Remembering Robin Williams and five of his greatest comedy roles

The actor and comedian died eight years ago in 2014

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August 11 is a sad date in the history of comedy.

Robin Williams died on this day in 2014, tragically taking his own life at the age of 63. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Following an autopsy, it was revealed that the actor had Lewy body disease.

Williams's death stunned the entertainment world. Fans erected makeshift memorials across locations made famous in his film and television career, including the Boston Public Garden bench that was featured in Good Will Hunting and the steps leading to the San Francisco home used in Mrs Doubtfire. The Disney Channel continuously broadcast Aladdin commercial-free and the lights on Broadway were dimmed as a tribute to the comedian.

To quote Williams’s daughter, Zelda, the world forever became "a little darker, less colourful and less full of laughter in his absence.”

Williams’s legacy, however, remains as luminous and uplifting as ever. His eclectic filmography is a testament to his prowess as an actor, not just in comedy, but also in drama and thriller films. After all, who can forget his rousing performance as “Captain” John Keating in Dead Poets Society or his spine-chilling portrayal of Seymour Parrish in One Hour Photo?

We honour Williams’s humour — by highlighting five roles across television, film and the theatre that ensured his place in the pantheon of comedic greats.

Mork in 'Happy Days'

In 1978, Williams was cast as a last-minute replacement for the role of Mork, an alien from the planet Ork, on the sitcom Happy Days.

The show’s producers were so impressed by Williams’s improvised, out-of-this-world portrayal of the alien, that they created a spin-off show with Williams in the lead. Mork & Mindy ran for four seasons until 1982. The show had a peak weekly audience of 60 million and elevated the comedian to stardom. It was such a success that Time put Williams on its cover in the March 12, 1979 issue.

Mrs Euphegenia Doubtfire in 'Mrs Doubtfire'

In Mrs Doubtfire, Williams portrays a luckless, divorced actor who disguises himself as an elderly British woman with the aim of being hired as a housekeeper so that he can be closer to his kids.

The plot is so absurd and far-fetched that it could have easily been a train wreck. Instead, Williams’s depiction of the titular character ensured its place as one of the foremost classic family films of the 1990s. His portrayal was as side-stitching as it was compassionate. The performance reinforced a quote famed British filmmaker Terry Gilliam had about the actor’s ability to "go from manic to mad to tender and vulnerable ... [Williams had] the most unique mind on the planet. There's nobody like him out there."

Genie in 'Aladdin'

Robin Williams voiced the character of the genie in 'Aladdin'. Photo: Disney

The role of Genie in Disney’s 1992 film Aladdin was specifically written for Williams.

Williams’s portrayal of the goateed, wisecracking genie is so definitive that it has cast a blue shadow over whoever has attempted the role after him. The character, after all, seems to have been devised especially for the comedian's skill sets in mind. Between the genie’s shapeshifting abilities and Williams’s knack for voices and characters, the character and actor have become inextricable in pop culture.

Adrian Cronauer in 'Good Morning, Vietnam'

Can you really think of the words "Good morning, Vietnam?" without Williams's voice yelling in your head? In the war comedy Good Morning, Vietnam, Williams stars as Adrian Cronauer, a real-life DJ for the Armed Forces Radio Service.

The film is loosely based on Cronauer’s experiences, but Williams made sure to put his idiosyncratic spin on the character. The role gave Williams, aged 36 at the time, the opportunity to put the whole gamut of his acting abilities on display, from the poignant to the manically hilarious. The film earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Estragon in 'Waiting for Godot'

In 1988, Robin Williams took up the role of Estragon in an off-Broadway production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, acting opposite Steve Martin as Vladimir.

Okay, so the only way to see this today is through short, grainy clips on YouTube, and according to internet hearsay, there are only two copies of the play available, both of which have been shot using a handheld camcorder and with lacklustre lighting and audio.

Still, according to several critics who saw the production, which ran for 25 shows, Williams’s Estragon was a hoot and proved his prowess on the stage beyond a stand-up performer.

“The scruffy Williams, sporting a beard and shaggy hair, is a brilliant improviser,” wrote AP theatre critic Michael Kuchwara. “His Estragon is a maniacal creature, verging out of control at times; but he can get a laugh out of the simplest of stage business, such as pulling off a boot or trying to eat a raw carrot."

The performance, according to Kuchwara, was also indicative of Williams’s propensity towards free association, a technique he often used in his comedy.

“He veers into some stage antics and line twistings that Beckett never would have dreamt of — giving hilarious imitations of such diverse cultural icons as R2D2 and John Wayne, complete with an improvised machine gun.”

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Updated: August 11, 2022, 3:06 PM
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