Robin Williams Was a Great Silent Comedian, Too

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 11 2014 8:54 PM

Robin Williams Was a Great Silent Comedian, Too  

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In the immediate aftermath of Robin Williams' death, it's easy to remember him for his fast-talking comedic persona. Whether he was rattling off joke after joke onstage in his standup, delivering mile-a-minute patter in Good Morning Vietnam, or wowing with a dozen rapid-fire impressions as the Genie in Aladdin, the wild inventiveness of his language, and the relentless energy with which that language was delivered, was what often stood out in his work.

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But Williams' finest roles displayed his quiet side, too. His gentle comedic touch could be overwhelmed by sentimentality on one hand and wackiness on the other, but the films in which he gave his most affecting performances were the ones in which he found a happy medium between antic verbal energy and elegant physicality.

Take Terry Gilliam's 1991 comedy-drama The Fisher King. Williams was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Parry, a fragile homeless man who snapped years before, when his wife was the victim of a brutal crime. The shock jock (Jeff Bridges) who contributed unwittingly to the crime takes Parry under his wing and takes him out for a double date: Bridges with Mercedes Ruehl (who won an Oscar for the film), and Parry with the girl of his dreams, Lydia, played with delicate, oddball charm by Amanda Plummer. I love this double date in a Chinese restaurant for the way Williams' famous improvisatory spirit transfers to a near-silent sequence of mischief, creating a palpable connection between two misfit souls. It's a wondrous reminder that, like all great clowns, Williams knew how to use his body to make you feel—whether to laugh, to mourn, or to fall in love.

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

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