance justice; he was the film. This was Williams at his improvisational, manic best. While a voiceover performance can't capture Williams' brilliant physical humor in other roles, the fact that you could hear only his voice made you appreciate his stunning range all the more. From the speed and clarity of his rapid-fire shifts in characters to his bottomless reservoir of impersonations, Williams was the comedic equivalent of a five-octave singer. And yet it was the poignancy that he brought to the final scenes that put the exclamation point on his performance. The Genie was really just a big, sad, all-powerful clown, and yet we all wanted so desperately for him to be free – RB

The World According to Garp

Film adaptations of popular books are always dicey. The pith gets lost or obscured, the narrator's voice isn't summoned by the characters, or the aim is too ambitious. Bringing John Irving's quirky The World According to Garp  to the screen should have been more daunting. Irving writes energetically and forcefully about the inner life of T.S. Garp, a writer who is plagued by phobias and fear. In his first serious lead after goofily-inhabiting Popeye and Mork, Williams married Garp's equanimity with Irving's verve with a subdued performance that was crackling under the surface. It wasn't perfect; no adaptation ever is. But it was definitely good and revealed that Williams had some serious chops early in his career. — AC


I don't remember the first time I saw the classic 1995 Robin Williams' movie Jumanji, but I do remember the last time I saw it, just a few weeks ago on TV.

Just like the majority of my dozens of previous Jumanji viewings I stumbled upon the movie while flipping through channels on an otherwise uneventful night. And just like all the other times I'd find it on TV, I'd click the channel and watch.

Jumanji is a classic. There's really no other way to say it. Even though the monkeys, and the rhinoceros, and the spiders, and the quicksand, and virtually every other effect in the movie is horribly (and at the same time wonderfully) outdated, it still somehow feels new. This is probably because Williams brought as much of himself to Jumanji, a children's movie, as he did to Dead Poets Society, or Good Morning Vietnam, or Good Will Hunting.

Nothing was ever dumbed down. Nothing was corny.  He was always genuine. Like so many other of Williams' movies, Jumanji was kind of like your favorite comfort food, you could eat it hundreds of times and you would never get sick of it.

And in many ways, Williams' character in Jumanji, a 12-year old boy who has been stuck inside a supernatural board game for twenty seven years, is the way I, and probably many others, will remember him. Even though Robin Williams was an adult, he excuded a childlike lightness, excitement, joyfulness, sadness, and authenticity in everything he did. -DL

Good Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting was the first dramatic film of Robin Williams' that I saw, and what a performance to watch, and an Oscar well-deserved. There’s nothing goofy about it; there’s just Williams as a wise therapist who pines for his dead wife and grapples with Matt Damon's cocky genius. Yet, every scene crackles with the same lightning-like intensity he had in comedic roles. Remember that scene? You know the one I’m talking about; the “it’s not your fault” scene? The one that required a million Kleenexes? He was equal parts pained and pensive as he watched Will fall apart and held him in his arms.
Remember the bench scene? In front of the swans? That opened my eyes—the world is huge, the mind is small, and only true experiences can do anything about that discrepancy. In fact—and bear with me here—when I toured the Sistine Chapel during sophomore year of college, I stopped and took a deep breath because of that monologue. So yes, Sean, I can now tell you what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. I’ve stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.
But perhaps more important, that scene, and all those other scenes, before and after, taught empathy, because no one was more empathetic than Williams. He made every role his own, however exuberant or subtle they were, and there’s no way you can picture anyone in his place. His talent could not be matched, his warmth could not be contained.–SL

The Crazy Ones

This one nearly passed me by. The Crazy Ones wasn't a terribly great TV show (it wasn't the worst, but I can't pretend it had enough to keep me watching after the pilot). But the outtakes of that first episode stuck with me. Williams and James Wolk play ad men who are pitching Kelly Clarkson (as herself) on prospective jingles for a McDonald's (as themselves) campaign. What follows is 35 seconds worth of an outtake as Williams and Wolk just riff and battle and try to make Clarkson laugh (it works, eventually). It's delightful to watch, and must have been a blast to experience. One-season wonder or not, I have to imagine both Wolk and Clarkson have at least one indelible memory of Williams to keep with them. — JR

Dead Poets Society

It’s not ‘cool’ to like Dead Poets Society. The movie’s pretty cheesy, with lots of impassioned monologues and angsty teens. And sure, it has its problems. But Robin Williams’ performance isn’t one of them. His mix of twinkle-eyed whimsy and gravitas is a showcase for all the best tools in his acting toolbox. His speeches are rousing; his spirit infectious. You want to stand up on the desk along with his students in his honor in the film’s final moments.
But when I think of Robin’s John Keating I remember “carpe diem.” His message to his students – to seize the day – was profoundly impactful. Who among us doesn’t need a reminder that indeed, every moment of life is worth taking for all its worth? Especially on a day like today, with such a painful reminder of life’s brevity on our minds, the maxim resonates. “Make your lives extraordinary,” Keating whispers to his students. As hokey as it may be, he’s saying it to us as well. –KO

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

I was lucky enough to get a chance to see Robin Williams on Broadway in Rajiv Joseph's brilliant, surrealist play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Williams played, yes, the tiger, who spends most of the play as a ghost, philosophizing about life and war. There's really no need to justify Williams' stage presence—after all he went to Juilliard—but I would venture that his work as a stand up served him well in this play. His fourth wall-breaking tiger drew the audience into the war torn landscape of the play with ease and grim humor. Joseph's play is an important one, and one that shouldn't be forgotten as the U.S. once again becomes embroiled in Iraq. — EZ

The Birdcage

I've watched The Birdcage at least twice in the past couple of months. There is something so consummately watchable about so many of Williams' movies. They are the type of films that live with you; that you will turn on the minute you see they are playing on some obscure cable network. 

And so, the first Williams moment I thought of yesterday was his "eclectic celebration of a dance" from my favorite of his films, The Birdcage. It's hard to say anything about this moment other than that I love it so so so much. Williams improvised the routine in which he essentially gives the Sparknotes on great choreographers, and even though it's wild and zany it doesn't feel out of character or out of place. The pitch perfect concluding "but you keep it all inside" was a Mike Nichols invention, according to a New York Times story. But, in honor of Robin, let's refrain from keeping it inside today. –EZ

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