In today’s The Toast series, we celebrate the birthday of Oscar winner Robin Williams, who would have been 71 years old today. Gone too soon, Robin Williams gifted the world with a legacy of laughter and bright performances that will be cherished for years to come.
Getting his start on the stand-up comedy stage before transitioning to the TV comedy sitcom Mork & Mindy (1978-1982), Robin Williams was electric from the word “go.” Known for his mind-blowing prowess in improvisational comedy and imaginative character development, Williams breathed magical life into every performance. He then quickly moved into movies, pleasantly surprising audiences with not just his supreme comedic talent. No, nominated for four Oscars, and ultimately winning for his dramatic role in Good Will Hunting (1997), Williams was a unique Hollywood treasure.
Though sadly passing away by suicide in 2014 at age 63, Robin Williams’ colorful spirit thankfully lives on through his amazing movies. He is also remembered for his compassionate, generous nature off-screen, particularly with the homeless community. So, in honor of Robin Williams’ birthday this July 21st, here are 10 essential Robin Williams films. May they elicit a laugh and a tear for this one-of-a-kind talented star.
1. Popeye (1980)
Calling all cartoon lovers. For Williams’ debut starring role, he embodies the iconic, lovable Popeye (aka Popeye the Sailor Man) from the famous 1929 comic strip. Taking a break from his TV show Mork & Mindy, Williams flew to sunny Malta to star in this cute, over-the-top comedy musical. Though receiving mixed reviews, partially for its uneven plot involving love interest Olive Oyl, baby Swee’Pea, and villain Bluto, Popeye is still an audacious film. It’s also a great vehicle for Williams to showcase his electric talents. Known for being whip-smart and transformational, Williams is phenomenal in nailing Popeye’s distinctive facial expressions, mannerisms, and vocals.
It’s almost “uncanny” (as in a can of spinach, which is Popeye’s notorious superfood). This film is truly like stepping into a comic strip. Oscar-worthy? Maybe not. Amusing? Definitely.
2. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Here’s the film that earned Williams his first Oscar nomination. It’s a rare war drama that’s also a comedy. Williams plays Adrian, an American DJ for the Armed Forces Radio Service, who’s stationed in Saigon during the 1960s. While there, he’s able to uplift the spirits of his listeners by infusing humor and fun into his broadcasts. Adrian also makes a name for himself outside the studio, interacting with locals – which brings a bit of romance and wartime danger. Based on a real-life story, Good Morning, Vietnam is a truly unique film. Williams’ commitment to this role is admirable, as his “hip” DJ feels so easy and natural. The reason?
Cinematic legend has it that Williams improvised many of the hilarious broadcast scenes. His character almost leaps off the screen. His enthusiasm is infectious. If you love Williams’ comedic chops, Good Morning, Vietnam offers some of Williams’ most exhilarating comedic moments.
3. Dead Poets Society (1989)
Many fans cite Dead Poets Society as their favorite Williams film. And not for any comedy reasons, either. Williams plays an inspirational English teacher at a 1950s boys’ boarding school. He’s tasked with helping these “boys” become “men.” It’s a drama of the coming-of-age “educational” variety, which is a popular “drama” subgenre. Think Sidney Poitier in 1967’s To Sir With Love or Michelle Pfeiffer in 1995’s Dangerous Minds. Though Dead Poets Society is unlike those two films as it involves mostly privileged, wealthy boys, the responsibility of the teacher character is still big. And Williams fills these polished, dignified teacher shoes pretty well.
His intelligent, kind, fun John Keating has gone down in history as one of the most beloved teacher characters ever captured on-screen. Williams received a second well-deserved Oscar nom. Classic tearjerker line – “O Captain! My captain!”
4. The Fisher King (1991)
Some films are difficult to pin down into a genre. The Fisher King is just that kind of movie. Is this a comedy? A drama? Or even a psychedelic, drug-induced fantasy? One thing is certain. It’s a Robin Williams powerhouse performance. It also earned Williams his third Oscar nom. Here’s a complex story of a troubled widower named Parry (Robin Williams), who becomes friends with a radio broadcaster named Jack (Jeff Bridges) whose provocative broadcast inspired a mass murder in New York City. One of the victims? Parry’s wife. It’s a tragic premise, and Williams takes his audience on a deep internal journey of his character’s grief, pain, humor, arguable mental illness, and more.
Like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association would later state about Williams and his rare gifts, “Educated at Juilliard, his talent has carried him gracefully through roles hilarious, dramatic and bizarre.” Williams brilliantly showcases all three in The Fisher King. He is multi-faceted and profoundly moving.
5. Hook (1991)
Hearkening back to his Popeye cartoon character days, Williams embodies the legendary, beloved fairy tale character of Peter Pan in Hook. Bestowed with a brilliant, bright imagination that’s often been compared to that of a child, Williams is a perfect casting choice. He and his on-screen archnemesis of Captain Hook, played by Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman, give top-notch performances. Williams is thoroughly convincing as the iconic Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up (well, sort of in this version), and who gets whisked back to Neverland where he meets up with his old pals called the Lost Boys. Hook was a huge hit, also thanks in part to director Steven Spielberg. He, too, is right in his wheelhouse with this imaginative flick. Hook plays into Spielberg’s renowned love of adventure.
