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The Hidden Worlds of Robin Williams

We all thought we knew who Robin Williams was when we first met him back in the 1970s. Funny, stream of consciousness, able to take on different voices, impersonations, scathing humor all in rapid-fire succession. The funny thing was we had no idea who he really was, what he was capable of as an artist, and how deep his compassion went when it came to giving back. There are so many tributes all over the web — it seems pointless to write yet another one. Instead, I’ll talk about what I thought Robin Williams’ best roles were and why.

It’s hard to imagine any other comedian unpeeling before our eyes the way Williams did — starting broad with Popeye but not too soon after that turning up in movies that hovered somewhere between funny and serious. He was one of the few who could drop the schtick when things got serious and people would stop laughing.  In these moments it was clear that he could be funny — really funny when he turned it on — but that was merely the packaging.

Probably the film most like him, though, was The Fisher King. Because so many people have already written about it by now, it seems pointless to go into it but that was the story of a man wrestling with crippling demons. A magical, verbose, imaginative man full of heart and exuberance.

But as an actor, Williams liked to challenge himself and one of the ways he did that was by playing a bad guy. He did this hardly ever and most of the time it wasn’t the side of his personality people wanted to see. That he went there at all, given that fact, is a testament to his commitment to the craft.

In Insomnia, Christopher Nolan’s exceptional but misunderstood and mostly ignored cop thriller, Williams plays a psychotic. I remember at the time people weren’t quite ready to accept him in that role — there was much huffing and puffing about the movie being good until he showed up. That was another example of critics, and maybe filmgoers, wanting a film to follow a more traditional pattern, without letting it make its way naturally. Williams is creepy, and mean. You don’t expect him to go there but he goes there completely.

When Insomnia first came out, in typical Nolan fashion, no one knew much about it, or about him. The last thing anyone was expecting was to see Robin Williams turn up as the killer. Nolan’s film is so brilliantly complex and yet it did not seem to get much traction from critics, audiences or industry voters. Perhaps they were expecting something along the lines of Silence of the Lambs. But this isn’t a film about catching a killer so much as it is a film about a cop covering his ass as he tries to maintain his sanity amid crippling insomnia. As the years have worn on, I return to Insomnia again and again because I believe it to be among Nolan’s best films.

There is nothing so sad as Robin Williams in One Hour Photo. He exposes a kind of deep loneliness, a disconnectedness from love and family. It is perhaps thought of as one of his best dramatic turns because he never loses his compassion for the character. Williams might have had to work a little harder to be taken seriously, but he also never rejected nor separated himself from the Robin Williams we all grew up loving. Like Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Bill Murray, Woody Allen and Jim Carrey, comedians make fun of the darkest corners of the human experience. He was clearly full of deeper pain than anyone knew.

How does one reconcile saying goodbye to Robin Williams? It isn’t easy. To quote his daughter, we’ll just keep looking up.

In Law and Order SVU:

In One Hour Photo:

Robin Williams is hard to say goodbye to. He’s unforgettable. It wasn’t just his work as an actor – it was his bigness as a human being. He helped found Comic Relief charity foundation, he performed for the troops in Iraq:

After his heart surgery he talked to Ellen about meeting Koko the Gorilla.