“A Little Spark of Madness”: Revisiting Robin Williams’ Most Iconic Roles

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The late Robin Williams touched countless lives throughout his illustrious career. To honor the great comedian and actor, we’re reflecting on the ways his inimitable wit and impressions entertained folks of all ages and helped shape a generation of young comedians’ craft. “You’re only given a little spark of madness,” Williams once said. “You mustn’t lose it.” And it’s clear, from his body of work, that Williams never lost that spark, thus cementing his place as one of the greatest comedians of all time.

From portraying a charming alien on Mork & Mindy to voicing the Genie in Aladdin (1992) to showing off his more serious acting chops in films like Good Will Hunting (1997), Williams crafted a truly incredible legacy. So, let’s take a look at some of his most iconic roles.

Mork & Mindy (1978-1982)

If you ever watched Happy Days‘ idealized version of life and thought, “Hey, this could use some aliens!” then you and producer Garry Marshall would get along famously. The iconic show spawned several spin-offs, but one of its most successful was Mork & Mindy, a show about an extraterrestrial named Mork (Williams) who comes to Earth from a far-flung planet in an egg-shaped ship.

 Photo Courtesy: Jim Britt/Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

Eager to study humans and learn more about Earth customs, Mork befriends Mindy (Pam Dawber), a Boulder local who agrees to keep Mork’s identity a secret. This odd-couple start off as unlikely roomies, but become fast friends (and, later, love interests). 

On Mork’s home planet, humor is frowned upon, but, luckily, on Earth all of Williams’ hilarity is allowed to shine, cementing Mork & Mindy’s place in TV history. Plus, it gave us the iconic “Nanu, nanu” catchphrase — and landed Williams a Golden Globe.

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Williams received a Golden Globe — as well as an Oscar nomination — for his starring role in the 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam. Set in 1965 in Saigon during the Vietnam War, Williams portrayed an irreverent radio DJ on a U.S. Armed Forces radio station.

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The story was loosely based on the work and experiences of AFRS radio DJ Adrian Cronauer. In fact, Cronauer first pitched the idea as a TV movie. Although most of his treatment was rewritten to be more comical, Cronauer was very happy with the film — and, of course, Williams’ iconic performance.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

The famed comedian brought his flair and wit to John Keating in Dead Poets Society. In the film, Keating is a teacher who uses his love of poetry and literature to push his students to think unconventionally and live outside of their comfort zones.

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Though Keating’s students came to respect and love him, his fellow teachers and administration believe his teaching style and ideas are far too radical. The role was perfect for Williams’ comedic genius. And it made us all want to stand up on our couches, proclaim, “O Captain! My Captain!” and really seize the day, just as Keating intended.

Aladdin (1992)

One of Williams’ most memorable roles came in the form of voiceover work. By playing Genie in Disney’s animated Aladdin (1992) Williams became known to a younger generation — even if they didn’t get all of the meta or referential jokes.

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As you may know, the popular animated film follows the story of Aladdin, a “diamond in the rough” who needs the Genie’s wish-granting help to win Princess Jasmine’s heart — and thwart the ill-intentioned sorcerer Jafar. Much like in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Williams’ role in Aladdin allowed the comedian to show off his incredible — and incredibly quotable — impressions.

Jumanji (1995)

In 1995, the chaos that rampages through a small New Hampshire town all starts with a magical board game. In the film, Williams’ character, Alan Parrish, gets trapped in the arcane game as a child, only to emerge as a fully grown Williams when a new group of kids unleash Jumanji’s hijinks.

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Jumanji, with all of its dramatics, was one of the highest-grossing films of 1995. The film spawned an animated television series, which aired from 1996 to 1999, as well as two direct sequels, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) and Jumanji: The Next Level (2019).

The Birdcage (1996)

The 1996 film The Birdcage was a remake of the 1978 Franco-Italian film La Cage aux Folles. Williams starred as a gay cabaret owner alongside his dramatic partner (Nathan Lane). When their son introduces them to his fiancée’s conservative parents, the comedic couple pretend to be straight.

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The film was nominated for a Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Award. In fact, GLAAD praised the film for “going beyond the stereotypes to see the characters’ depth and humanity. The film celebrates differences and points out the outrageousness of hiding those differences.” Best of all, it holds up today — and it co-stars Christine Baranski.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good Will Hunting was a film that truly solidified Williams’ serious acting chops. In the Oscar-winning film, Williams plays a therapist who’s assigned to work with a smart young man (Matt Damon) who assaulted a cop. Damon’s character eventually opens up to the therapist, going on to study advanced mathematics and reach his full potential.

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The movie was actually a final assignment for a playwriting class Damon was taking at Harvard University. He was supposed to turn in a one-act play, but ended up submitting a 40-page script instead. In the end, Williams earned an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor — and Damon and his longtime buddy, Ben Affleck, nabbed an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

One Hour Photo (2002)

For those used to seeing Williams in comedic roles, One Hour Photo may come as a bit of a surprise. In this dramatic film, Williams plays a lonely photo technician who works at a one-hour photo counter in the big-box store SavMart.

 Photo Courtesy: IMDb

The character, Sey, develops an obsessive interest with the Yorkins, going so far as to take copies of the family’s photos and enshrine them in his home. The against-type role earned Williams much critical acclaim and earned him a Saturn Award.

Night at the Museum (2006)

One of Williams’ final roles was playing a wax model of President Theodore Roosevelt that comes to life in the Ben Stiller-led Night at the Museum series. Of course, Williams doesn’t play a statue. For those unfamiliar with the family-friendly fantasy film, Stiller plays a security guard at the Museum of Natural History and, during the night shift, comes across an ancient curse that causes all of the exhibits on display to come to life.

 Photo Courtesy: IMDb

After the original Night at the Museum was released in 2006, two other sequels were developed — Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian in 2009, and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb in 2014. Sadly, Williams passed before the last film in the trilogy was released. However, with the role he yet again made himself known to another generation, allowing even more moviegoers to admire his unique, unforgettable comedy styling.

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