Richard Roeper on Robin Williams: brilliantly funny, brilliantly serious

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Robin Williams won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for the entirety of his performance in “Good Will Hunting,” but it was a three-minute scene in that 1997 film that clinched the Academy Award.

Mr. Williams played Sean Maguire, a Boston psychologist counseling young Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a janitor with a genius-level mind. Will asks Sean, “When did you know [Sean’s late wife] was the one for you?”

“Oct. 21st, 1975,” replies Sean. “It was game six of the World Series.”

Turns out Sean had a ticket to the game. With his brilliant physicality, Williams/Sean re-creates Carlton Fisk’s legendary home run, mimicking Fisk’s body language as he urges the ball to stay fair, “rounding the bases” in his office, perfectly describing the reaction of the fans.

Will asks if Sean rushed the field — and that’s when Sean explains he never went to the game. He gave up his ticket to have a drink with a girl in a bar. The girl that would become his wife.

It was one of the signature moments in a career that spanned nearly four decades and truly touched on the wonderfully ridiculous (“Mork & Mindy,” Mr. Williams’ manic stand-up routines) to the sublime (“Good Will Hunting,” “Dead Poets Society,” “The Fisher King.”)

If Robin Williams had never performed in a single dramatic role in his career, he would have been remembered as a Hall of Fame comedian.

If Robin Williams had never told a single joke onstage, had never starred in a sitcom or a feature comedy, he would have been remembered as one of the more storied dramatic actors of the last 30 years.

He was a renaissance entertainer.

Mr. Williams was found dead at the age of 63 of an apparent suicide on Monday morning. Only last month, the Chicago native had checked into the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Minnesota “in a program aimed at maintaining long-term sobriety,” as the Huffington Post reported. Mr. Williams’ struggles with substance abuse dated back to the 1980s. In the mid-2000s, he entered a rehab facility for treatment of alcoholism.


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Mr. Williams redefined stand-up comedy in the 1970s and the 1980s, dominating the stage with his energy and brilliance in specials for HBO such as “Off The Wall” (1978) and “Robin Williams: Live at the Met” (1986). He moved like a dancer and worked the room like a revival tent preacher, sweating up a storm, slipping in and out of voices, seemingly intent on winning the laughs and the hearts of every single person in the live audience as well as those watching at home.

As early as 1982, Mr. Williams showed he could make the transition to movie star in “The World According to Garp.” Of course we knew Mr. Williams could be funny, but he hit a number of melancholy notes with equal grace.

Mr. Williams’ penchant for hitting the big comedic notes (laced with more than a few dramatic moments) was well-served in films such as “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987) and “Dead Poets Society” (1989). He also struck box office gold with “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1991).

But when I think of my favorite Robin Williams performances, at the top of the list are the roles in which he played against type. (He played against type so well and so often that at some point it wasn’t playing against type; it was simply a continuation of a fine, versatile acting career.)

In Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia,” Mr. Williams went toe-to-toe with Al Pacino in a haunting, nuanced performance as a crime novelist who might be trafficking in more than just fictionalized evil. In “One Hour Photo” (2002), Williams took the creepy loner persona to another level as a lonely photo developer who obsesses over a family, imagining himself as their friend merely because he has access to their pictures. It was one of the most chilling performances of the decade.

A few months before the release of that film, I had the privilege of joining Mr. Williams for a quiet dinner at a restaurant in Park City, Utah. For the first hour or so, he was ROBIN WILLIAMS, entertaining our small group with jokes about the politics of the day, affecting different voices, at one point throwing himself on the floor to punch home a routine he had improvised on the spot.

But when we sat down to dinner, Mr. Williams dropped the genius shtick and simply became a quiet, thoughtful, intelligent, sweet man who talked of his life and his career, and was equally interested in the lives and stories of the small group at the table. It was a lovely evening.

Such a tragedy that Mr. Williams apparently was unable to find a place quiet enough to stave off the demons.

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