In Memoriam: Six Less Heralded Robin Williams Roles

Celebrated comedian and actor Robin Williams was found dead at his home yesterday, suicide was the reported cause of death. He was 63.

A brief perusal of Facebook and Twitter confirms what I initially suspected: everyone under the age of 80 has at least a handful of fond Williams memories. Catapulting to fame in 1978 with Mork & Mindy, Williams was already famous for his frenetic stand-up routines. His movie career took a little longer to get off the ground (*cough* Popeye *cough*), but soon enough he'd branched out from mere comedy roles to ones of greater emotional and dramatic heft.

Williams has been near to my heart for a very long time. My nascent comedy sensibilities were mostly informed by watching his and George Carlin's HBO comedy specials (1982's An Evening with Robin Williams is still spellbinding), and I probably saw every movie of his until the early 90s, and only stopped because I couldn't always afford rent, much less movies. He earned some ridicule, and rightly so, for some of his latter era choices (Jack, RV, Bicentennial Man, to name a few), but unlike other famous 70s comedians I could name, he never descended into utter schmaltz or remake hell, and generated some of the best notices of his career in movies like One Hour Photo and Insomnia.

On a more personal note, his stand-up specials and early movies were a common bond between myself and a childhood friend of mine who committed suicide almost four years ago. I've never suffered from depression, and I can't claim to understand why it drives so many to this end, but I fucking hate how it continues to take people away from us before their time. And yes, 63 years old counts.

Williams won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, and was nominated thrice more besides (for Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, and The Fisher King). These are almost invariably the roles cited by people in their remembrances, and for (mostly) good reason, but I wanted to pay tribute to this hilarious yet deeply troubled man by drawing your attention to some roles that may have escaped your notice.

"Rainbow Randolph" -- Death to Smoochy (2002) If any of my friends tell you they liked this movie when it came out, they're dirty liars. Often uncomfortably dark, a send-up of Barney featuring Williams as an almost wholly unsympathetic scumbag might not have been what America was looking for mere months after 9-11, but the laughs are genuine. More importantly, the depressed Randolph may have been much more like the real Williams than we'll ever know.

"Lance Clayton" -- World's Greatest Dad (2009) Oof. I won't attempt any meta commentary on the subject matter, which involves Williams capitalizing on the accidental suicide of his unpopular teenage son, but a movie that could have ended up merely grotesque turns out to be a bittersweet meditation on loss and the price of fame.

All the same, might want to leave this a few places down on the Netflix queue for a bit.

"Armand Goldman" -- The Birdcage (1996) There's a great deal that doesn't work in this Mike Nichols film, not the least of which is Dan Futterman in the role of Armand's whiny son, who treats his loving father like an embarrassment. What *does* work are performances by Nathan Lane, Hank Azaria, and Williams, who for maybe the first time plays the subdued one. And as a fellow hirsute dude, I can sympathize with how he must have been sweating in that Miami heat.

"George the Kiwi" -- A Wish for Wings That Work (1991) It's not the most substantial of roles ("She had to have AN ALBATROSS!"), but I just wanted to get some love for this barely seen Berke Breathed effort and showcase Williams' extensive voice work outside of the Aladdin franchise. Even if Opus is ALL WRONG.

"Robert Ellison" -- Homicide: Life on the Street (1994) The second season episode "Bop Gun" was written by series creator David Simon and remains one of Williams' few zero comedy roles. The plot, about a father and two kids from Iowa dealing with the murder of the mother during a robbery, earned higher marks than usual for it's realistic depiction of day-to-day detective life and how those affected by violent crime continue to live with it after the name is cleared from "the board."

Himself -- Louie (2012) I watched this again last night and it really offered a great capsule version of Williams the Serious Actor, Williams the Impressionist, and Williams the Smart Ass. Still, that "whoever's the first to die" comment is a real kick in the gut.

More than anything, I hope he found peace.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar