The Five Absolutely Essential Robin Williams Movies

A comic genius and an Oscar-winning dramatic actor, the former ‘Mork & Mindy’ star left behind a body of work that capitalized on his electric, risk-taking instincts
The Five Absolutely Essential Robin Williams Movies

Welcome to “Five Absolutely Essentials,” an overview of the greatest comedians’ most memorable moments. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily their “best” movies — rather, these are the five films that best represent different aspects of their talent, their ambition, their persona and the artistic risks they’ve taken along the way. If you’re looking for a sense of a comic in all his or her complexity, here’s where to start. 

Robin Williams once encapsulated the secret to his genius in 12 words: “The craziness comes from my mother. The discipline comes from my dad.” Focused but also manic, a wild improviser that was equally dedicated to craft, Williams scared his fellow comics when he first came on the scene, convincing other aspiring stand-ups (like the young David Letterman) that they could never compete with this thunderbolt. Not long after, he made the leap to sitcoms, becoming a fixture in America’s living rooms thanks to Mork & Mindy. Feature films soon followed. The rest is history: His is one of the most celebrated movie careers of the last few decades, the Oscar-winning funnyman enjoying equal success in both comedy and drama.

His suicide in 2014 at the age of 63 remains heartbreaking, a sad reminder of the anxiety and depression he struggled with. (Plus, he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia.) Williams was indeed someone who lived with demons, battling drug and alcohol addiction, and as a result it’s hard not to view even his funniest roles with a certain amount of melancholy. There was so much suffering, and yet he brought such beauty to the world. 

Encapsulating his career in just five films is especially challenging because of the diversity of movies he tackled. You could do a list focusing on just comedies, just serious fare or just family films. Instead, I decided to go for a cross-section that picks a highlight from each of the different Robins we saw on screen. The tragedy surrounding his passing still stings all these years later, but his greatness remains as well. 

Popeye (1980)

Initially, Dustin Hoffman (Williams’ future Hook costar) was going to play the spinach-loving sailor man. But things changed, and soon the man who’d captured television audiences’ fancy on Mork & Mindy was flying to Malta to film this live-action adaptation. 

There were plenty of obstacles working against Popeye. For one thing, the weather didn’t cooperate, creating numerous delays and cost overruns. Also, this was an era when “TV stars” and “film stars” were considered different things — and films were put on a higher pedestal than television. Williams had to prove himself, but much like his co-star Shelley Duvall (who played Olive Oyl), he transformed himself into the iconic E.C. Segar creation, imagining him as a grumbling, soulful, hilarious cuss. And he seemed to be having an absolute blast doing it.

Directed by Robert Altman, Popeye didn’t get great reviews, although its reputation for being a flop is exaggerated. Williams would go on to have bigger hits, but here’s where he first demonstrated the dextrous comedic gifts that made him a natural for the big screen. “I think for (my first starring role), that’s a pretty amazing experience,” he told Altman biographer Mitchell Zuckoff, later adding, “For your first movie to get the shit kicked out of it, it toughened me up. It’s kind of, in a weird way, a gift. It was like, ‘Hey, now you go off and you work. You’re no longer a virgin. You’ve been in your first battle. It wasn’t a total victory but we didn’t get slaughtered. So keep going.’” 

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

The first of Williams’ four Oscar nominations came on this Barry Levinson film, loosely based on real-life DJ Adrian Cronauer, who is stationed in Saigon in 1965, doing his best to entertain the troops while annoying his superiors with his on-air impertinence. Adrian’s go-for-broke antics mirrored Williams’ mindset at the time: After a string of flops, the actor worried that his career may be flailing, improvising much of his dialogue and producing a tornado of inspired riffs, one-liners and zany impressions.

“He was really struggling in terms of films at that time, and was wondering if he was going to be able to make it as a film actor,” Levinson recalled in 2021. “I think he was nervous that this movie could be his last shot. He called me one day and said, in his insecurity, ‘Listen, if the radio stuff doesn’t work, I’m willing to pay for reshoots, and we can redo it.’ I told him, ‘Robin, there’s more here than we can possibly ever use.’ I was struggling to get him to believe me that we were on solid ground.”

