The Watchers

The Watchers

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Robin Williams (1951-2014)

Like many, we at The Watchers were absolutely devastated at the news that Robin Williams had died. The stand-up comedian and Oscar-winning actor passed away on Monday 11th July.

Borin in Chicago in 1951, Williams studied at the Juilliard School before performing stand-up in nightclubs. It was during one of these gigs that he was seen by the producers of Happy Days, who asked him to audition for a guest spot as an alien. The character of Mork from the planet Ork was originally conceived as a one-off, but Williams proved so popular they not only brought the character back, he received his own spin-off- Mork & Mindy- which ran for 94 episodes from 1978-1982, in which Williams would get to work with his own comedy icon Jonathan Winters.

Throughout the 1980s, Williams worked steadily in films such as the live-action version of Popeye (1980) and the screen adaptation of John Irving's The World According To Garp (1982) opposite Glenn Close and John Lithgow. In 1987, he starred as American DJ Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam. For his performance, he received the first of his Best Actor Oscar nominations and also won his second Golden Globe (his first being for Mork & Mindy). Williams rounded off the Eighties by playing inspirational English teacher John Keating in the moving and powerful Dead Poets Society, which would gain him a second Best Actor Oscar nomination.

However, had things gone to plan, he would have rounded the Eighties off in a much bigger way- he was offered the role of The Joker in Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and had accepted it whilst Jack Nicholson hesitated. Ultimately, as we know, Nicholson took the role. Williams was upset about this and later refused the role of The Riddler in Batman Forever (which was ultimately taken by Jim Carrey). 

The 1990s arguably saw Williams at the peak of his powers. His IMDB record shows 10 movies made between 1991 and 1992. These include Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King (his third and final Best Actor Oscar nomination), Hook (in which he played a grown-up Peter Pan) and Toys. He also provided the voice of Batty Koda in Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, his first foray into animated features. 

In 1992, he also provided the voice of the Genie for Disney's animated version of Aladdin. His quickfire schtick and wide variety of voices (such as Jack Nicholson, Groucho Marx, Rodney Dangerfield and Peter Lorre) are an absolute delight, apparently racking up over 16 hours of material due to his improvisation (which meant the film was ineligible for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination as so much was ad-libbed). Also ineligible for Academy consideration (as the Academy does not recognise voice-only performances), Williams nonetheless won a special Golden Globe for his performance as well as a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor.

1993 saw the release of Mrs. Doubtfire, an adaptation of Anne Fine's novel about a father who goes to extraordinary lengths to see his children when his marriage breaks down. For me, this is probably Williams' quintessential performance. He's screamingly funny in places yet can also break your heart. His anguish at being apart from his kids is writ large across the screen, yet the script gives him enough rein to indulge in some voicework- his interview with the unimpressed Anne Haney is particularly good- and broader comedic moments. He won another Golden Globe for his performance. He also has brilliant cameos in Nine Months (1995) and To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) and gives a strong lead performance in the fantasy family movie Jumanji (1995).

 In 1996, Williams took one of the main leads in The Birdcage, an American remake of the 1979 French film La Cage Aux Folles, about a gay cabaret owner and his drag queen companion (Nathan Lane) who agree to put up a false straight front so that their son can introduce them to his fiancĂ©e's right-wing moralistic parents (played by Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest). It's possibly the only film I've ever seen Williams upstaged in, by the absolutely hilarious Lane. But, like Mrs. Doubtfire, there are moments of pathos and drama amongst the camp and the glitter. 

Williams also took a small role in Kenneth Branagh's star-studded and uncut version of Hamlet (1996) and also played an absent-minded inventor in Flubber (1997). After three previous Oscar nominations, Williams finally struck gold in 1998, winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his searing turn as psychologist Sean Maguire opposite Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. The scene in which Sean challenges Will about the nature of life- ending with the challenge 'your move, chief'- is absolutely gripping and moving at the same time. The 1990s rounded off with performances in What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man (where he plays an android who wishes to become human)

In the early 2000s, Williams' career took a darker turn when he appeared in three psychological thrillers, effortlessly showcasing that he could play disturbed and dangerous as much as the comedic. In One Hour Photo (2002), he plays a shy loner who becomes obsessed with a family whose photos he develops. In Insomnia (2002), directed by Christopher Nolan, he plays a writer who is the prime suspect in a young woman's disappearance, and in the criminally underrated Death To Smoochy (2002), he plays a disgraced children's TV presenter who plans to bump off his replacement.

Throughout the 2000s, he balanced lightweight comedies (RV, License To Wed) with darker dramas (The Night Listener, The Final Cut) and voice work (Robots, Happy Feet). In 2006, he appeared as a waxwork of American President Theodore Roosevelt in Night At The Museum, reprising that role in the sequel Battle Of The Smithsonian and will appear in the third instalment Secret Of The Tomb, which completed filming earlier this year. He also appeared as American President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Lee Daniels' The Butler and starred in TV comedy The Crazy Ones opposite Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Despite an impressive filmography, Williams also loved doing stand-up comedy. His madcap stream-of-consciousness rants are a wonder to behold. His 2009 stand-up Weapons Of Self Destruction is well worth a look. It's full of brilliant one-liners, dazzlingly filthy jokes, but he is also refreshingly and brutally honest about his history of substance abuse and alcoholism. 

For many people of my generation, Robin Williams was a comedy genius. The world will be a much less funny place without him in it. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this very sad time.


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