The news of Robin Williams’ passing generated near-palpable shock across social media, television, and around the world Monday. Fans lost a brilliant and gentle (if troubled) soul who delighted countless millions across five decades with a brand of comedy that was unique in its tenor and unparalleled in its inspired lunacy. Williams was all four Marx Brothers squeezed into one pair of pants, a cyclone of comedic energy made up of equal parts childlike innocence and late-night Vegas-strip bawdiness.
Williams’ rocket-fueled brand of comedy, however, sometimes eclipsed his formidable talents as a serious dramatic actor. In his youth he was granted a full scholarship to study theatre at the prestigious Julliard School at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in New York City, and in 1998, he won the Academy Award for his turn as a psychologist in Good Will Hunting.
What many may not realize, however, is that Williams’ career had a decided literary streak to it, as well. Many of his best-known roles were in films based on literary works—some of them the best-known books of their era, or of all time. For example, in his second major motion picture role (his first was as the title character in Popeye), Williams played the lead in The World According to Garp (1982), the film based on the landmark best-seller by John Irving. Williams’ irreverent sense of humor and his impressive dramatic talents were the perfect combination to bring Irving’s quirky, ironic tale to life and Williams won wide-spread acclaim for his performance.
In 1986, Williams starred in Seize the Day (1986), based on the novel by Saul Bellow. While that movie may not have been among his best known, its title phrase would be the basis of one of Williams’ best-remembered film quotes after he starred in Dead Poets Society (1990). That film itself wasn’t based on a novel, but it was certainly literature-friendly, and a memorable celebration of reading and learning.
Williams also was no stranger to fantasy adventure and he took roles in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), which was based on a collection of tales by Rudolph Erich Raspe; and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992), based on stories by Diana Young. Williams famously portrayed a grown-up Peter Pan in Hook (1991), which continued the adventures of the classic J.M Barrie books, and, in one of his best-known (yet non-credited) roles, he voiced the character of the Genie in the Disney animated musical feature Aladdin (1992), which was based on one of the tales in the timeless collection One Thousand and One Nights.
In one of his signature roles, Williams donned a wig, a Scottish accent, and flaming breasts to bring Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) to life. That film was based on the novel Alias Mrs. Doubtfire by Anne Fine. He played the title characters in Patch Adams (1998, from the book Gesundheit: Good Health is a Laughing Matter by Adams and Maureen Mylander) and Jakob the Liar (1999, from the book by Jurek Becker.) Those performances were followed in 2001 by his turn in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (based on the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss).
More recently, Williams portrayed two American presidents in films based on written works. He played Theodore Roosevelt in the action comedy Night at the Museum franchise (based on a novel by Milan Trenc), and transformed into Dwight D. Eisenhower in the critically-acclaimed Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013, based a Washington Post article by Wil Haygood).
Just as many of these written works have been remembered for generations, so will Robin Williams’ talents surely survive the test of time. He was a singular, once-in-a-lifetime performer whose genius for improvisational comedy was more than matched by his ability to bring literary characters to life on the big screen. While the world mourns his loss, we recognize his achievements, and thank him for all he’s done to celebrate the written word.
Mental illness affects nearly 60 million Americans every year. If you or someone you know suffers from depression, that suffering doesn’t have to take place in silence. Contact your medical professional or your local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (in the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255). YOU ARE NOT ALONE.