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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Yesterday I was shocked to see that comic genius and Hollywood icon Robin Williams passed away, most likely due to suicide caused by depression. We were all shocked, I imagine. Williams was a welcome presence in any movie. He was always up for anything. He was a fearless actor, taking a wide variety of roles that I can’t even begin to list here. He played everything from beloved children’s character Peter Pan to a mild-mannered but iconoclastic English teacher to a president of the United States. He won an Oscar. He put out iconic comedy albums. He was a fantastic voice imitator and improv comedy genius. In short, he will be missed.
I first took notice of Robin Williams when I saw 1991’s Hook in theaters. While not a particularly well-remembered film, Williams gives it his all as an adult version of Peter Pan, despite a messy production that included on-set fighting between Julia Roberts and director Steven Spielberg. I also have vivid memories of watching 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire in my older brother’s bedroom really late at night with my brothers, well past our bedtimes. I thought Williams was incredibly funny and charismatic. It was hard to take my eyes off the screen when he was performing.
As I grew older, Williams began to take more family friendly roles. Despite a tour de force performance in Good Will Hunting, he became more known for films like Flubber, Jack, and 1998’s infamously received Patch Adams. I don’t know if Williams was slumming for a paycheck or just trying to expand his audience, but none of these films really worked, Jack coming the closest (largely due to its director, Francis Ford Coppola) but still being terrible. During these days, I discovered some of Williams’ older work, like Dead Poet’s Society. This 1989 Peter Weir-directed drama became one of my favorite movies, with Williams’ presence as an influential teacher being one of the film’s many highlights.
In the early 2000s, Williams began to change his image from family friendly to dark. His turn as the villain in the Christopher Nolan thriller Insomnia turned quite a few heads. It was his performance in Mark Romanek’s dark 2002 film One Hour Photo that really changed my image of Williams, however. Playing a seemingly normal drugstore photo developer, Williams tapped into some primal elements for the role, and was wrongly looked over for an Oscar nomination. His dark streak continued in subversive films like Death to Smoochy (an underrated look at the underbelly of children’s entertainment) and even in the form of a revenge-seeking killer in a two-episode stint on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
Williams’ career had been relatively quiet in recent years. He played a grieving father in Bobcat Goldthwaite’s little seen but critically adored film World’s Greatest Dad. He played two presidents in two very different sets of films, portraying Eisenhower in last year’s hit The Butler and Teddy Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum franchise (he will appear on screen in this year’s third installment posthumously). Last year, he headlined the CBS legal comedy The Crazy Ones with actress Sarah Michelle Gellar. The show, while not a ratings juggernaut, seemed popular enough, though it was ultimately canceled by CBS. Williams, who had been trying to get a steady TV gig going, was probably really upset with the show’s cancellation, particularly as it was seen as something of a comeback for the prolific actor.
In addition to the aforementioned Night at the Museum sequel, Williams will appear in a few other films posthumously. The proposed sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire, however, will never seen the light of day. We’ll also never get to see what Williams could do in a long-running television role. I would have loved to see him do something akin to what Louis C.K. has done on FX or what Julia Louis-Dreyfus is doing with Veep on HBO. Or even what James Spader is doing on The Blacklist. Williams was a versatile comedic genius, after all. He could have taken any number of roles in any number of interesting directions. Even a late-period turn as a character actor in a ringer role would have been something I would have loved to see from him. It’s so sad that he’s gone. He will be missed.