Above is a scene from the end of the film Dead Poets Society - a movie that many consider to be the best of Robin Williams’ career. Williams stars as John Keating, a new English teacher at an elite prep school who fights against authority and inspires his students to "seize the day." While this eventually leads Keating to be fired, it is the respect of his students that leads them all to stand on their desks and proclaim, "O captain, my captain."
Today we are all grieving following the news that Robin Williams has passed away, but we’re not just going to let him slip silently out the classroom door. Over the last five decades there are few performers who have proven themselves as incredibly versatile as Williams, who explored the worlds of television, film, stand-up and animation all throughout his career. He became popular as a comedian, but truly impressed us as a dramatist. We remain in awe of his talent.
While Williams’ first credited role was as "Lawyer/Man with Tooth Ache" in the I. Robert Levy-directed comedy Can I Do It 'Till I Need Glasses?, it was really on the small screen that he first found his niche in Hollywood. After appearing in the short-lived The Richard Pryor Show, his first big exposure to audiences was as Mork from Ork on the sitcom Happy Days, which, of course, eventually led to the successful spin-off Mork and Mindy. While Williams’ career as a comedic leading man would eventually take him away from TV, he did find time to make excellent single episode appearances on shows like Louie and Wilfred, and even came back full circle to star in the short-lived The Crazy Ones with Sarah Michelle Geller last year.
Once Williams moved into features he did take part in a few misfires and less-than-stellar titles, but he also created a legacy of really great big screen comedic performances. Robert Altman’s cartoonish Popeye was his first lead role in a movie, and over the course of his career followed it with legitimately fantastic titles like Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage, and Jumanji.
Even when he wasn’t physically in front of the camera and was bringing life to animated characters he was still able to project a hilarious, intense energy level unlike any other performer out there. Williams’ unique rapid line delivery and ability to jump into random impressions made the Genie in Aladdin one of the most popular characters in Walt Disney Animation history, but he also completely stole in show in titles like Happy Feet, Fern Gully and more.
Funny as Robin Williams was, we will remember him not just for the laughs. Few comedians were ever able to cross between comedy and genre like he did, and he was equally believable in both roles. The man had a way of sincerely connecting with the audience on a deep emotional level – as seen in both Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting - a performance that won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. More than that, films like One Hour Photo and Insomnia forced audiences to completely change the way they perceived him, and it worked.
The entertainment industry lost an fantastic talent today; one who found an incredible number of ways to amuse and surprise us. He will be deeply missed, and at this point there’s really only one thing to say: O’ Captain! My Captain!