For a performer who was famous for acting (and reacting) in the moment, Robin Williams actually had a very thoughtful approach to his craft, one that frequently emerged in the numerous interviews he gave over the years. Here are Williams’ own memories about playing some of the most iconic roles in his filmography:
Role: That spinach-loving, Olive Oyl-rescuing sailor man.
Trivia Time: Popeye was Williams’ first big-screen leading man role after years as a stand-up and TV star.
Robin Reminisces: "Crazy-ass movie. Amazing people to work with. Literally, near the end of the movie … the studio had pooled all of the money, so all the special effects people left. It was Ed Wood the last weeks of the movie. Shelley Duvall was in a pond, basically, with an octopus with no internal mechanism, having to drape it over her body like a feather boa. I’m in the water, and I’m kind of like sitting there. And, eventually, Robert Evans, who is there, is kind of wandering around going, ‘How do we end the movie? How do we end the movie?’ And I joked, ‘We could walk on the water like Jesus.’ And he’s like, "That’s the way! That’s how we’ll end the movie! That’s how we’ll end the movie!’…you know, we’re there on Malta, which is a very small island in between Italy and North Africa, and it was some of the worst weather they had had in 60 years. So it was a pretty crazy experience. But! I got to work with Robert Altman and I’ll never forget that.”
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Role: Freewheeling radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, who wages a tough battle to maintain his enthusiastic zeal in the face of the harsh realities of the Vietnam War.
Trivia Time: The film won Williams the first of his four Oscar nominations. He eventually took home a statue for Good Will Hunting almost a decade later.
Robin Reminisces: "Until this role, the acting and the comedy have been pretty much separate on screen. [Director Barry Levinson] would say, ‘You don’t have to be funny here.’ In the past I used to think, ‘I’ll push it, I’ll make it funnier.’ [Psychotherapy] allowed me to show more vulnerability, and I think the camera can catch that. I think therapy has helped me to bring out a deeper level of comedy."
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Role: Everyone’s favorite English professor, John Keating.
Trivia Time: Keating’s immortal “Carpe diem” line sits at number 95 on the AFI’s list of the 100 best movie quotes.
Robin Reminisces: "It talks about something of the heart and of pursuing that which is a dream-and in some cases, to a tragic end. Originally, my character was supposed to have leukemia, which would have been Dead Poets Love Story. Then [director] Peter Weir said, ‘Let’s lose that. Focus on the boys.’ Lose the melodrama and it becomes much simpler and much better.”
Role: Reserved but determined doctor Malcolm Sayer (modeled after real-life neurologist and author Oliver Sacks), who finds a way to bring a catatonic patient (Robert De Niro) back to consciousness.
Trivia Time: Williams accidentally broke his co-star’s nose during a particularly physical scene.
Robin Reminisces: "In this movie, [I was] working with Robert De Niro, who is obviously a whole other style. I think Nostradamus said, ‘When they meet, that will be the end.’ I mean, he’s a different style. You find a way of dealing with it, but there are sometimes where you have to break the mood, because we’re working in a mental hospital for five months in Brooklyn. There’d be a guy waiting at the window going, ‘Do I look nuts to you?! Do I look nuts to you?! Do I look crazy to you?!’ And you’d realize it was one of the doctors! I guess it was a hospital where the bottom two floors were still real patients and we used a lot of real patients."
The Fisher King (1991)
Role: Seemingly insane homeless man Parry, who actually has a method to his medieval madness.
Trivia Time: The famous Grand Central Station waltz sequence was shot in one night and featured almost 1,000 extras.
Robin Reminisces: “[Director Terry Gilliam] frees me in many ways, because I’m not afraid to try stuff. And then the greatest thing is that I’m not afraid to do nothing, to just stop for a moment, and in that I find this incredible power, it’s quite strange — not pathetic but very moving.” Years later, he’d add: “Jeff and I were shooting a scene, and something screws up and he was like, ‘It’s okay. It’s a gift. Don’t be afraid of it.’ Every time when you make a movie, [it] forces you to make something special that you didn’t plan.You’re in that moment, and you’re forced to deal with it with the other actor.And with him, it was a blast, because you’re playing off of someone who is so good.”
Role: The big, blue, blustery Genie-of-a-thousand-voices (but only three wishes).
Trivia Time: Though Williams’ ad-libs had audiences in stitches, they were also reportedly the reason that the Academy DQ’d Aladdin from a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination.
