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25th Jun 2018

Remembering the genius of Robin Williams

Williams is remembered for his comedic films, but his legacy includes some stunning dramatic performances

Wil Jones

Sponsored by Pan Macmillan to celebrate the release of Dave Itzkoff’s new Robin Williams biography ROBIN

Watching last year’s Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle was a bittersweet experience for kids who grew up in the 1990s.

It’s not a film that ‘ruins your childhood’, as the internet so often likes to claim about remakes, in fact, it’s actually a pretty good family adventure movie. But seeing the films you grew up with remade for a new generation, with their own favourite stars, can also remind you of the heroes you had as children.

Reading Robin, the new exhaustive biography of Williams by New York Times culture writer Dave Itzkoff, you remember just how much Robin Williams achieved in his career. His irrepressible stand-up, Mork & Mindy, his more ‘serious’ work in films like Good Will Hunting and The Fisher King, and the strange late-period outliers like World’s Greatest Dad.

But for children of the 90s, Robin Williams meant something uniquely special; his cartoonish, contorting face on a poster or in a trailer was a sign the movie was going to be golden mana for your little brain. Though, arguably the defining Robin Williams movie of that era didn’t feature his face at all, instead, it came as he voiced the Genie in one of Disney’s finest animated features, Aladdin.

The 1992 film was Williams’ rapid-fire stand-up translated into cartoon form. The animators made a pitch reel using audio from his 1978 comedy album Reality… What A Concept! and the Genie stretches, squeezes and turns into celebrity caricatures, just as Williams did in his stand-up routine. It was heady stuff for kids who’d never had access to that type of comedy before.

The opening of Mrs Doubtfire, too, exemplifies his incredible talents. In the movie, Williams’ character is a professional voice-over artist and the film begins with him recording the dialogue for an animation, in turn allowing a behind the scenes glimpse at a master at work.

Later in the film, he is asked by a stern social worker what he does for a living. He replies that he “does voices”. The social worker looks unimpressed, so he dives into a rapid-fire stream of skits and bits – with the scene, again, perfectly showing off Williams’ genius.

There was something inherently kind about Williams, his natural charm and humanity meant that the plot of a film like Mrs Doubtfire never seemed as creepy as it might if it was explained to you.  He also brought an emotion to the film that gave them more resonance than just ‘funny man gurns to camera’.

Jumanji has a dark undercurrent of a lost childhood amongst the CGI monkeys. And I remember getting really sad when the robot dies at the end of Flubber. Occasionally the mawkishness could go too far – as in Jack or Bicentennial Man – but he gave these movies a level that they didn’t need to have.

And then as the kids that grew up on Robin Williams’ movies matured, so did his films. Of course, he’d always done more than just comedy – Williams was a Juilliard-trained actor who acted in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting – but in the 2000s, he started to do weirder, more interesting films.

It didn’t always work and there are quite a few stinkers in there, but there are also a lot fascinating gems to be discovered. His savage satires like World’s Greatest Dad and Death To Smoochy, and his bad guy turn in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, were made more impactful because it was the same guy from Flubber.

He was capable of so much more than getting the laugh. Plenty of comedians have tried their hand at a serious role, but Williams was a trained actor, who just happened to also be one of the most gifted comedians of his generation – and it showed on screen.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the brilliant and cruelly underrated One Hour Photo, where Williams plays a lonely mall photo technician who becomes obsessed with a local family after seeing their holiday snaps. Directed with cold control by music video specialist Mark Romanek, it is absolutely chilling, and Williams is utterly terrifying.

On 11 August 2014, tragedy struck and the world found one of its most gifted entertainers gone. Williams was only 63-year-old when he took his own life, he had a lot of great of performances left in him, but let’s just remember the ones we have.

Robin by David Itzkoff is out now from Amazon and Audible.