When Robin Williams got his start on the small screen, it was still seen as just that: Smaller and far less significant than its big screen brother. Yet even after he made the difficult transition between the two, he never stopped returning to the medium from which his comedy originated. Television was always a home to Williams, and he produced some of his best work in big and small doses beamed directly to your living room. Here are some of his most memorable moments.
“The Richard Pryor Show”
A Chicago native and Julliard alum, Williams made the stand-up rounds to get his comedy career started. During this time, he made a few appearances on “The Richard Pryor Show,” playing characters and cracking jokes in his carefully balanced fashion, trading off loud outbursts with sincere moments of silence. Despite the live sketch format begging for over-the-top energy, the trained comedian carefully chose his moments to illicit the best reaction possible. In the clip below, Williams plays a lawyer charged with the impossible task of proving a black man to be innocent of a crime he clearly didn’t commit.
In addition to “The Richard Pryor Show,” Williams also appeared on “America 2-Night,” a short-lived talk show parody from 1978. Below, Williams plays a male escort whose client is mistaken as his mother, and who then begins waxing philosophic on how to live. Even this early on, you can see the improv gears turning quickly as he cracks wise about being a hologram and playing off his “client’s” personality.
Williams landed his star-making role on “Happy Days’ by being “the only alien” who auditioned, according to showrunner Garry Marshall. He walked into the room and when asked to sit down, he instead did a headstand. The role wasn’t supposed to lead anywhere, but Williams’ off-the-wall originality was so addictive after only two episodes that it spawned a spin-off sitcom of its own.
“Mork and Mindy”
One of the few spin-offs that has ever truly worked, “Mork and Mindy” ended up producing nearly 100 episodes (94) thanks in large part to the unique appeal of its star. Williams created an alien on television with the same intrinsic value as the actor himself, thanks to his own vision of contemporary society. Williams took the word “alien” and made it his own, creating an endearing outsider who we all wanted to befriend.
Host – The 58th Academy Awards
Before hosting the Academy Awards turned into a marathon of intense (and often unfair) scrutiny, Williams deftly took the reins in 1986 as the evening’s fast-talking, charming and effective MC, wearing an amazing white tuxedo and tie, with a hairdo only a man with incredible comic abilities could pull off. In the clip below, Williams appears at the six-minute mark to make his first introduction, and then gets a big laugh from the crowd (including James Garner and Meryl Streep) around 9:30 when he brings “a man you’ve never heard of but you have to listen to anyway […] Mr. Jack ‘Boom Boom’ Valenti” (the then-president of the Academy) on stage.
“Homicide: Life on the Street”
In 1994 Robin Williams booked a co-starring role as a distressed father on the critically-hailed precursor to “The Wire.” In the clip below, you’ll see a young Jake Gyllenhaal as his son. Williams was best known for his theater-esque pipes, boasting a tremendous voice often accompanied by some silly antics, but he was also an actor with immense restraint. Here, he conveys loss, concern and fear in a way so subtle that it takes nothing away from the drama unfolding in the scene. He’s supporting the script rather than overpowering it, noting a critical self-awareness he brought to each of his many roles.
In an effort to promote their upcoming film “Father’s Day,” Billy Crystal and Williams appeared on the increasingly popular network sitcom “Friends” as random Central Perk patrons who steal attention from an important announcement from Monica (Courtney Cox). Though somewhat separated from the show’s universe and style, Williams’ voice work is so particular it’s still imitated to this day by fans of the show (“woo-nd” in particular gets a lot of play). Plus, it’s just nice to see an A-list actor unafraid to step back into television during the mid-’90s.
“Law and Order: SVU”
While never averse to drama, Williams took his career in a new direction by making a series of dark films during the early 2000s, including an astounding turn in “One Hour Photo” as a murderous photo developer and a corrupt children’s TV star in the under-viewed black comic masterpiece “Death To Smoochy.” He also worked with Christopher Nolan in “Insomnia” as a serial killer hunted by Al Pacino’s sleep-deprived cop, but it was a simple teaser trailer for his role on “Law and Order: SVU” that has stuck with this critic for more than six years. I’ve never even watched the show, but the brief segment below still stuck with me to this day.
HBO Standup Specials
Williams was nominated for nine Emmys, the last of which came in 2010 for his final HBO special, “Weapons of Self Destruction.” Williams began his career in stand-up and kept up with the difficult practice throughout his career. Providing 10 minutes of original, one-man show material is hard enough; Williams kept going well past that mark on a number of occasions even when he wasn’t touring. Here, Williams took the stage to discuss health care, his recent heart surgery and drugs in American society. The entire 89-minute routine is available below and it does not disappoint.
Many of Robin Williams’ best films, shows and stand-up routines are laced with material unfit for all audiences, but the man knew how to speak to a younger crowd as well. He will be forever beloved as the voice of “Aladdin”‘s Genie, and, more recently, he took to the small screen to teach children about conflict. He was a man who was never not himself, even when disappearing into character — try not to laugh at the video’s end, when he mumbles and jumbles a foreign language jingle to which anyone could relate.
“Louie” has always been a show intent on unveiling new sides of not only its subjects, but its stars. When Williams guest-starred in Season 3, we saw him as just a guy trying to attend someone’s funeral, even if the comedy club manager who had passed was less than a standup fellow. He and Louie are the only attendees, and afterward they pay tribute to the departed by visiting his favorite venue: a strip club. While they’re visibly uncomfortable “mourning” at such a place, everything changes once they drop Barney’s name to a few of the workers. They learn more about their casual acquaintance after he passed than when he was alive, but just as importantly they process his passing in a way both respectful to the individual and healthy for each other. It was a brief, simple performance made memorable by Williams.
The Season 3 episode “Barney/Never” is available to watch via Netflix.
Robin Williams’ last television role may have been canceled after only one season (despite decent ratings, the CBS show suffered by comparison to “The Big Bang Theory’s” stats), but no one will soon forget the laughter he managed to wring out of an average television show. Williams elevated the material given to him through both his performance and selected moments of improv, consistently bringing energy to a show in need of just that (despite being nearly the combined age of the show’s other two leads). Below, take a look at the actor’s constant creative mind at play in a few funny outtakes from the show (and check out this extra outtake of Williams trying to make Kelly Clarkson laugh on set.)