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Comedy was his forte, but tra gedy was where his true talent lay

The news of the tragic death of Robin Williams certainly came as a shock to many film fans, especially in a year which has seen the sudden demise of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And while the latter was one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation it's sometimes easy to forget just how varied a career Robin Williams had.

For most people of my generation the first time we'd have come across Williams was as the manic alien star of Mork and Mindy.

The show itself was a spin-off from an episode of Happy Days and it pitched the Chicago-born stand-up comedian opposite Pam Dawber, allowing him to unleash his rapid-fire, scattergun humour in a way which hadn't been seen since the heyday of Phil Silvers as Sgt Bilko.

The series ran from 1979 until 1981, as its original zany wit gradually gave way to a cosiness and sentimentality, extremes which Williams would carry with him into his extensive film career.

He was a natural fit for the wisecracking title role in Robert Altman's Popeye while his ability to display pathos also made him ideal for the part of a lost innocent in The World According to Garp. He played an equally affecting lead in Moscow on the Hudson as a Russian circus musician who defects but discovers that life in the West isn't nearly as rosy as he thought it would be.

However, it was with 1987's Good Morning Vietnam that the world really stood back, overwhelmed by Williams' full-on portrayal of armed forces DJ Adrian Cronauer, a semi-improvised extension of his stage act which gained him his first Oscar nomination.

For some this was the best example of his abilities but personally I always preferred him in more downbeat roles, as there was always an ability to portray vulnerability and sadness provided he didn't allow that to veer into mawkish sentimentality. Again, we got plenty of both in the years to come.

He certainly wasn't afraid to take on maverick projects, twice working with the mercurial Terry Gilliam (on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the wonderful The Fisher King, my personal favourite performance of his), while you couldn't imagine someone concerned about box-office returns signing up for the likes of Toys, Being Human or What Dreams May Come.

The Academy came calling again following his role as an inspirational teacher in Dead Poets Society and he finally landed the statuette for Best Supporting Actor as a sympathetic but complex psychologist in Good Will Hunting, in which he was unflashy but compelling.

HORRENDOUS

When Williams was on form he could be devastating but when his radar was off the results could be horrendous.

He could coast through tosh like Mrs Doubtfire, Jumanji, Flubber and Nine Months but when the schmaltz went into overload you were left with unwatchable disasters like Patch Adams and Jakob the Liar - truly awful movies which could have had career-ending possibilities for a less resilient actor.

By taking the role as the fast-talking genie in Disney's Aladdin - essentially another variant on his Good Morning Vietnam turn - he became one of the first major league names to sign up for voicework in animation, kickstarting a trend which continues to this day, and he played well against type opposite Nathan Lane and Gene Hackman in the gay comedy The Birdcage, a much under-rated film.

Strangely enough, despite having made his name as a comedian I've always preferred Williams when he played it straight, particularly when he unleashed his skills on a dark and downright dangerous character. He was fabulous as a manipulative murderer being hunted by Al Pacino in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia, genuinely creepy as the sociopathic loser in One Hour Photo and gave a thoroughly chilling performance as a sexual predator on TV's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Looking back, the good stuff on Robin Williams' mammoth CV is very, very good indeed, so let's remember that and lament the passing of a genuine talent.

gbyrne@herald.ie


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