Aug. 11, 2014 at 9:07 PM ET
If the late Robin Williams had only ever played Mork in "Mork & Mindy" and done nothing else, that would've been enough to forever grant him a permanent place in the nation's comedy memories. He had us in the palm of his hand from the minute he showed up in that red jumpsuit with the shiny silver triangle, worrying that he was about to be punished for painting a mustache on a solar lander.
But Williams didn't stay strapped in those rainbow suspenders for long. His stand-up comic skills served him well in more dramatic roles, as when he won the hearts of schoolboys in "Dead Poets Society" and soldiers in "Good Morning Vietnam." He stunned audiences when he turned dark, as in the 2002 psychological thriller "One Hour Photo." And he balanced on a thin line between real and fantasy worlds in his Oscar-nominated role in the 1991 film "The Fisher King." Add to that the comical Popeye, Aladdin's confident Genie, even two penguins in the "Happy Feet" series, and it was easy to see that Mork was just the beginning of what Williams could do.
It's impossible to encapsulate all of Williams' memorable moments, but here's a look at some of the roles for which we remember him best.
'Mork and Mindy'
Just try to count the sheer number of 1978 trends that sprang from Williams' role as jovial alien Mork, who began life on "Happy Days" and soon spun off to his own wonderfully wacky show. Rainbow suspenders became a fad. Phrases like "Na-nu, na-nu" and "shazbot" were uttered everywhere from playgrounds to Sunday school classrooms. Even sitting on one's head — the weird Morkian gesture that won show producers over at Williams' audition — became briefly popular. A lesser actor would've just looked silly, but Williams made even the goofiest gesture, the most ridiculous remark feel believable and real.
'Good Morning Vietnam'
Williams' "Good Morning Vietnam" character, Armed Forces Radio Services DJ Adrian Cronauer, was based on a real Saigon-based war DJ, but it's no surprise that Williams improvised much of his radio broadcasts in the film. The patter was his, the racing from one thought to the next with no time for breath, the jokes and the kindness and the humor, all pure Williams. His signature "Gooooooooood morning Vietnam!" became one of the most oft-imitated and oft-parodied catchphrases in film history. As he would later go on to do with "Dead Poets Society," Wiliams played a one-of-a-kind character who inspired a devoted following simply by being his own wacky, frenetic, seemingly unhinged self. From the Delta to the DMZ, he was rockin' it, just as he proclaimed on-air.
'Dead Poets Society'
If Mork was still your image of Williams in 1989, you had another think coming with "Dead Poets Society." Williams captivated audiences in his role as English teacher John Keating, who encouraged his students to stand on their desks to gain a new perspective, let them call him "O Captain! My Captain!", dragged a breathtaking poem out of Ethan Hawke's character by sheer force of will, and inspired the strait-laced students to "carpe diem," or "seize the day." When he's eventually fired, his students rise up in support of him, and their mass desk-stand-a-thon makes for one of the most powerful scenes in any 1980s movie. As with "Mork," the film hangs on Williams' performance — he was the once-in-a-lifetime teacher we all wished we had.
Sure, "Aladdin" was the title character of Disney's 1992 film, but it was Williams' work as The Genie that everyone remembers. Boisterous and booming, he was the magical stand-up comic of ancient Agrabah, much cheerier and funnier than anyone trapped in a lamp for years could be expected to be. "Can your friends do this? Can your friends do that?" he demanded in song. "Can your friends pull this? Out their little hat?" No sir, they couldn't. The role of The Genie was reportedly created for Williams, despite suggestions of other comedic talents such as Steve Martin and John Candy, and it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role.
Even decades after Williams put on a frumpy dress for 1993's "Mrs. Doubtfire," the character he created is still indelible. In 2013, Williams himself slyly pointed out a resemblance between his voice-actor dad disguised as a female housekeeper and Kim Kardashian in a certain floral maternity dress. And it wasn't really that tough to imagine the character's own children not recognizing him as a woman — Williams could disappear into a character like no one else.
'Good Will Hunting'
Though he was nominated for the best actor Oscar three times, Williams won only once, for best supporting actor for his role in 1997's "Good Will Hunting." Williams plays Sean McGuire, the psychiatrist working with the unlikely genius played by Matt Damon, and while his own life is a mess, he gets through to his young client in a way no one else could. Late critic Roger Ebert called it right away, writing that Williams gave one of his best performances ever as McGuire, and the Academy correctly agreed.
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