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Robin Williams
Photo by Vera Anderson/WireImage

Robin Williams’ most memorable movie performances, ranked

The actor was mostly known for his comedic talents, but his best films show a range that makes him so much more than a funnyman.

The late, great Robin Williams captivated audiences for decades with his humor, wit, and charm before his sad passing. Although he started off as a comic, he showed his incredible range with a slew of brilliant performances in more serious films – although a lot of his funny work remains just as captivating as his more cerebral, emotionally stirring performances. While not everything he touched turned to gold (looking at you, Flubber), a lot of his work doesn’t just stand the test of time, but outright shines even years later.

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From the brilliant physical comedy of Mrs. Doubtfire to the bone-chilling creep factor of Sy in One Hour Photo, it might not be easy to rank his best film performances, but we’re going to give it a go. Read ahead for our guide to Robin Williams’ most memorable movie performances!

10. Mrs. Doubtfire

This 1993 comedy hits all the right emotional spots while providing a bucket load of laughs too. Williams plays a failing, recently divorced voice actor who uses prosthetics and his acting skills to get hired as a nanny for his children, before eventually landing a television show and finding a happy co-parenting agreement with his ex-wife. The actor is exceptionally good in this classic, blending slapstick with heart, leading some critics to favorably compare the cross-dressing element of the film with the iconic Marilyn Monroe hit Some Like it Hot. Whether or not this would have happened without Williams shining in the role is a question worthy of asking, but as anybody who’s seen the movie will agree, there’s no doubt he makes the film his own.

9. The Birdcage

This 1996 comedy is both brilliant and sad when you rewatch it through a modern lens. The Birdcage follows Armand (Williams) and Albert (Gene Hackman), an openly gay couple who run a drag club called The Birdcage. Out of the blue, Armand’s son (the result of a drunken one-night stand) appears with a (female) fiance, but his wife-to-be is the daughter of an ultra-conservative politician. Armand agrees to play the straight man, as it were, while the families meet each other, leading to plenty of highjinks.

Williams is, of course, brilliant, funny, and empathetic in this classic – otherwise it wouldn’t be on our list. And nowadays — when prominent political forces are questioning the validity of LGBTQ+ people’s livesThe Birdcage shows that in nearly three decades, some of us are still backward enough to deny people their humanity. Maybe some more people need to sit down and watch Williams in this brilliant film.

8. Hook

Few children’s stories have been dissected and reimagined as thoroughly as Peter Pan, but with the 1991 Steven Spielberg classic Hook we got a different take. Williams plays a grownup Peter Pan, who’s somehow morphed into a boring, career-driven lawyer. After Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps Peter’s kids, the boy who was supposed to never grow up (but did) finds himself back in Neverland, and has to fight to win his children back.

Despite incredibly strong performances from the two leads, the film wasn’t exactly one of Williams’ best in terms of critical acclaim. However, his turn as a grownup Peter (alongside Hoffman’s brilliant Hook) is a real high point, dragging the film from predictable and vaudeville into a bit of an ironic cult classic that all ages can enjoy.

7. Jumanji

Action, adventure, and board games: what more could you want from a nineties kids’ film? Williams plays Alan, a boy who was once sucked into the magic boardgame Jumanji, only to find himself back in the human world alongside all the animals and evils he’s spent the last two decades battling. While the film is a bit of a basic romp that’s more suited to families than serious viewing for aficionados, Williams is a compelling screen presence who also offers a lot of heart to the role. The way he morphs from angry and confused to warm and protective is a masterclass in range, and frankly, who doesn’t love that iconic stampede scene?

6. Dead Poets Society

“O Captain! My Captain” is one of the most famous film quotes of all time, having been parodied by dozens of movies in the years since the release of Dead Poets Society. Williams plays an inspirational English teacher who brings joy and wonder to his students at an elite prep school, and gives a performance that had contemporary critics enthralled. The film itself has some pretty dark themes, and while Williams’ comedic personna slips through a few times, for the most part he is a perfect foil for his young castmates, helping them to achieve the same level of brilliance as him. There’s a reason this film got so many award nominations, after all, and a big part of that is Williams’ performance.

5. Good Morning, Vietnam

We’re back on more familiar comic footing with this entry. Good Morning, Vietnam follows the story of Adrian, an irreverent radio DJ on the Armed Forces Radio Service during the famous war. While there are plenty of humorous elements in the film, there’s also some important themes about freedom of speech and the brutality of war in there, which only makes Williams’ nuanced (but mostly hilarious) performance more brilliant. The actor also famously improvised a lot of his dialogue in the movie, which makes his impeccable timing and brilliant wit all the more impressive.  

4. Good Will Hunting

Few people could have predicted just how popular Good Will Hunting would end up being, but, as it transpired, the audience very much “liked them apples.” Williams plays a psychotherapist who helps working class genius Will Hunting (Matt Damon) deal with his demons, and puts in a powerhouse performance that shows real emotional depth and brilliant adaptability. The film itself received dozens of awards nominations, including an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Williams, which just goes to show what an excellent performance it was from the stage comic. A classic, buoyed further by Williams’ brilliance.

3. One Hour Photo

As somebody who grew up in the nineties and only really knew Williams from comic roles in kids’ films, seeing him in One Hour Photo underlined just what a phenomenal actor he really was. This dark, intense psychological crime drama stars the actor as Sy, a photo lab employee who becomes obsessed with a family who regularly bring their pictures to him to be developed. As Sy’s mental state unravels over the course of the movie, we get to see Williams in a way we hadn’t before, and he plays the traumatized yet horrifying villain brilliantly. Critics universally praised the actor for how well he went against type, and his performance earned him a Saturn Award.

2. Aladdin

It might only be a voice performance, but Williams’ genie is probably one of the most iconic animated characters of all time. The film is based on a classic Arabian fairytale, and follows the titular street urchin as he chases fame, fortune, and love, all with the help of his monkey Abu and a magic genie (Williams).

Sadly, because Disney used Williams’ voice in promotional materials when he specifically asked them not to, there ended up being a rift between the actor and the studio, denying us an unknown number of potential future projects Williams could have used his incredible gifts in. Disney famously sent the actor a Picasso worth over a million as an apology, but it didn’t work. However, we’ll always have Williams’ masterful performance, and that’s priceless.

1. The Fisher King

Although The Fisher King isn’t as well known as some of Williams’ other work, it was the performance that gained his one and only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and frankly is a real gem. The film tells the story of Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a former radio shock-jock who goaded a mentally unstable man to commit a mass murder-suicide. Years later, he helps a delusional homeless man named Parry (Williams), whose mental break was the result of his wife dying in the murder-suicide that Lucas helped to cause.

The film blends fantasy, comedy, and drama, and Williams turns a fantastical script into something heartfelt and believable. The entire time he’s on screen he’s magnetic, and there’s no doubt that while the idea behind the film is strong, his acting turns this from an interesting concept into a truly phenomenal bit of entertainment. This movie, and Williams’ performance in it, will stick with you for years to come.

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Sandeep Sandhu
Sandeep is a writer at We Got This Covered and is originally from London, England. His work on film, TV, and books has appeared in a number of publications in the UK and US over the past five or so years, and he's also published several short stories and poems. He thinks people need to talk about the Kafkaesque nature of The Sopranos more, and that The Simpsons seasons 2-9 is the best television ever produced. He is still unsure if he loves David Lynch, or is just trying to seem cool and artsy.