Robin Williams' quiet beneath the storm

To some who were of a particular age in 1992, Robin Williams will be most-remembered for a part that did not feature his face. The voice of the Genie in “Aladdin” was an unfiltered outlet for the bubbling, gregarious energy of the actor, who died Monday at 63 of a suspected suicide. More than two decades after that film, anyone who grew up with the Disney classic still can hear the Genie booming and singing in our heads, the loudest and most resonant noise in a film that featured Gilbert Gottfried as a loudmouth parrot.

Of course, the Chicago-born Williams, who had battled substance abuse and was reportedly dealing with severe depression of late, also could tone it down, and for me the comedian was frequently at his best in dramatic roles. The inspiring, independent-thought motivator of “Dead Poets Society”; the chilling calm of “Insomnia”; his Oscar-winning role as the title character’s therapist and mentor in “Good Will Hunting.” In these parts, the boisterous, one-man party was nowhere to be found, aside from the way he could command attention by seemingly doing very little. Occasionally in recent years, he took on comparable parts (such as “The Night Listener” and, in a different way, “World’s Greatest Dad”) that allowed him to flex these less-explosive muscles.

He was also the iconic “Mrs. Doubtfire,” a role he reportedly planned to return to in an upcoming sequel. It’s easy to think of that film (which will also hopefully make people go back and watch “Tootsie”) and think only of the titular housekeeper. That’s OK; Williams is very funny in the role. But he’s also effective as Daniel, the divorced dad who misses his kids and is desperate enough to become an elderly Englishwoman in order to see them. We have him to thank for the hilarious “Arrested Development” subplot of Mrs. Featherbottom.

With over-the-top appearances on late-night shows or parts in bad movies like “License to Wed,” “Old Dogs,” “Man of the Year” or “The Big Wedding,” Williams could seem like a joke—like he equated bigger and louder with funnier, or that if he made enough of a racket he didn’t have to hear whether or not people were laughing. Yet he was someone who could seem like an entirely different person to different viewers depending on when they discovered Williams. Was it his breakout role as Mork from Ork on the late-‘70s sitcom “Mork and Mindy”? The club owner paranoid about how his partner’s effeminate behavior would come off to his son’s conservative in-laws in “The Birdcage”? The lawyer rediscovering his inner child in “Hook”? Many Hollywood vets have a diverse assortment of work in their filmography—and this is to say nothing of “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Awakenings” or “The Fisher King,” other notable efforts I admittedly still need to catch up on—but Williams in particular is someone you can have a wildly varied opinion of based on what you have or haven’t seen him in.

“That applies to several actors,” you might say. “Look at most of Robert De Niro’s work in the last decade or two.” True. But in De Niro’s disappointing efforts, he was merely forgettable. I don’t think I can recall a time when Williams disappeared into the background. Sometimes that meant he was annoying. Sometimes it meant he carried the movie. At all times he was present, making the wide void he leaves behind seem that much more vacant.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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