(Screen shot via Jumanji.)
On Monday, we learned that legendary actor and comedian Robin Williams had committed suicide. He was 63.
An energetic and voracious presence onscreen, Williams got his start as a guest star on Happy Days and soon became a household name with his starring role on Mork and Mindy. After that, he demonstrated his comic and dramatic talents in a number of films, which have turned out to be life touchstones for many people, of many ages.
I’ve pieced together a small sample of Williams’ work that’s (mostly) free to stream online. After watching your fair share of YouTube clips, try a few of these. Some are classics and others are lesser-known works, but all contain the unmatchable, infectious wit that Williams will long be remembered for.
1. Popeye (1980)
Williams stars in one of his first major motion picture roles alongside Shelley Duvall in this feel-good film based on the comic strip by E.C. Segar. It’s a classic narrative: Popeye arrives in Sweethaven Village, looking for his long-lost father, only to fall in love with Olive Oyl (Duvall). To win her hand in marriage, he must out-tough her husky suitor Bluto. It’s fun to watch Williams mug for the camera (not to mention wrestle an octopus). And, of course, we get to see him eat a fair share of spinach onscreen, too.
2. The Survivors (1983)
Though the bumbling plot of The Survivors doesn’t necessarily make much sense, it’s just the type of slack-jawed comedy that Williams came to be known for later in his career. Williams carves out his niche as a businessman under extraordinary circumstances, first being fired by a parrot (an honor reserved for high-profile executives in his company). He then meets a gas-station attendant (Walter Matthau) who is also down on his luck. The two accidentally witness a mob robbery and soon receive threats to stay silent. As a result, they become obsessed with “survival” and study up on ways to protect themselves.
Like I said, it’s pretty clear that some movie execs said, “Hey, let’s throw these two funny men onscreen and figure out the details later,” but the movie has its moments.
Stream it here on Hulu.
3. The Best of Times (1986)
Williams plays a local banker who, in his adulthood, is haunted by a flubbed play in a crucial high school football game. He finally reaches peak frustration, declaring that he will organize a rematch with the opposing team 13 years after the original game went down. Stakes rise after his jerk of a father-in-law sides with the other team.
It might seem like a tired narrative now, but nerds persevering to gain revenge was all the rage in the ’80s. Plus, it turns out that Williams and Kurt Russell (who plays his high school friend) have great bromantic chemistry.
Stream it here on Hulu.
4. Hook (1991)
The classic tale of Peter Pan is rejiggered for the modern era, where the boy who never grows up is a grumpy 40-something mergers and acquisitions lawyer. He’s forced to remember his past adventures as a frolicking forest boy when Hook (Dustin Hoffman) abducts his children.
With the help of Granny Wendy Darling (Maggie Smith) and Tinker Bell (Julia Roberts), he rediscovers his cool/fun side and returns to save his kids. If this unmistakable Spielberg production doesn’t make you smile, you deserve to be fed to the gators.
5. The Fisher King (1991)
This imaginative Terry Gilliam production seems personally tailored for Williams. Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a Howard Stern-ish radio host who garners high ratings by crapping on humanity. After his remarks inspire a gunman to murder a group of innocent people, Jack attempts to commit suicide — only to be saved by an insane homeless man named Parry, played by Williams.
Parry (once a college professor) convinces Jack that he must persevere in order to recover the Holy Grail in midtown Manhattan. Oh, and he wants Jack to set him up with a longtime crush. Jack cooperates, and along the way of teaming up with a random homeless dude, starts learning things about himself.
Only Williams can touch this kind of lovable crazy headspace, and it’s wonderful to watch.
Stream it here on Netflix.
6. Jumanji (1995)
As a child of the ’90s, I get so many nostalgic feels about this movie. When a family moves into an old, haunted house, two kids discover an ancient board game. Instead of immediately selling it on Craigslist for video game money, they roll the dice. And out comes Robin Williams, who has spent the past 20 or so years living in the jungle. It turns out that he and his childhood friend started the game way back when and their only hope to end the safari havoc is to finish it.
There’s also a particularly lip-curling scene involving spiders in which Williams proves he needs only his most essential face muscles to act onscreen.
Stream it here on Netflix.
7. The Birdcage (1996)
Based on the French musical/Broadway hit La Cage aux Folles (roughly translated to “The Cage of Madwomen”), this movie tells the story of two very different families who manage to reconcile their differences for the sake of their soon-to-be-wed children. In one corner we have Armand Goldman (Williams) and his partner Albert (Nathan Lane), who run a racy South Beach drag den. In the other, there’s the very religious Republican Sen. Keeley (Gene Hackman) and his obedient wife, who together run the Coalition for Moral Order.
Williams shines in this role, allowing his flamboyant spirit to run free on the catwalk, somehow making masculinity seem ostentatious in comparison to his character’s exaggerated lifestyle.
On HBO GO
8. Jakob the Liar (1999)
In this film, Williams plays Jakob Heym, a cafe owner struggling to survive during the Nazis’ occupation of Poland. After overhearing some news that Polish troops had a major victory over Germany, he tells his fellow countrymen, who are inspired by the good news. Heym begins to invent more stories to influence the attitude of his peers. It’s only when the rumors get back to the Nazis, and they begin searching for radio equipment, that he must fess up to his antics.
On Hulu Plus
9. Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
Williams plays an eccentric Russian circus saxophonist who comes to New York and suddenly decides he never wants to go back. He soon adopts his own illustrious New York life, complete with a lawyer, a job, and a girlfriend.
And a few you can rent (it’s worth the $2.99)
10. Good Morning, Vietnam (1986)
Set in 1965, Good Morning, Vietnam tells the story of DJ Adrian Cronauer (Williams), whose mission is to bring joy to American troops in Vietnam via his morning radio broadcast. He clashes with his superior Lt. Hauk (Bruno Kirby), who’s jealous of Cronauer’s popularity among the soldiers. When Cronauer experiences the horrors of war firsthand, however, he brings a more somber tone to the program.
11. Dead Poets Society (1989)
If only we could all have had Williams as our eccentric, emotionally invested professor to teach us life’s most valuable lessons. In this film, he plays John Keating, a professor at the fictional Welton Academy prep school in 1959. Everything is a bore to the student body (which includes a dreamy young Ethan Hawke) until Keating shows up and starts teaching them about POETRY. His lessons change their perspective on life, freeing their minds from societal norms and obligations. It sounds cheesy, but even with a little tragedy mixed in, Williams somehow makes the whole thing heartwarming.
12. Aladdin (1992)
Williams voices Genie in Aladdin, a joyful Disney flick about a pauper who falls in love with a princess. Honestly, aside from Aladdin’s pet monkey Abu, Genie is the only one who has a personality in the whole animated film. He’s also a very pretty shade of blue. I like that.
13. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Williams plays a lovable but irresponsible voice actor who, after messing up his son’s birthday party, faces a divorce suit from his wife (Sally Field). After struggling to connect with his children and wife as a single father, he creates a persona named Mrs. Doubtfire and becomes the household nanny on the low.
This is hands-down my favorite Williams film, because there’s nothing quite like seeing a man fight for the right to love and nourish his family underneath the guise of stockings and a wig.
14. One Hour Photo (2002)
Williams was known for his comedic work, but he was also a very skilled dramatic actor. Case in point: One Hour Photo. It tells the story of a desperately lonely photo department attendant. Over the years, he becomes quietly obsessed with a young family whose photos he frequently develops.
(For more dark drama from Williams, I’d also recommend Death to Smoochy and Insomnia.)