Remembering Robin Williams: Nate’s Top Ten Performances

Robin Williams left us five years ago this week, and out of all the celebrities, actors and entertainers who have passed on, his absence is still the one I feel most. So what made him so special? For me it was the way he could cut so deep in both serious and comic performances. When he showed up in the room the energy turned light and carefree as the zany, untethered forces of his improvisation and imagination took over like a gentle breeze. Then when it was time to rein it in for a more serious, introspective scene he would be less effervescent but the light in his eyes wouldn’t dim, the focus wouldn’t falter and he’d demonstrate his equally brilliant talent for heartbreaking drama as well. He could carry an entire film on his own, light up a supporting role and even make a cameo glimmer through to become memorable. In looking back I’d like to highlight the ten performances that are most personal, most memorable and mean the most to me as someone who grew up watching him on the TV all the time, idolized and loved him dearly. Enjoy!

10. Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Viet Nam

No other scenario requires a much needed sense of humour like the fog of war, but Williams’s rebellious spirit isn’t received well by the brass in Nam, yet he makes it clear that a good dose of verbal comedy is exactly what the airwaves need in this case. It’s a no holds barred performance with some touching emotional notes and plenty of slotted time to let loose behind a radio DJ’s mic.

9. Walter Finch in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia

Cast against type as the freaky villain of Nolan’s chilly murder mystery, he channels a Stephen King style energy in playing a slippery antagonist set against Alaska’s grey skies and at odds with Al Pacino’s sharp but distraught homicide cop. Williams is somehow constantly likeable yet creepy in a way you can’t quite put your finger on until the third act rolls around and he really lets it rip.

8. Parry in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King

Mental illness gets a ballistic but tender portrayal in Gilliam’s urban fantasy that sees Robin as a former professor of medieval history who loses his mind following a tragedy. Surreal production design helps his work flow but the raw potency is all his in a performance that brings down the house, brings out the best in both Gilliam and Jeff Bridges and shows how a mind broken isn’t necessarily one lost forever.

7. The Genie in Disney’s Aladdin

I’m pretty sure all of the Genie’s dialogue wasn’t even scripted off the bat, I think they just sat Williams down in front of a voiceover mic each morning, gave him a general outline and then slowly backed away out of the room to observe the magic happen. The result is a nostalgic blast of a vocal performance that so many hold dear and one of the most quotable Disney characters of all time.

6. Alan Parrish in Joe Johnston’s Jumanji

Infusing childlike wonder is something he was always good at, and it served well here in playing a guy who has been trapped inside a deadly jungle themed board game since he was a kid. His chemistry with Bonnie Hunt is funny and touching, his feral mania upon being finally released from the game into 90’s suburbia is hilarious and the interaction with young Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce makes for a dynamic character that I always love to revisit.

5. Philip Brainard in Disney’s Flubber

Williams plays an incarnation of the absent minded professor archetype in Disney’s unfairly dismissed comedy. In a film whose star is a rambunctious pile of ever morphing charismatic green goo, trust Williams to defy that description and upstage the Flubber itself with his own wild, inspired performance. But he also gets surprisingly deep when lamenting: “I’ve spent my whole life out there trying to figure how the world works when I should have been trying to figure out *why* it works..” it’s a disarming line to hear him intone in a heartfelt manner from a Disney film, but that’s why I love this one so much.

4. Sean Maguire in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting

Mentor, friend and advisor to Matt Damon’s prodigal kid, Williams imparts wisdom in clear eyed fashion here as an extremely down to earth fellow faced with an extraordinary situation. His mid film monologue to Damon won him a best supporting Oscar, but the moment that captures this character’s spirit most beautifully is when he wistfully remembers his wife who passed away, and injects some humour into the conversation that was purely Robin’s improvisation and as a result hits the scene home.

3. Rainbow Randolph in Danny Devito’s Death To Smoochy

Devito’s venomous farce of children’s media is a criminally undervalued and quite terrific film, and Williams goes into full on nut-bar mode as a disgraced kiddie show host who never should have been let on the air to begin with. Trying to kill Edward Norton’s beloved rhino Smoochy in between bouts of rage, flagrant insecurity and maniacal mood swings, it’s an incredibly ballsy, thoroughly R rated and absolutely hysterical piece of black comedy performance art not to be missed.

2. Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Doubtfire in Chris Columbus’s Mrs. Doubtfire

The lengths that loving father Williams goes to in order to see the children he lost custody of here would be horror movie material in any other actor’s hands, but because Robin was so adept at both wacky innovation, disguises and genuine heartfelt explanations for such behaviour, the result is both magical and realistic. The restaurant scene alone is time capsule worthy, in which Hillard has to multitask and hop in and out of the Mrs. Doubtfire suit rapid fire to both have a family dinner and entertain a scotch swilling TV exec (Robert Prosky).

1. Chris Nielsen in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come

A gorgeous fantasy film showcases Robin in his most deeply felt and affecting performance as a man who has lost everything including his own life. He ventures out across the afterlife through heaven, hell and beyond to find his wife and soulmate (Annabella Sciorra) and save her. Williams portrays celestial determination like no other and a fierce, passionate love for her that shines like a beacon through realms of the astral plane and lights up the film in the process.

Thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoy and hold Robin’s work as dear as I do, and have enjoyed my thoughts here.

-Nate Hill

Mrs. Doubtfire

Ever watch Mrs. Doubtfire lately? Some 90’s films haven’t aged all that well in the years since, but if anything this one has improved, and endured as a sterling classic. What was it about Robin Williams that made him such a dynamic, magnetic and beloved artist? The list is long but for me it was his uncanny, intuitive ability to feel his way around a scene using both dramatic tenderness and that wildly energetic comedic mania that was his trademark. There’s this childlike earnestness when he’s expressing himself in a serious or sorrowful scene that is so damn genuine, and the unbridled mayhem in comic sequences interplays in a delicate balancing act that no one has ever replicated.

Here as voiceover actor and loving father Daniel Hillard he proves that he’ll go to any lengths for his three children (Lisa Jakub, Matthew Lawrence and Mara ‘Matilda’ Wilson) including elaborately disguising himself as a late middle aged British nanny just so he can spend more time with them. This is thanks to his makeup whiz of a brother (The lovable Harvey Fierstein) and ends up fooling everyone including the kids, his ex wife (Sally Field) and even her swanky new suitor (Pierce Brosnan, clearly having fun). The thing is, in the hands of almost any other actor this would be some creepy ass shit. I’ve even seen some spoof trailers on YouTube that recut this to look like a horror flick. But Williams was so talented and put his heart into it to the point that the concept just sells, and feels real despite being completely nuts on paper.

There’s two scenes that sort of cement both his character here and the kind of magic he was capable of on camera as an actor.

In a drab divorce hearing he pleads with the stone faced judge to let him have equal custody, lamenting that he can’t exist without being near his children and the emotion clouding his face feels immediate and organic. Later he has to rapidly switch in and out between the Mrs. Doubtfire disguise to fool a cantankerous social worker (Ann Haney) into believing he’s got his shot together. It involves slam dunking his face into a cake to mask the fact that he accidentally whipped his real mask out the window, and it’s absolutely hilariously inspired work that really illustrates his gift for delirious comedy. He had a long and varied career in film, but this has to be one of the showcase ventures. Aside from his work there’s a breezy, laidback San Francisco vibe and lovely work from a supporting cast including Polly Holiday, Rick Overton, Paul Guillfoye, William Newman and jolly old Robert Prosky as a scotch swilling network TV kingpin.

There’s also a surprising maturity in a narrative that could have easily patronized and pandered to the younger audience. There are core lessons to be learned that are never preached but written in seamlessly and the ending doesn’t cop out or cave in like many films would and do, but remains steadfastly rooted in this bittersweet situation, feeling all the more genuine for it. Williams is the rock, heart and soul of it but it’s a classic all across the board.

