Robin Williams left behind an enormous portfolio full of iconic, generation defining characters that everyone knows. He also left behind a wealth of work that isn’t so well known, but deserves some digging into. Here’s a look at five of the best, lesser-known parts the comedian played.
Before Robin Williams was nominated for an Oscar for his work with Terry Gilliam in The Fisher King, he played with the Python on a smaller, bizarre comedy about a man that got younger whenever he had an adventure. Filled with Monty Python alum, a tiny Sarah Polley and an Uma Thurman nobody had ever heard of yet, Williams plays just one tiny character in a film full of vivid and memorable characters, and he’s not even listed in the credits. Instead, credit is given to one “Ray D. Tutto.”
Ray D. Tutto is a phonetic misspelling of an Italian phrase that means “The King of Everything,” which is how his character, the King of the Moon, introduces himself to the adventurers. William’s performance is unmistakable, though, even if he does only appear as a highly-made-up, floating head for most of his time on screen.
He’s only in a small part of the movie, but you can tell he had a wonderful time with what he was given. The King of the Moon is essentially a skit in a film that’s essentially a series of skits, but it’s a great skit in a great movie.
Another tiny and uncredited but memorable role is “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” (his name is my name, too) a transportation specialist that only exists in the narrative to facilitate the first reveal, and then get them into the beat-up auto that would become their first road trip foil. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene, and a surprisingly understated character – despite the ridiculous name.
In the total of about two minutes that Williams is on-screen, little truly happens. It’s an important scene, but nothing more than a transition from the setup to the main story. What’s most remarkable about it is that Williams, a talent known for being the most powerful presence in any scene, plays a part in a film about powerful presences and commanding performances, and plays it in a way that doesn’t take any attention from the actual story.
It isn’t a huge role, and it doesn’t showcase amazing talent, but it illustrates the actual restraint Williams had. He was a ham, seemingly at every opportunity. Yet, when playing off Snipes and Swayze, when he could have went completely over-the-top with his affectations and mannerisms, he played it just quirky enough.
Sometimes, actors take a part for no other reason than they want the paycheck. Robin Williams claims that this is one of those movies, and I’m inclined to believe him. Chances are, every single person involved with the movie did it exclusively for the paycheck. It’s a good thing they did, though, because otherwise we wouldn’t have this odd gem of an an 80s flick
Williams leads a cast that includes famed thespian Peter O’Toole, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, and iconic 60s supermodel Twiggy through a script composed of 80s tropes. Directed and co-written by Harold Ramis, it’s a Lampoon take on the “oh, noes!, they’re gonna take [insert beloved local business here] away from us!” plot that’s so common, and like other Lampoonings, it’s often bizarrely over-the-top.
It’s not a movie that’s amazing, but it’s a movie that everyone was anticipating being amazing, and it landed in theaters with an unimpressive thud. It deserves a second look, though. And in retrospect, it’s interesting to see Williams play the romantic lead across from Twiggy in a screwball comedy where he plays the level-headed straight-man to a cast of oddjobs.
Also, the music is fantastic. If you like reggae.
You should like reggae.
For his first leading role in a film, Robin Williams had the fortune to work with Robert Altman on a film that’s one of the most aesthetically rich creations of the auteur’s career. And although this live-action version of the Popeye comic strip is a movie that nearly everyone has heard of, even if only tangentially or seemingly apocryphal, but fewer and fewer have actually seen or remember.
Although it made quite a bit of money in theaters, it received love-it-or-hate-it reviews, and it quickly became one of the early jokes of Williams’ career. Over time, in video rerelease, it has achieved something of a “so bad, it’s good” kind of cult status from a respectable audience, but that’s a shame. It’s not so bad, it’s good. It’s just good.
Altman crafted the world of Popeye to an insanely loving degree, and Robin Williams, Shelly Duval and team bring genuine vibrancy to the people that inhabit it. It sometimes rambles, taking its time to get to the next big set piece while it lingers on the last, but such is any Altman film, and it allows time to really experience the scope of what they created. An absolute must see for any Williams fan, Altman fan, film fan, or comic strip buff.
One of his earlier films, The Survivors is a buddy film starring Williams as a man that gets fired by a parrot and goes crazy, and Walter Matthau as a man whose business gets unwittingly burnt down by said crazy man. They meet in an unemployment office, foil a robber (Jerry Reed) who turns out to be a hitman, and then things get really wacky.
This is another film that got slammed when it was released, but it’s one that most deserves a second look. Perhaps a tad early for the tastes of the moviegoing public, it’s a quick-firing quasi-social satire that plays half hyper-realistic and half-over-the-top. It resembles the comedies of the mid-to-late 80s that would become classics more than the odd-couple fare people were expecting.
Williams is given room to improvise throughout the film, while Matthau does what he does best and plays the incredulously straight man who shows it’s possible to hold it together while everything around him crumbles uncontrollably. Jerry Reed riffs well with the comedian, and Williams shows off his brand of empathetic naivety so well you can almost forgive him for wallowing in it later with Jack. Almost.
Also, there’s a scene in the movie that seemingly influenced Pulp Fiction. That’s got to be worth a look, right?
What’s your favorite lesser-known Robin Williams role? Let me know in the comments.