Robin Reminisces: “Initially, they came in, and I was just doing the scripted lines, and I asked, ‘Do you mind if I try something?’ And then, 18 hours of recording later, they had the genie. I just started playing, and they said ‘Just go with it, go with it, go with it.’ So I improvised the character. I think that, in the end, there were something like 40 different voices that I did for that role.”As for the film’s massive reception, he’d note:”I snuck into the back of a family screening of that...I saw parents just laughing with their kids and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of sweet.’ I’m proud of that.”
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Role: In order to prove to his ex-wife that he can be a responsible caretaker of their three kids, voiceover actor Daniel Hillard dons a Scottish accent and pounds of makeup to become the titular nanny.
Trivia Time: It took four and a half hours to suit Williams up as Mrs. Doubtfire.
Robin Reminisces: "One time in makeup as Mrs. Doubtfire, I walked into a sex shop in San Francisco and tried to buy a double-headed dildo. Just because. Why not? And the guy was about to sell it to me until he realized it was me — Robin Williams — not an older Scottish woman coming in to look for a very large dildo and a jar of lube. He just laughed and said ‘What are you doing here?’, and I left. Did I make the purchase? No. Did I walk away with a really good story? Yes.”
The Birdcage (1996)
Role: Flashy, flamboyant South Beach nightclub owner Armand Goldman.
Trivia Time: Williams was initially tapped to play the Nathan Lane character, but prevailed upon director Mike Nichols to switch roles.
Robin Reminisces: "Broadway and Juilliard was how I knew [to dance]. We had all these dance teachers…[one of them would] get all these guys who were stiff and smack them. Grab them by the crotch and pull them across the floor. Always great to do that Martha Graham. Twyla [Tharp] is great because you can fling your head around. You get that lovely whiplash." Williams also spoke of the film’s importance: “I think the effect will be profound. The fact is there are families like this. They exist. They exist all over America despite what folks want to think. And they raise their kids like anybody else. They don’t raise them to be gay or straight, they raise them just to have a life.”
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Role: Therapist Sean Maguire, whose psychoanalytic skills are almost as formidable as his facial hair.
Trivia Time: Sean’s “farting wife” story was an extended bit of improv by Williams.
Robin Reminisces: "It was reacting to [Damon’s character] and listening to him, as a therapist and also a therapist who has a history, and him kind of pushing my buttons and me trying to stop him from doing that and literally going, ‘I know what you’re doing here.’ And finally he pushes the wrong button and the next thing, Sean just snaps. You know that line, ‘I’ll end you’? Matt or Ben said that they were in a bar when they saw this big guy picking on this little guy and saying, ‘Hey, I’ll kick your ass,’ and all of a sudden the little guy got right in his face and said, ‘I will f---king end you.’"
Role: Alaska-based psycho killer Walter Finch.
Trivia Time: To match Pacino’s warm-up exercise of roaring like a lion before a take, Williams bleated like a goat on their first day shooting together.
Robin Reminisces: "I don’t remember how Insomnia came about. It may have been stunt casting, or because I’d done something similar with One Hour Photo. People think of me as likable, so the appeal was to play against those expectations and explore those areas that normally you’d have to do prison time for. It’s fun to have an audience say, ‘Ah, it’s that sweet little man,’ and then find out he’s actually a brutal thug. Playing scenes with [Pacino] was a little surreal, because I was like, ‘I’m watching Al Pacino!’ and then I’d realize I had to act, too. I loved talking to him off-set. He plays all these incredible characters, but he claims most of the time he just wants to be in the Village having coffee and discussing Aristotle.”
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
Role: Grieving father Lance Clayton, who goes to great lengths to ensure that his dead teenage son is remembered as a better person than he was in life.
Trivia Time: World’s Greatest Dad was Williams’ second collaboration with longtime friend and director Bobcat Goldthwait. He previously had a small role in Goldthwait’s cult debut, Shakes the Clown.
Robin Reminisces: "It’s a strange, small piece. I took it initially as a favor to Bobcat, thinking that if I played a small part maybe it’d get financed. Then I read it and went, ‘Would you mind if I played the main character?’ He’s a really interesting, awkward, damaged guy, and the subject matter is so powerful. I think the title catches people, they think it’s going to be goofy. But if you’ve seen any of Bobcat’s other work, you’ll kind of know what to expect.”