One constant in the critical tributes to the late Robin Williams, even those from writers who admit they recoiled from his more sentimental roles, has been the praise for his work in Terry Gilliam’s "The Fisher King" as once-wealthy man whose mind snapped after witnessing the brutal murder of his wife. It’s a heartbreaking performance, and it stands out, among other reasons, because it’s the rare part where Williams acts as a grounding force rather than constantly pushing against the movie’s boundaries. Even as a mentally ill homeless man who fancies himself a modern-day knight searching for the Holy Grail, Williams is unusually, almost eerily, subdued at times, as in this lovely scene with Amanda Plummer.
In an interview with Vulture, Gilliam said, "I think his character in ‘The Fisher King’ is in many ways the closest one to Robin, just that range — the madness, the damage, the pain, the sweetness, the outrageousness. That was the role I think that stretched him to the limits.”
Further insights into Williams’ performance can be gleaned from Gilliam’s commentary track from the Criterion Collection’s out-of-print laserdisc of "The Fisher King," which has been posted as an mp3 at Cinephilia and Beyond. Gilliam touches on plenty of other subjects as well, of course, so we’ve transcribed the few passages that focus specifically on Williams, and leave you to enjoy listening to the rest.
Rather than trying to restrain Robin, which seems to me absolutely stupid — if you’re paying him that kind of money, you’d better use these absolutely unique skills that he has — we would do a scene, and we’d do several takes as written. And then if Robin felt an urge to have a go, if he felt frustrated or restrained, we would give him one or two takes to try new things. Because he’s not even certain what’s going to come out: That’s the wonderful thing about this machine called Robin Williams. It spews out things that astound him.
Robin having done "Awakenings" before this film, he was very well-versed in mental illness. I actually did no research at all: I relied on Robin totally for advice.
What’s lovely is to watch Robin move into this more timid, frightened character as he gets closer to his dream. It’s almost like he knows that he’s moving into dangerous territory.
Robin gives so much in these scenes, he moves beyond acting. He really is inside something so painful in himself it’s kid of scary working with him…. Everything in this film is based on pain. No matter how funny, silly — the pain is what it’s about. My first meeting with Robin to get him involved in the film was saying that very thing.