Beyond Heroes and Villains

Investigating the nature of good guys and bad guys in fiction and real life

Healer, Teacher, Hero, Villain from Mork to the Angriest Man

Feeling and healing defined Williams roles as he explored human and alien nature

 

"In an alternate universe, he could have been The Joker or The Riddler in our Batman films." 
Batman, The Dark Knight trilogy executive producer Michael Uslan.

Robin Williams played healers, teachers, heroes, and villains. Did he play so many doctors and educators because he wanted to heal and teach, because he yearned for healing and learning, or because we wanted him to help himself and others grow better? From Popeye onward, his heroic roles greatly outnumbered the villainous. Why didn't he play more villains, and why were his few sinister roles particularly unnerving? Maybe he had to move into the bizarre and creepy (InsomniaOne Hour Photo) to play villains because they deviated so drastically from our favorite roles of his, whether because we could not accept him as a more mainstream bad guy, we did not want him to taint his good guy personas, or he had to step further away from the empathetic human we typically saw in him. Some elements of pain turned up in his every portrayal.

After rising to fame as Mork, the extraterrestrial observer from the planet Ork, Robin Williams spent more than four decades making movies. He also performed standup comedy (A Night at the MetRobin Williams - Live on Broadway; and the ominiously titled special Weapons of Self Destruction) and made many televisiion appearances before starring recently in the short-lived TV series The Crazy Ones, but the theatrical films are the works people tend to cite when talking about Robin Williams characters. 

Williams played doctors of different kinds, healers of both the body and mind: Awakenings' Malcolm Sayer; Dead Again's Cozy Carlisle; Nine Months' obstetrician Kosevich; the eponymous Patch AdamsWhat Dreams May Come's Chris Nielsen; even A.I.'s holographic Dr. Know. His educator roles included Dead Poets Society's John Keating; Good Will Hunting's Sean Maguire; Flubber's Philip Brainard; and arguably The Secret Agent's Professor. On the TV series Law & Order: Special Victims unit, his educator role took a darker turn as he played an engineer trying to teach the public a lesson using extreme methods. Many times, Williams delved into mental illness on screen, as in The Fisher King and Shrink. More than a few stories explored strange ways growing up (HookJackJumanji) or simply learning to appreciate and live life while you can (like his most recent, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn).

Feeling and healing - these defined role after role. Rebellion did too. Defying Nazis (Jakob the Liar), disturbing his own military (Good Morning, Vietnam), and defecting from Soviet Russia (Moscow on the Hudson) displayed but a few demonstrations of his irreverent style. While his characters did not quite fit in, they also strove to understand and relate while also keeping their senses of humor and staying true to themselves.

As with his more down to earth roles, he made the many fantastic beings he portrayed (e.g., Aladdin's Genie; The Bicentennial ManNight at the Museum's wax Teddy Roosevelt) work as sympathetic characters by investing poignant human nature in them in ways other actors might not have. Because of his very humanity, because of how he conveyed his humor and his pain, he appealed to the misfit in us all.

Robin Williams as Patch Adams (1998).
 

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The Bicentennial Man (1999).

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 
1-800-273-TALK (8255), any time day or night.

Travis Langley, Ph.D. is the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.

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