-Nate Hill

Cary Jo Fukunaga’s Maniac

Cary Jo Fukunaga’s Netflix show Maniac is to date the only one I’ve ever binged in one sitting. It’s fucking magic. I slept in and got to work late today because I just had to finish the thing last night. The one word that comes to mind with this is unique. It’s a science fiction comedy drama stroke of cosmic brilliance that draws on everything from Kafka to Michel Gondry to Cloud Atlas to Inception to Kubrick and many others, but not for one moment does it feel derivative, and there is, and I mean this, nothing out there quite like this. If you’ve seen a trailer or read a blurb, you’ll know it stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as two participants in a mysterious pharmaceutical drug trial, and indeed that is the launching pad for this strange, wonderful story infused with cassette futurism and dream logic, but oh just wait and see how deep, how multilayered and complex it becomes with each passing minute. After two opening episodes that burn sort of slow but are very important for developing character and establishing tone and setting, this hallucinatory, multi dimensional odyssey of self discovery and awakening constantly surprises the viewer by shirking narrative standards, constructing a script that feels fresh and untrodden, like a dimly lit path where anything could jump out at any second and all the well travelled beats have been cast away. Hill and Stone are unparalleled here, each playing a score of different characters throughout time and space and doing things with their work that I’ve never seem come from them before. Despite this being a fantastical show that traverses many internal worlds and has a whole host of dazzling special effects to showcase, above all it is an extremely thoughtful, often very dark psychological exploration of these two beings, the technology around them and how it may be used to map the human mind. Justin Theroux brings humour and eccentric humility as the neuro-chemist who is running the drug trial, Sonoya Mozuno is brilliant as his intuitive, chain smoking second in command and the cast is fleshed out by the likes of Hank Azaria, Josh Pais, Julia Garner, Geoffrey Cantor, Rome Kanda, Billy Magnusson, Glenn Fleshler, Joseph Sikora and more. Joining them are also veteran actors Sally Field and Gabriel Byrne in key roles, both of whom I love and haven’t seen in anything substantial for quite some time, they really shine here. I’m aware that this is loosely based on a Norwegian series of the same name, but honestly Fukunaga has used that as a drawing board and universally expanded the premise into something really special, original and magnificent. The central realms of the drug trial that Hill and Stone experience are the main show and the template used to plumb depths of the human condition, but just as vital is the story unfolding in the lab with Theroux, Mizuno and Sally Field, a slightly satirical look at how technology has started to approach the borders of the human soul, and even blur some lines there. I hope this gets traction, exposure and the high praise it deserves in the community. This is the best thing in any medium I’ve seen so far this year, and I can’t wait for countless revisits.

-Nate Hill



The harsh reality of stand-up comedy is that for every Jerry Seinfeld that makes it, there are hundreds of comedians who don’t. There are comedians who work dead end jobs during the day and spend the rest of their time working comedy clubs in the hopes of getting that “big break” on a late night talk show or a role in a film or a television sitcom. Some of them have what it takes but most do not. David Seltzer’s film, Punchline (1988), is dedicated to and about these men and women who try to make us laugh. It also explores the dedication, the discipline, and the sacrifices that must be made in order to make it.
Steven Gold (Tom Hanks) is a struggling medical student who moonlights as a stand-up comedian. It quickly becomes evident that he is lousy at the former and excels at the latter. And yet, when he is given a chance at the big time, he cracks under the pressure. Lilah (Sally Field) is a dedicated housewife that also yearns to be a comic. She has the raw talent but not the command of craft that Steven possesses. At first, he doesn’t give Lilah the time of day but slowly they bond and he teaches her the fundamentals of stand-up comedy. “All you need is the right gags,” Steven tells her, and he’s right. Once Lilah has some decent material she discovers her natural gift of making people laugh. An uneasy friendship develops between the two and the personal conflicts they must resolve: Steven’s desire to make it big vs. his inability to do so and Lilah’s love of comedy vs. her love for her family.

David Seltzer wrote the first draft for Punchline in 1979 after becoming fascinated by comedy clubs while looking for someone to play a psychiatrist on a T.V. pilot that he was writing. He had a development deal with the movie division of ABC. Originally, the tone of the film was more good-natured a la Fame (1980) with more characters and less of an emphasis on Steven Gold. Bob Bookman, an executive, sponsored the script but left for Columbia Pictures. He bought the screenplay because Howard Zieff (Private Benjamin) was interested in directing it. When Zieff lost interest (he ended up doing Unfaithfully Yours in 1984), the script was buried for years.

In 1986, producer Daniel Melnick found the screenplay for Punchline among twelve other scripts collecting dust in the vaults of Columbia Pictures. Seltzer’s screenplay had gone through three changes of studio management because the executives didn’t like the mix of comedy and drama. They also didn’t like the Steven Gold character because they thought he was, according to Melnick, “obsessive, certainly self-destructive and could be considered mean-spirited.” The studio couldn’t get a major star to commit to the material and so Melnick decided to make the movie for $8 million and with no stars. Interim studio president Steve Sohmer didn’t like that idea and sent the script to Sally Field, who had a production deal with Columbia. Field agreed to star in and produce the film. Once she signed on, the budget was set at $15 million.

