The Role That Defined Robin Williams for Another Generation

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Aug. 11 2014 8:39 PM

The Role That Defined Robin Williams for Another Generation

Robin_Williams_Genie_Aladdin
The Genie in Aladdin.

© 1992 Walt Disney Productions

Robin Williams had such a long and varied and iconic career over the last four decades that whole generations will remember him differently. For many who watched TV in the late ’70s and early ’80s, they will remember him most as Mork—the performance that earned Williams his first Golden Globe. (He won six.) For movie fans from the ’80s, they may remember him as the wiseass DJ Adrian Cronauer from Good Morning, Vietnam—the performance that gave Williams the first of his four Oscar nominations. For others, he’ll always be John Keating from Dead Poets Society—“Oh captain, my captain!”—or the wise, sad Dr. Sean Maguire from Good Will Hunting (the role for which he won Best Supporting Actor).

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But for many in my generation, they will remember Williams most as a man with gold bracelets, blue skin, and no legs. I speak, of course, of his movie-stealing portrayal of the Genie in 1992’s Aladdin.

As strange as it may seem, the Genie was in many ways the perfect role for Williams. Williams excelled at impressions, and he liked to cycle through them at a mind-boggling pace. In The Birdcage, he gave an entire history of modern dance choreography—from Bob Fosse to Martha Graham to Twyla Tharp to Michael Kidd to Madonna—in less than 30 seconds, parodying each master’s choreography along the way. He did similar rapid-fire medleys in his stand-up, and any time he stormed onto a talk show, and in other movies, like Good Morning, Vietnam.

But Aladdin allowed Robin Williams to become what he so often was: a cartoon. When he first emerges from the lamp, he runs through more than a dozen different impressions in a single minute, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to a Scot in a kilt to Ed Sullivan. He keeps this rate up for the rest of the runtime of the movie, even when he’s also carrying a song. The animators somehow kept up, managing to morph the character from line to line just as Williams did with his voice-over. Williams didn’t get an Oscar nomination for the role, but it allowed him to fully become what he so often seemed—superhuman.  

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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