Landing a Best Actor nod, Williams found the hit he was looking for, with Good Morning, Vietnam becoming both a commercial and critical success. The film formed the foundation for what would work so well for him in subsequent smashes like Dead Poets Society (balancing comedy and drama in a film about fighting the system) and Aladdin (ad-libbing brilliantly within a solid script). Williams had shown his serious side prior to Good Morning, Vietnam — look no further than The World According to Garp — but here’s where that aspect of his career really first blossomed.

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

The biggest comedy of 1993 couldn’t have had a wackier premise: Divorced actor decides to dress up as an elderly female nanny so he can still be close to his kids. But for Williams, who himself was a divorced dad, Mrs. Doubtfire was about something emotional. “After a divorce, how many fathers just give up?” Williams later said. “The tendency is to say, ‘I love my son,’ and then pull away. If you’re lucky, the father becomes an uncle. But the weird thing is, he needs his kids as much as they need him.”

To be sure, Mrs. Doubtfire is far from Williams’ subtlest work. But it most harnesses his talent for larger-than-life comic combustion, resulting in a crowd-pleasing, sentimental comedy in which he gets to play dress up but also deliver heartfelt moments as a dad trying to do his best. For much of his later career, Williams would chase similar high-concept, tear-jerking family films, but none of them connected as deeply as this one did. 

Good Will Hunting (1997)

“It’s something more than a movie, it’s something like an emotional experience,” Williams said of the film that earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. “The painful stuff comes because it’s spoken so simply. That’s kind of the beauty of it. The more intimate and personal it is, the more it touches people. The more honest you are, the more it reaches out.”

Williams’ performance in Good Will Hunting epitomizes the Hollywood truism that comedians only get honored by the Academy when they do something serious. He plays Sean, a melancholy but wise therapist who counsels the troubled young genius Will (co-writer Matt Damon), opening up about his life while helping Will take control of his own. But if Williams’ Oscar triumph was predictable, that shouldn’t diminish how grounded and touching he is in the role. Indeed, he was never lovelier on screen than he was here. 

Not that his gift for ad-libbing had abandoned him. When Will finally leaves Boston to be with his love interest Skylar (Minnie Driver) on the West Coast, Sean gets a note from the kid, who directly references something Sean had told him earlier in the movie. (The therapist dared to miss seeing an important Red Sox game with his buddies so he could hang out with the woman he’d later marry, telling his friends, “Sorry, fellas, I gotta go see about a girl.”) When Will writes in his note to Sean that he has to “go see about a girl,” it was Williams who came up with Sean’s memorable response: “Son of a bitch, he stole my line.” 

World’s Greatest Dad (2009)

In his later years, Williams kept working steadily, but he wasn’t finding material worthy of his talent. The fascinating exception is this dark comedy he made with writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait. “Robin’s an old friend, and we were at dinner when I told him the story of World’s Greatest Dad,” Goldthwait said in 2009. “There was no subtext. I wasn’t going, ‘Hey, I hope Robin likes this idea.’ I never thought of him being in the movie. So he read it, and when he asked to be in it, that just changed everything. It also really cemented our friendship while we were making it.”

Williams plays Lance, a beaten-down single father (and failed novelist) whose teenage son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is a bit of a loner and a loser. When Kyle accidentally dies in the midst of autoerotic asphyxiation, Lance decides to spare his boy humiliation by penning a suicide note for Kyle. Turns out, though, the whole school finds the note inspiring and moving, prompting Lance to write a whole fake journal for Kyle, finally enjoying the recognition his own writing never achieved — even if it’s in the voice of his dead son.

A twisted saga about depression, ego, disappointment and parenthood, World’s Greatest Dad finds Williams working in a more minor key. He had been excellent as a stripped-down villain in Insomnia and One Hour Photo earlier in the decade, but Lance is principally a comedic figure — albeit a deeply sad one. In the process, Williams seemed to lay himself bare, turning Lance into a tragic, pathetic, funny and, ultimately, somewhat noble character whose reaction to his son’s death is unforgivable — yet, also, somehow relatable. 

Just a few years later, Williams himself died, with fans mourning his loss by fondly recalling his many legendary roles. Perhaps not surprisingly, World’s Greatest Dad wasn’t too often mentioned. The film is prickly and not exactly heartwarming, but it’s a standout in his career — and a reminder that he was sometimes at his best throwing audiences curveballs.

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