9 Milestones in the Evolution of Robin Williams

In this weekend's Happy Feet Two, Robin Williams voices Ramón, a South American penguin lothario, and Lovelace, a deep-voiced love guru. So how did a self-described quiet child from Chicago transform himself into one of Hollywood's most energetic Academy Award winners and skilled impressionists, who pulls double duty in Warner Bros.'s latest animated feature?

You can always trace a direct line through a few important roles to illustrate what led to an actor's current success. As such, let's look at nine pivotal performances that track the evolution of Robin Williams.

Mork & Mindy (1978)

After graduating from Juilliard, Williams moved to Los Angeles where he honed his stand-up routine on the west coast comedy circuit and auditioned for television roles. One such guest part on Happy Days -- as Mork, an alien from the planet Ork who helps abduct the Fonz -- was such a hit with the show's creator Gary Marshall that Marshall created a sci-fi sitcom for Williams's character. Mork & Mindy proved to be the breakthrough project that made Robins a recognizable name and earned him a Golden Globe in 1979.

Popeye (1980)

Halfway through the four-season run of Mork & Mindy, Williams made his big screen debut as the titular character in Robert Altman's adaptation of Popeye. (Yes, a live-action musical adaptation of Popeye in which Robin Williams squints and sings "I am what I am" with inflated forearms exists.) Williams reportedly won the role after Dustin Hoffman dropped out. In spite of a respectable effort to bring life to a two-dimensional comic character with a lopsided smile and an obsession with spinach, Popeye earned mixed reviews.

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Following one small success (The World According to Garp) and a trio of forgettable titles (The Best of Times, Club Paradise and Seize the Day), Williams established himself as a legitimate dramatic actor and a box office draw with Barry Levinson's Vietnam war comedy-drama. As Armed Forces Radio Service DJ Adrian Cronauer, Williams was able to use his trademark rapid-fire monologue style and improvise extensively. Thanks in part to Levinson's direction (which carefully pulled Williams out of his stand-up shell) and the well-formed script, Williams was able to shed his fast-talking persona for a fully-fleshed character by the end of the film. Good Morning, Vietnam earned Williams his first Academy Award nomination.

Aladdin (1992)

After solidifying himself as one of Hollywood's most underestimated dramatic actors in Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King, Williams established his talent as a voice actor in Aladdin. Animator Eric Goldberg was reportedly so determined to get the actor on board as the Genie that he animated the Genie doing some of Williams's stand-up routines. The actor was so impressed that he signed onto the project, even agreeing to participate for scale pay as long as his voice was not used for merchandising and his character took up less than 25% of the film's promotional materials. When the studio reneged on some contractual stipulations that Williams had tried to enforce, the actor stopped supporting the project and refused to work with Disney again -- until years later, after chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had been fired.

In addition to being a milestone for the actor, Aladdin proved to be a landmark for animated films in general as it was the first title to be advertised on the strength of its voice actors.

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  • bluegnu63 says:

    Is it just me, or was there no reference to "The Fisher King"? Another excellent Williams performance.

  • Glen Warner says:

    I believe Robin Williams was born in Birmingham, Michigan, not Chicago, as this article suggests

  • The Anal-Retentive Wonder says:

    Since everyone else is piling on, I may as well point out that Robin Williams did voice-over work for "Robots," which opened a year before "Happy Feet." Also, according to Wikipedia, "Happy Feet" grossed over $384 worldwide -- considerably more than "nearly $200 million," wouldn't you say?

  • The Anal-Retentive Wonder says:

    I meant $384 million. Boy, is my anal-rententive face read. Irony, thou art a cruel mistress.

  • Julie Miller says:

    He was born in Chicago and raised in Michigan. Thanks for reading!

  • Julie Miller says:

    It is referenced. Unfortunately when you just have 9 milestones for an actor as accomplished as Robin Williams, you can't make every great performance a milestone.

  • Julie Miller says:

    Hi! Nearly $200 million domestically. Thanks for the 'Robots' note. The correction has been made.

  • j'accuse! says:

    Julie...your picture there makes me wonder what our world would have been like if Lone Star had been given a chance to find an audience.

  • Julie Miller says:

    I can't let go. I just can't.

  • Jay says:

    "It seems odd these days when an established movie star doesn’t start producing his/her own pictures to siphon off as much profit as possible"
    Whatever their reason is to produce a film and whatever the end result may be, I find it more respectable for an actor to get involved financially than the usual "take the money and run" policy of some big screen gazillionaires who then consent to do a smaller film just to get away with it. The godawful amount of money spent by the studios that's not invested back into the means of production is probably one of Hollywood's most salient issues.
    Otherwise, very good article. Living overseas and being born after its initial run, I had never heard about Fonzie from Happy Days being abducted by an alien Robin Williams. That beats jumping over a shark if you ask me.

  • Isaac says:

    Can I simply say what a reduction to search out someone who actually is aware of what they