Robin Williams was a one-of-a-kind performer who established himself as one of Hollywood’s greatest comedians with memorable characters from iconic films like Aladdin, The Birdcage and Good Morning, Vietnam. Noted for his epic improvisational skills and physical comedy, the Chicago-born comedian got his first break starring in the 1970s sitcom, Mork & Mindy and made his major film debut in the 1980 comedy, Popeye.
Williams conquered the silver screen in a variety of roles ranging from thrillers like Insomnia to heartfelt dramas such as Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King. Out of the actor’s extensive filmography, these are 10 of Williams’ best movies according to Rotten Tomatoes.
10‘The Birdcage’ (1996)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%
Armand’s a Miami club owner who manages a drag show headlined by his life partner, Albert (Nathan Lane). When their son, Val (Dan Futterman) becomes engaged to the daughter of a conservative senator, Armand entertains his son’s plan to somehow convince her parents that they’re a traditional family.
The Birdcage is a cheeky comedy about how the similarities between people often outweigh their differences. Originally, Steve Martin was set to play Armand while Williams was to play Albert but due to scheduling conflicts, Martin couldn’t commit. Williams recalled that he wasn’t disappointed about the role swap adding that he had dressed in enough drag in Mrs. Doubtfire.
9‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%
Todd (Ethan Hawke) is starting his third year at an all-male boarding school, Welton Academy which has hired a new English teacher, John Keating. The unorthodox teacher encourages his students to expand their horizons and open their minds to a world beyond the academy’s traditional teachings.
Williams took on one of his first dramatic roles in the triumphant tragedy, Dead Poets Society. Before being cast as the inspiring John Keating, other stars like Dustin Hoffman, Mel Gibson and Liam Neeson were also considered for the part. The movie earned Williams his second Oscar nomination and won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
8‘The Fisher King’ (1991)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%
After causing a caller to turn a gun on a group of innocent people, former radio DJ, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) turns to alcohol to cope with his fall from fame. Jack’s life seems close to a dead end when he meets Parry, a homeless man in search of the Holy Grail who Jack starts to feel responsible for after learning that his wife was killed by the caller he provoked.
The Fisher King is a riveting wave of humor and heartbreak that earned both Williams and Bridges an Oscar nomination for their performances. The movie is directed by former Monty Python member, Terry Gilliam andalso stars Amanda Plummer, David Hyde Pierce and Mercedes Ruehl who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%
Neurologist, Dr. Malcolm Sayer has been working extensively with a group of patients at a hospital in the Bronx who are in a catatonic state. When he theorizes that they’re experiencing an extreme form of Parkinson’s Disease, he’s permitted by his skeptical superiors to treat them with a medication that has bittersweet results.
Directed by Penny Marshall, Awakenings is based on the incredible true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks who treated a group of patients suffering from what’s known now as sleeping sickness in the 1960s. Williams stars as Sayer who is based on Sacks, alongside Robert De Niro, John Heard and The Sopranos star, Vincent Pastore.
6‘Moscow on the Hudson’ (1984)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%
Vladimir is a musician in the Moscow circus who during a trip to New York City, escapes from his handlers and publicly denounces the Soviet Union. Fearful of returning home, Vladimir meets an immigration lawyer (Alejandro Rey) who helps him gain citizenship and adjust to his new life in America.
The idea for Moscow on the Hudson came to the film’s director, Paul Mazursky after hearing various stories from friends in Hollywood about their experiences coming from Russia to the United States. Williams prepared for the role by learning to speak Russian and play the saxophone, which are not the easiest subjects to master.
5‘World’s Greatest Dad’ (2009)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
English teacher, Lance Clayton makes the shocking discovery that his son has accidentally killed himself and in an attempt to evade a scandal, writes a fake suicide note. After the note’s published in the school paper, the public takes notice of the student’s death resulting in the attention that Lance had always wanted but as the pressure builds, he struggles to keep up with the lie.
World’s Greatest Dad is a dark, deadpan comedy written and directed by comedian, Bobcat Goldthwait. Even though the movie failed at the box office, it was praised for its risky plot as well as for bravely addressing uncomfortable subjects head-on.
4‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ (1987)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%
Radio comedian, Adrian Cronauer is sent to Vietnam to provide some comic relief for the soldiers and while he’s a hit with his new audience, his superior officer, Sergeant Major Dickerson (J.T. Walsh) is not amused with Cronauer and him. As Dickerson tries to get Cronauer thrown off the air, Cronauer starts to fall in love with a local woman who shows him the horrific impact the war has had on the country.
Good Morning, Vietnam was Williams’ first major break and became his breakout role, earning him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The war film is loosely based on the Armed Forces Radio Network host, Adrian Cronauer and his personal experiences during the Vietnam War.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
After a teenage girl’s murdered in Alaska, Los Angeles detective, Will Domer (Al Pacino) and his partner are sent to assist the local authorities with the investigation. Domer eventually comes across a suspect and is sent into an intense psychological game of cat-and-mouse that becomes a threat to the detective’s state of mind.
Williams takes on one of his first sinister roles as a potential serial killer in Christopher Nolan‘s neo-noir, Insomnia. The role is a drastic switch from Williams’ usual upbeat, comedic characters but the actor’s established good guy facade works to his advantage making the role a mind game itself for audiences.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Aladdin has always had to fend for himself on the streets of Agrabah and dreams of living a life fit for a king. After discovering a powerful genie, Aladdin wishes to become a prince hoping to impress Princess Jasmine but when the sultan’s advisor, Jafar, threatens to take over Agrabah, Aladdin and his friends embark on a dangerous mission to save the kingdom.
Genie fromAladdinis hands down one of Williams’ most iconic characters and accurately portrays the actor’s colorful, animated self. Directors, John Musker and Ron Clements had written the role of Genie for Williams but when Disney needed some convincing, animator, Eric Goldberg, created an animation reel of Genie to one of Williams’ stand-up routines. When Williams was approached about the part, he watched the reel and according to Goldberg, the comedian, ‘laughed his ass off.’
1‘Good Will Hunting’ (1997)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a natural genius recently paroled from jail who manages to get a job as a janitor at MIT. When Will solves an extensive math problem, Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) offers to help him reach his full potential but after a slight scuffle with the police, Lambeau will only offer his assistance if Will agrees to see a therapist.
Williams won his first and only Academy Award for his performance as Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. Damon recalled Williams’ brilliant moments of improvisational that led to some of the movie’s best moments including Maguire’s reaction after reading Will’s letter at the end. Williams ad-libbed the final line, ‘son-of-a-b****, he stole my line,’ making it one of the best movie endings of all time.