He was one of the most entertaining men of comedy, an inspiring personality and an iconic actor and performer like few the world has ever seen, and he just happened to be one of my personal favorites. Over the weekend we mourned the four-year anniversary of the passing of an icon, Robin Williams. I remember the day I found out Williams committed suicide. It changed my perspective on life as a movie fan and as a person as it did many others. His impact on the 90s generation is undeniable and his career spans well before, and well after, that decade as well. The Oscar winner and multi-Golden Globe winner has an extensive filmography of iconic and memorable performances even if he may have been the only good thing about some of his movies. To honor a man who is largely responsible for helping grow my interest in movies as a kid I decided to finally take a look at this actor’s best and most iconic roles. These are my picks for the Top 10 Robin Williams Performances.
For this list I took a look at the most memorable and iconic performances by Robin Williams from across his many years of film work. None of his television roles will be seen here so as iconic as Mork is he doesn’t count. I based this list on several factors including the recognition for the awards, how appreciated these performances are by both fans and critics, their place in pop culture even to this day. Additionally I am incorporating admittedly more of my own personal bias and preferences for Williams’ work than I would a normal list.
What is your favorite Robin Williams performance? Let me know in the comments below and enjoy the list!
10. Teddy Roosevelt, the “Night at the Museum” trilogy
Teddy is not only one of Robin Williams’ last iconic roles, he’s also one of the last characters to ever be portrayed by the actor on the big screen. The third and, for now, final “Night at the Museum” movie came out the year Williams passed and was his final live action appearance in a film. Roosevelt debuted in 2006 which was a busy year for Williams who at the time was making honest attempts to maintain his popularity and relevance with a new generation of fans. This role above all others for that time guaranteed his legacy for a new decade while also capturing the classic charm fans of Williams’ past works had come to expect from him. Williams looks the part in all three movies and gives Teddy incredible personality that has kept him from feeling dated even today over ten years after the first movie debuted. It’s an important and memorable role that will guarantee Williams’ impact and legacy will live on beyond the generations that grew up in his prime into the years to come for Generation Z.
9. Armand Goldman, “The Birdcage”
Ten years before playing Teddy Roosevelt Robin Williams played Armand Goldman, an openly gay drag club owner, in “The Birdcage”, a 1996 remake of a previous French production. In the film Armand must pretend to be straight to impress the conservative parents of his son’s fiancé. This leads to all kinds of funny and quirky situations that bring out the best of Williams’ unique brand of humor. It also helps that Williams is paired with Nathan Lane in this movie as his significant other which provides some of the best scenes including a hilarious moment where Armand tries to tell Lane’s character how to hold utensils like a straight man. The movie was praised by critics and Williams and Lane received support from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for their ability to go beyond the stereotypes of gay men in their character portrayals. This was a lot easier for Lane, who is gay in real life, but Williams is most impressive because he had to go beyond his own sexuality to do justice to the character.
8. Peter Banning/Peter Pan, “Hook”
An essential piece of 90s nostalgia, 1991’s “Hook” contains one of William’s most beloved roles of that decade as the iconic Peter Pan. In this movie Pan is a grownup having forgotten his life as leader of the Lost Boys. When Captain Hook returns and kidnaps Peter’s children, Peter must return to Neverland and reconnect his inner child and defeat his nemesis once and for all. While “Hook” wasn’t a big critical darling upon its release it has become much more respected in the years sense and was a huge box office smash. Williams’ quickly became one of the most beloved parts of the entire project. Like he was known to do in so many films, Williams captures the spirit of a child in an adult body perfectly and there are few moments where it doesn’t feel like Williams is having fun. Even when he’s the stuck up Peter Banning early in the story Williams adds his own special touch of embellishment to the attitude that helps drive home his character’s need for an awakening. It’s a hugely underrated performance and when combined with Dustin Hoffman’s impressive take on Hook it totally makes the movie worth the watch.
7. “One Hour Photo”
For me this is one of Williams’ best dramatic roles and proves that his talent was not limited to simply comedy and goofy antics. This 2002 psychological thriller stars Williams as Sy Parrish who works as a photo technician at a big-box store. Sy takes a special interest in a family that comes in which eventually turns into obsession as he tries to expose the family patriarch’s wrongdoings. Williams was universally praised for this performance mostly due to his successful attempt to go against type, ditching his typical comedic character style in favor of a more sinister and reserved personality in Sy. The performance earned him a Saturn Award for Best Actor. One review even called it Williams’ “finest hour”. It’s a haunting film overall and Williams’ performance makes you both root for and fear Sy at the same time. You can sympathize with him but you’re glad you’re not the object of his obsession. If you haven’t seen this movie yet Williams’ performance alone makes it worth every second.
6. “The Fisher King”
This 1991 dramedy sees Williams in a role he was born to play. “The Fisher King” stars Williams a Parry, a delusional homeless man who believes he is seeking The Holy Grail and is obsessed with the legend of the Fisher King. Parry becomes friends with a man named Jack who has lost his faith in life and becomes a savior for Jack by giving him renewed purpose. For a movie that deals heavily with depression and suicide “The Fisher King” is an incredibly balanced project thanks in large part to Williams whose character is the perfect blend of the solemn and wise man he plays in dramas and the goofy oddball he plays in his comedies. Parry is the best of Robin Williams all packed into one character. The final product earned Williams a Best Actor Golden Globe and his third Oscar nomination not to mention much critical praise. “The Fisher King” has also become a fan favorite Robin Williams film because the actor injects so much life into his performance and the story while never losing touch with the deeper message that comes along with it.
