Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Robin Williams: Coming of age as an actor

As the world continues to mourn the death of Robin Williams, and everyone gets a chance to look at his contribution to entertainment over the past five decades, it was in the 1980s that he came of age as an actor. As the decade opened, he was starring in his own situation comedy, and about to portray a popular cartoon character. As the 1980s ended, he had one Oscar nomination under his belt and was about to earn another. It set the stage for a career that would see two more nominations and a win in the late 1990s.

Mork calling Hollywood
Robin Williams as Popeye with
Shelly Duvall as Olive Oyl.
Robin Williams first came to prominence as the alien Mork from Ork, first in a guest spot on “Happy Days” then in his own series “Mork and Mindy” starring opposite Pam Dawber. It follows the journey of Mork, an alien who crash lands outside Boulder, Colorado, and is soon adopted by Mindy. What follows is the first vehicle for Williams to bring his stand-up comedy routine to the world. Each episode ended with Mork contacting his boss on Ork to report what he has learned. Each week he closes his eyes and chants, “Mork calling Orson.” As 1980 began, “Mork and Mindy” was in the middle of its second of what would be a four-season run.

Things would change for Williams by the end of 1980. In December, Williams made his big screen debut as “Popeye” in a live action rendition of the popular comic. I had read about “Popeye” in one of the magazines you got free at the theatre. It looked surreal, seeing cartoon characters Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, Wimpy and the others in real life, and seeing Williams as a blonde. In the movie poster, Popeye was holding a can of spinach, but it was just a tin can, not the impressive tin Popeye squeezed open to get his source of strength.

The movie had a decent box office, but some critics labeled it a bomb. Personally, I think it was doomed from the outset, because the audience likely saw the cartoon, and it could never translate properly into live action, not with the technology of the time. Not to meet the expectations of movie goers anyway. I actually did not see it until it came out on TV, so it had been cut up by commercials and station breaks, diluting it even more.

Robin Williams as T.S. Garp in
"The World According to Garp".
Williams’ career changed forever in 1982. In May, the final episode of “Mork and Mindy” aired, ending that chapter of his career. Two months later, “The World According to Garp”, his second film, premiered. It was another adaptation, this time of the best-selling John Irving novel of the same name, about writer T.S. Garp and the relationship he has with his mother.

The movie was generally well received, and garnered Oscar nominations for Glenn Close for best supporting actress, as Garp’s mother, and John Lithgow for best supporting actor, as a transsexual ex-football player. Again, I saw it on Channel 13 of peasant vision and, to be honest, I was too young to understand it. I should watch it now, because I have read a biography of John Irving and, from what I have read about Garp, it seems Irving includes some of his own life experiences, such as wrestling and writing, in the story.

More movies, little success
Three more movies followed in the next four years for Robin Williams, as he continued to find his legs as an actor, especially the star of a major motion picture.

Robin Williams co-starring with
Walter Matthau in "The Survivors"
Next up was “The Survivors” in 1983, the tale of two men who get caught up with a hit man and take refuge in a camp of survivalists. He co-stars with Walter Matthau.

It was not well received and not that good, although it showed signs of Williams’ comic improvisation skills. I watched it the summer of 1984 in Brooks, at my cousin Fred’s friend’s place. My outstanding memory was a scene where Matthau approaches the camp, and is greeted by Williams, who is decked out in a winter parka with a fur-lined hood.

“I feel like King Kong’s gynaecologist,” he says. That’s something only Williams could come up with. Unfortunately there was not enough of that to save the movie.

By then, ads had already come out advertising another Robin Williams’ movie, this one called “Moscow on the Hudson”. By this time, I really only wanted to see the movie because I was a completist – I wanted to see all Robin Williams’ movies. Oddly, I never have seen this one, which focuses on Williams as a Russian musician who defects. It was a moderate success, fairing better than “The Survivors”.

When 1986 dawned, there would be three more movies featuring Robin Williams..

The “Best of Times” has Williams’ character obsessing over a game-winning pass he dropped in high school, so much so he recreates the game 20 years later. Kurt Russell is his co-star as the one-time high school quarterback. The film was made by Ron Shelton who would go on to much bigger sports movie success with “Bull Durham” and “Tin Cup”. “The Best of Times” was another moderate success, but I never saw this one either, except in bits and pieces on pay TV in res when I went off to university.

