Robin Williams earned his big-screen debut as Popeye in 1980 on the the growing popularity of his frenzied, freewheeling stand-up routine, and his literally out-of-this-world role on TV’s Mork & Mindy. Williams’ follow-up, The World According to Garp, was quick to reveal the sensitive artist, the melancholic side to the actor that sought fulfillment in dramatic characters and movies. Of course, it was the ’80s, and the market demanded awful comedies, which Williams was obliged to make until that special breakthrough role that would propel him out of yuppie slapstick. That moment arrived in 1987 with Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam, a box office smash that nabbed Williams his first Oscar nomination and was part and parcel of Reagan-era movies like First Blood and Platoon that re-defined the American perception of the War.
Vietnam kicked off a strong run of critical praise and Academy recognition, as William appeared in Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, and The Fisher King one after the other. If comedy was beginning to look like something in the rear view mirror, Williams abruptly shifted gears into family fare, starting with 1991’s Hook, and then Aladdin (a turning point for celebrity voice actors as animated marketing draws), Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, and Flubber. Williams was everywhere in the ’90s, and it all culminated with the multiple career-launching Good Will Hunting, which got him his final Oscar nomination (he was previously recognized for Fisher King and Dead Poets) and only win.
After flops Bicentennial Man and Jakob the Liar saw him veer hard into sentimentality, Williams re-invented himself as a dark angel in 2002 with Death to Smoochy, Insomnia, and One Hour Photo. Broad comedies (like Old Dogs, Man of the Year, RV, or License to Wed) would still remind audiences of the old eager-to-please Williams, even as they repelled critics. And he could use his pre-conceived image as a genial figure in his favor in ensemble pieces like the Night at the Museum series, Happy Feet, or Lee Daniels’ The Butler. But it was obvious Williams was increasingly drawn to pitch-black comedies and dramas, which ramped up in menace over the course of The Night Listener, World’s Greatest Dad, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, and A Merry Friggin’ Christmas.
Williams’ final on-screen performance was 2015’s Boulevard, and his last voice role featured in 2017 for Absolutely Anything. A Certified Fresh 2018 documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, remains to illuminate more of his life, as we rank all Robin Williams movies by Tomatometer.