5. The Genie, “Aladdin”
The only voiceover role on this list chosen from Williams many vocal performances, the Genie in 1992’s Disney classic “Aladdin” is by far one of the actors most memorable animated offerings. As the wish granting goofball and pop culture referencing sidekick to the titular hero, Williams steals the show and in the process brings to life one of the most iconic cartoon characters of the 90s and beyond. Williams’ nonstop delivery of one liners and comedic rants fills this project with life. The performance became so beloved that he was eventually convinced to return to the role years later in the direct-to-video third entry in the franchise after not appearing in the second movie or the television spin-off. The Genie remains one of Williams’ most iconic characters even today that continues to remind children of all ages what a talented and amazing performer he could be and how much life he could bring to any character. While Williams has lent his voice to many great animated movies this is the one that everyone turns to first as his best work in that field.
4. Daniel Hillard/ Euphegenia Doubtfire, “Mrs. Doubtfire”
As you can tell the 90s were big for Robin Williams. A year after “Aladdin” and two years after “Hook” and “The Fisher King” Williams starred in another iconic 90s flick “Mrs. Doubtfire”. Williams portrays the titular character who is actually a disguise for a man named Daniel Hillard who dons drag, a fat suit and a film-quality mask in order to pose as a nanny to get close to his kids after a divorce. It’s not as creepy as it sounds as Williams portrays both characters flawlessly, sometimes being a deadbeat dad trying to turn his life around and at other times being an actor playing an actor pretending to be someone that he’s not convincingly. It’s a duel role blended into a single character that holds the entire film together and without Williams performances it would have been difficult, maybe even impossible, to make this kind of movie a believable story. Williams had to make the audience believe that we could see Mrs. Doubtfire as a real person just like the family could and he succeeded earning Williams a Best Actor Golden Globe.
3. Adrian Cronauer, “Good Morning, Vietnam”
Before making his mark on cinema history with classics in the 90s Williams cut his teeth on a few classics of the 80s and one of his first, and the oldest on this list, was “Good Morning, Vietnam”. Williams portrays a fictional version of real-life DJ Adrian Cronauer depicting the DJ’s time on the Armed Forces Radio Service. Cronauer is shown to be an energetic DJ who becomes popular with soldiers for adding some fun to their time in the hell that was Vietnam. Williams injects his trademark brand of comedic timing and nonstop energy to the role but balances it out with a respect and emotional understanding for the horrors of the controversial war. It’s a character portrayal Williams has brought to the big screen many times since, but this film became the blueprint for that approach and earned Williams awards recognition as a result. It was his breakout role as a film actor and brought him his first Oscar nomination in 1987 and his first Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture.
2. John Keating, “Dead Poets Society”
Personally for me this is my favorite Robin Williams performance and it was a tough choice between Keating and one other role for the top spot. In the end though Keating finished second here as the centerpiece for the 1989 classic “Dead Poets Society” which saw Williams portray the teacher going against the conservative standards of the school where he is employed to teach the young men there about the values of life and literature and exploring art on a deeper level. Williams is endlessly inspiring in this role spouting one liners and quotable dialogue so naturally and fluidly you’d think he was speaking right to you. I think this performance was an easy one for Williams to embrace because I can truly believe this is how he looked at the world, from a perspective nobody else could. His performance has become so iconic that today “Dead Poets Society” is shown in schools around the world to inspire students to escape conformist views and “seize the day”. The performance earned Williams his second Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe nod as well as a place in cinema history as one of the single most iconic live-action characters and mentors of 80s cinema. But it’s a different mentor role that wins out in the end on this list.
1. Sean Maguire, “Good Will Hunting”
Robin Williams reached the pinnacle of his acting career in 1997 when he appeared in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Oscar winning masterpiece “Good Will Hunting”. Williams plays Sean Maguire, a therapist who tries to break through to Matt Damon’s Will Hunting, a genius who has failed to take advantage of his intellect. Williams’ Maguire helps Damon’s Hunting through some major roadblocks and repressed memories with the two actors providing some of the best moments of the entire film including the famous bench scene, the emotional “it’s not your fault” moment, and the ad-libbed “farting wife” conversation which was improvised by Williams. Williams is phenomenal in this role bringing the best of his comedic edge and his dramatic delivery to the table while also sharing some words of wisdom with Damon and the audience that still resonate and produce goosebumps every time I hear them today. While John Keating may barely be a step above Maguire in my book in terms of Williams’ best characters I couldn’t deny this performance its due as Williams’ very best. To top things off Sean Maguire was the performance that finally made Williams’ an Oscar winner earning him the Best Supporting Actor statuette in 1998. Even without the award this performance provided many of the most iconic moments of Williams’ career and if you ask any self-respecting fan its always easily one of their favorite showings of what was so great about this amazing and talented man.