Noteworthy – this film also boasts a young Julia Roberts as the sprightly fairy called Tinker Bell, and a young Gwyneth Paltrow as the beautiful Wendy.
6. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Fasten your seatbelt, because “dude looks like a lady.” Thank you, rock band Aerosmith, for providing the totally rockin’ theme song to perhaps Robin Williams’ best-loved comedy flick. Mrs. Doubtfire is a witty, clever, naughty but still somehow wholesome film that leaves moviegoers in fits of laughter. Williams gives a tour de force comedic performance as a divorced San Francisco man who impersonates an old British nanny (the titular Mrs. Doubtfire), so that he can still see his kids. Comedies sometimes get overlooked as a valuable, high-caliber film genre, and Williams disproves that here.
His comedic timing is spot-on. He’s sharp as a tack in alternating between forlorn dad and old lady spitfire. He also riffs exceptionally well with his talented co-stars – namely Oscar winner Sally Field and future James Bond icon Pierce Brosnan. Classic line – “It was a run-by fruiting!”
7. Jumanji (1995)
Here’s a fantastical adventure involving African safari animals running down the placid streets of New Hampshire USA. Wait, really? Robin Williams plays Alan, someone who’s been trapped inside a dangerous board game called Jumanji for twenty-six years – dating back to when he was twelve years old. He is now a grown adult and is released from the board game by a new player. But all the wild animals are released, too. Can Alan and the other innocent people stop these beasts from destroying the town and killing its people? Jumanji is a family-friendly film. It uses excellent CGI special effects, which were starting to gain traction in Hollywood during the 1990s.
And Williams gives another convincing performance of someone who’s not quite existing on the “realistic” level. He’s good at these imaginative roles. Though earning mixed reviews, partially due to the movie’s emphasis on “special effects” instead of “character,” Jumanji is still a strong addition to William’s prolific filmography.
8. The Birdcage (1996)
A Hollywood remake of the 1978 French-Italian film La Cage aux Folles, The Birdcage boasts an all-star ensemble cast who gives us a champagne glassful of laughs. This flick is a total giggle-fest. It stars Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Dianne Wiest, Gene Hackman, a young Calista Flockhart, and more. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are a Miami couple who are confronted with the engagement of their young son to a young woman from a very strict, conservative family – her father is actually a famous politician. Will the conservative parents accept the gay parents?
This film is FUN in all capital letters. Williams is hilarious. Yet, The Birdcage is thoughtful and touching, too. It’s a vibrant, spicy, and heartfelt example of 1990s queer cinema. This film is a definite must-see for any Robin Williams fan.
9. Good Will Hunting (1997)
Here’s the film that earned Williams his Oscar. Similar to Tom Hanks who got his start on a TV comedy sitcom (Bosom Buddies, 1980-1981) but who won his first Oscar for a dramatic role in the 1993 film Philadelphia, Williams’ career path is the same. Long-gone are Williams’ Mork & Mindy TV comedy days. Instead, he’s standing on the stage to accept his golden Oscar for a highly dramatic performance. Williams plays psychotherapist Dr. Maguire to Matt Damon’s troubled genius character called Will Hunting. Can Dr. Maguire help Will to live a happy, productive, and crime-free life?
Williams and Damon skillfully sync up together on-screen to generate a coming-of-age story that is both tender and strong. The therapist/patient dynamic is crucial to the success of this film. Williams has a big responsibility, and he delivers beautifully. No spoilers, but wait for the Williams/Damon hug. It’s a tearjerker.
10. Insomnia (2002)
Don’t be fooled by this film’s cold Alaska setting. Insomnia is sizzling hot. It stars three Oscar winners – Robin Williams, Al Pacino, and Hilary Swank. They’re a powerhouse trifecta who bring us a true archetypal cat-and-mouse crime film. Pacino plays the troubled insomniac detective from “the lower 48” (states). Swank plays his helpful local Alaska detective. And drumroll, Williams plays the villain (aka murder suspect). Wait, the hilarious Williams playing an evil character? Williams again shows his versatility here in Insomnia, as his Walter Finch persona is truly disturbing. We can’t keep our eyes off him. He and Pacino spin a fine web of true crime that leaves its audience feeling restless, trapped, and yes, possibly unable to sleep afterward. The title works extremely well for this flick. Williams’ version of evil is as murky as the fog which permeates this Alaskan landscape. Williams is sheer perfection.
Indeed. Perhaps the Hollywood Foreign Press Association described Robin Williams the best. Upon gifting him with the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award (for lifetime achievement) in 2005, they described Robin Williams as “Educated at Juilliard, his talent has carried him gracefully through roles hilarious, dramatic and bizarre.”
Robin Williams, who was often credited with legitimizing the film genre of comedy and the “jester-as-thespian,” ended up bestowing the world with comedy and so much more. Thank you, Robin Williams. Smiles of gratitude abound in your memory today.
I was once an exec for a prominent financial magazine. GDP what??? Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.