A-List: Five Best Robin Williams Roles

By J. Don Birnam

August 25, 2014

They get along surprisingly well considering the 12 Years a Slave dynamic.

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When I heard of the tragic and untimely death of beloved comedian/actor Robin Williams, I immediately thought back to one of my favorite Disney movies of all time, Aladdin, and the key role he played in making that movie a classic. Indeed, while in 2014 live action actors are still pushing back at the notion that voiceovers and animation generally constitute real acting, Williams pushed the envelope 20 years ago, proving with Aladdin that, in effect, an actor’s voice can provide as respectable a performance as anything else. In any event, it seemed fitting to pay tribute to the man who made us laugh for over 35 years by looking back at some of his best roles and pick five of my favorites.

The rules this time around are simple: If the movie is on his official IMDb filmography, then it counts. This includes voice-overs, given that, as noted, they played a critical part of his trajectory. Also, I should note I’m not listing these based on the quality of the movie, but on the quality of Williams’ performance.

I noticed something when I was looking through the list: I haven’t really seen many of his movies in the last ten years. Many have been for cartoons or for the Night at the Museum series. So, sadly, you won’t find any post-2002 movie on this last. I also confess I have never seen Moscow on the Hudson, largely considered his breakthrough role. You’ll have to excuse that movie’s absence from the list.

Two honorable mentions: The first goes to Good Morning Vietnam, a war-comedy that sees Williams as a DJ on the armed forces radio service who is popular with the troops because of his racy manner in the air. Williams, as usual, nails the role with his comedic timing and furtive expressions. There’s nothing that I particularly dislike about his performance here, but I simply like other ones more. The second goes to Hook, one of my favorite movies growing up. I love Hook’s reinvention of the Peter Pan tale and I can’t think of a better actor to have played the perpetual child character. The twist, of course, was that he forgot about who he was, and did grow up. Alas, I haven’t seen the movie in decades, so I had to leave it off the main list for that reason. Bonus credit honorable mention: Jumanji. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine. Yeah, I know the movie is terrible.


One last thing I noticed is that I do not dislike any of Robin Williams’ roles except for one: Good Will Hunting. I know I’m in the decided minority but I deeply dislike that movie. Maybe it was because of all of the hullabaloo around the obnoxious Damon/Affleck stuff. Maybe I really dislike Harvard stuff (no, not maybe). Thus, ironically, the role for which he won an Oscar is one you will not see on the list.

Without further ado…

5. One Hour Photo

In this 2002 movie, perhaps Williams’ last great role, he plays a photo developer in a shopping mart (dated, anyone?) who develops an obsession with one of the families whose photos he’s been developing for years. This role sticks in my mind because it is so far out of Williams’ bailiwick, but he delivers a stunning performance as a lonely, obsessive and downright creepy man (who, it turns out, was himself a victim of something more horrible). Indeed, surrounded by a mostly unknown cast, he steals the show entirely and delivers a knockout performance in this well-reviewed but little seen indie. For anyone looking to explore Williams’ filmography but not into the lighthearted fare, this is the perfect place to start.

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