“Club Paradise” revolves around a firefighter who helps the owner of a beach resort save and re-model his operation. This movie features several SCTV comedians including Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, and Joe Flaherty, but none of them could seem to save it. On first glance, it looks as if this movie did not even break even.

In “Seize the Day”, Williams plays a salesman who has lost his job and his girlfriend, and tries to pick up the pieces. I had never heard of this movie before I just saw it on Internet Movie DataBase, and discovered on Wikipedia it is based on a Saul Bellow novel of the same name. This movie may be forgettable, but keep that title in mind.

Robin Williams as radio announcer Adrian
Cronauer in "Good Morning, Vietnam".
So, by the end of 1986, it seemed to be quantity over quality for Robin Williams, as he had made seven movies in the 1980s, and none had blown audiences away. Things did not look that promising for Robin Williams the screen actor.

Break out
That all changed when he accepted the role of Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning, Vietnam”. Williams plays a radio deejay for the Armed Forces Radio Service during the Vietnam War. The movie went on to gross more than $120 million, earning Williams a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination for best actor in a leading role.

It came out during my first year of university, and a buddy from my hometown raved about it when he came up for orientation in February. One of my floormates in res used to rent a VCR and watch movies in his room, usually Friday or Saturday nights. The first one I watched in there was “Good Morning, Vietnam”. Unfortunately, the movie is kind of dark visually, so it was hard to follow in a pitch black room. Sadly, I have not seen it since.

Robin Williams as English instructor
John Keating in "Dead Poets Society".
Closing out with another hit
After bit parts in two movies the following year, Williams hit another home run with “Dead Poets Society” in 1989. He plays an unorthodox English teacher in a conservative private boys’ school who encourages his students to “seize the day” (remember 1986). His performance is as understated, calm, and reserved as it was bombastic and energetic in “Good Morning, Vietnam”.

The movie has many outstanding moments, but none more so than the final scene. After being fired for his methods and their effect on students, the boys show one final sign of support and approval during his last appearance in the classroom. It still gives me goose bumps, “Oh captain, my captain”.

This movie I saw as a sneak preview in the summer of 1989 with my good friend KJ who was visiting in Edmonton for the night. I would see it again in the fall in the Meyer Horowitz Theatre in the Students’ Union Building on the campus of the University of Alberta, with all my new floormates, sitting beside my good friend Bruce.

“Dead Poets Society” went to become one of the iconic movies of the decade, grossing more than $235 million, earning an Oscar for best original screenplay, and a second nomination for Williams for best actor in a leading role. It remains one of my favourite movies and that final scene one of my favourite movie moments – ever.

The years after
Robin Williams as Sean Maguire
in "Good Will Hunting".
Robin Williams would continue with a string of amazing performances starting with “Awakenings” in 1990. That was followed in 1991 by “The Fisher King” where he played opposite Jeff Bridges and garnered his third Oscar nomination for best actor in a leading role. “Hook” followed in 1991, then “Aladdin” in 1992, “Mrs. Doubtfire” in 1993, “Jumanji” in 1995, and “The Birdcage” in 1996. He finally won an Oscar for best supporting actor in 1997 for “Good Will Hunting”, another of my all-time favourite movies. The wait for the Oscar was worth it, because Robin Williams was absolutely amazing as psychologist Sean Maguire.

Parting thoughts
It is rare that a comedian can make the transition to drama. By the end of the 1980s, Robin Williams had not only bridged that divide, he set the stage to meld the two together.

Robin Williams had always been a hyper-kinetic, free-associating comedian. However, it was not until the late 1980s that everyone began to take him seriously as an actor. The role of Adrian Cronauer was a bridge from that hyperactive comic to the roles of John Keating, and ultimately Sean Maguire, the role that won him an Oscar close to a decade later. He did pay his dues though, in a lot of movies of varying quality and success to do that.

It was well worth it, and there was nothing more enjoyable than watching the evolution of an actor. I am only sad we won’t see what the next evolution will be, or the one after that, because he certainly was an artist who did not rest on his laurels. God bless you Robin Williams and rest in peace.

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