Field didn’t mind sharing the majority of the screen time with Tom Hanks and taking on the role of producer because, as she said in an interview at the time, “as a producer I am not developing films in which I can do fancy footwork. I don’t have to have the tour de force part.” New York comic Susie Essman and sitcom writer Dottie Archibald coached Field. The writer also served as comedy consultant for the film, recruiting fifteen comics to populate the comedy club Steven and Lilah frequent. Field’s research often mirrored her character’s as she remembered working “for about six months to find where Lilah’s comedy was, which is what my character was going through. So it was actually happening to both of us.” As one of the producers on the film, Field found working behind the scenes very demanding, disagreeing with Seltzer about the content of Lilah’s act and how much of it should be in the final cut. The filmmaker said, “Sally had a high degree of opinion and certainty about things. She ain’t the flying nun.”

Two months before the Punchline went into production, Hanks wrote a five-minute stand-up act and performed it at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. As Hanks recalled, “It was pure flop sweat time, an embarrassment. That material lasted 1 minute 40 seconds, and it had no theme.” Hanks tried again and again, sometimes hitting three clubs a night. It took a month before the actor “didn’t sweat like a pig” on stage. By that point he had enlisted an old friend and comedy writer Randy Fechter and stand-up comic Barry Sobel to help him write his routine. Hanks ended up performing more than thirty times in clubs in Los Angeles and New York City.

The first half of Punchline is a fascinating look at the inner workings of stand-up comedy and what it takes to make it. In this respect, Seltzer’s film is an unflinching portrayal of this profession. As Steven tells Lilah, “It takes every night, six clubs a night, all night. It takes working stag parties and elk club parties where you’re opening for a fucking accordion player.” It is this kind of dedication that is clearly needed in order to be successful. Stand-up comic Sobel felt that the atmosphere of the film’s comedy club was very authentic. “There’s a lot of desperation in the movie on the part of a lot of the comedians, which I feel is on the nose of what it is to be a stand-up.”

The film’s weakness lies in Lilah’s family life. Except for a wonderfully choreographed sequence where Lilah has to rush to get dinner ready for her husband (John Goodman) and his guests before they get home, the moments that feature Lilah with her family are where Punchline loses its energy and becomes a maudlin drama. This aspect of the film just isn’t as fascinating as the parts dealing with the art of stand-up comedy.

‘s best moments are when Steven’s manic presence dominates the screen. Tom Hanks’ characterization deftly shows how tragedy and comedy are entwined. In one scene, his character has a gig at a hospital where he entertains a group of patients and doctors. Hanks is genuinely funny as he works the crowd, making fun of people’s injuries so that they forget their own pain for a moment. The beauty of this scene is watching how Hanks interacts with his audience and how convincing he is as a stand-up comic. For the actor, the allure of doing stand-up comedy was “walking into a room of 400 people and taking them wherever you want for 20 minutes. Steven is god of his universe as long as he’s got a microphone in his hand.”

Hanks is also able to show us the darker side of his character in a brutal scene where he has a shot at being discovered and ruins it. Steven does his act at a club with a talent scout watching only to realize that his father, whom he fears and loathes, is in the audience. The look on Steven’s face before he does his act says it all — he knows he’s going to blow it but goes on anyway. The scene is so painful to watch because it is in such a sharp contrast to the hospital scene. To a deafening silence, Steven starts talking about his relationship with his father before breaking down and crying in front of the audience. It is an emotionally powerful scene that is tough to watch and one that the film is never able to surpass.

And this is due in large part to Hanks who goes all out with his performance by showing such a wide range of emotions that swing from euphoria to bitter resentment. It’s an unusual role for Hanks who usually plays nice guys. As the actor recalled in an interview, “He’s not a lovable goofball. His difficulties don’t make him a nicer character or a more sympathetic character but they do make him a darker character.” Under Steven’s very funny facade lurks a self-destructive, jealous person who will do anything to succeed. Is this what it takes to make it as a comedian? The film never really answers this question. Instead, it is left up to the audience to decide one way or the other.

Chairman of Columbia David Puttnam wanted to release Punchline during the Christmas of 1987 but the film wasn’t ready. Puttnam eventually left and Dawn Steel moved in and decided to release the movie after Big (1988) became a huge hit. Punchline grossed a respectful $21 million in the United States.

The best comedy is about yourself, your life, what you know, and finding what is funny in that. Punchline taps into this truism by showing that comedians not only comment on their own lives but what they see around them as well. This film is at its best when it shows us the inner workings of the stand-up comedy profession and how tough it really is. There is a ring of honesty to these scenes that the rather sappy happy ending cannot diminish.