Robin Williams Remembered: THR Film Critic Reflects on the Actor's Quieter Movie Roles

Warner Bros/Courtesy of Everett Collection
Robin Williams and Al Pacino in 'Insomnia'

"Robin Williams often was at his most affecting when he didn't allow himself to hide behind the hurt," writes Michael Rechtshaffen

This article first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Onstage and in his late-night TV appearances, he was a whirling dervish of manic energy — a comic force of nature with an endless stream of consciousness that was more like a raging torrent. But when he stepped in front of a movie camera, Robin Williams learned to put all those sound bites on pause and, in his best screen work, exposed the poignancy and pain that often lurked not so deeply beneath the punch lines.

When I interviewed him back in 1991, just before the opening of Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King, Williams was a bankable movie star with a pair of Oscar nominations (for Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society) already under his belt. In addition to discussing his portrayal of a deranged homeless man on a quest to find the Holy Grail in Manhattan (for which he'd go on to receive his third best actor Oscar nomination), Williams, then 40, spoke candidly about the solitude and rejection that were part of the stand-up comic's life and of the cocaine he had turned to in a bid to combat those demons.

At the time, he had been clean and sober for many years, but looking back over the course of his film career, many of his finest roles exhibited a palpable melancholy that had apparently never really left him. His performance as Armed Forces radio DJ Adrian Cronauer may have fit his rapid-fire improvisational skills to a tee in Good Morning, Vietnam, but some of Williams' most effective work was on display when he played more reflective characters — like John Keating in Dead Poets Society, a passionate English teacher who instructs his students to carpe diem and make their lives extraordinary. Or Dr. Maguire, the therapist who helps Matt Damon find himself in Good Will Hunting (the part that ended up snagging him an Academy Award, for best supporting actor), while finally coming to terms with his own personal loss.

And then there were those more challenging roles Williams found himself increasingly drawn to later in his career, when the big box-office hits were harder to come by: Seymour Parrish, the sociopath technician in One Hour Photo, or Walter Finch, the murderous crime writer in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia, to name just two. These were disenfranchised characters who couldn't be any further from Patch Adams or Bicentennial Man, and in their portrayal there was a conviction and rawness undisguised by clown noses or metallic android makeup.

"You're best when you're not in charge," Williams told Premiere magazine back in 1988, following the success of Good Morning, Vietnam. "The ego locks the muse." Indeed, while that dazzling laser light show of a comic mind truly was legendary, onscreen Robin Williams often was at his most affecting when he didn't allow himself to hide behind the hurt.

To read more tributes to Williams, click here.