Robin Williams a genius from the start

Robin Williams in his first breakout role as Mork from Ork with Mindy.
Robin Williams in his first breakout role as Mork from Ork with Mindy.

Robin Williams' death has reminded all of us of what an incredible performer he was.

For those who grew up in the 1980s, he was one the few stars they could name; and after Aladdin, his was the voice every playground comedian wanted to have.

Read more:
* Fast, furious and funny from TV alien to film Oscar
* Williams was depressed and broke
* Joanna Hunkin: A seat at the Robin Williams' show
* Robin Williams' lifelong fight against addiction: 'It lays in wait'

We have searched the Herald archive for our original reviews of his major roles, including his breakthrough show Mork and Mindy. They show that Williams was a name to note right from the start.

Mork and Mindy (February 21, 1980)

What is the bet that half the schoolchildren in the country will be walking around today turning their ears on and off, sitting on their heads and saying "Nanno-nanno, splink?"

By next week quite a few adults will be doing the same thing.

That is the most likely effect of the new comedy series Mork and Mindy on TV-1 last night.

Mork is an alien on earth with a human friend, Mindy, to help him understand our strange ways.

It is not a new idea but when the alien is the zany Robin Williams with enough screwball dialogue to make Spike Milligan and John Cleese proud, you have the best comedy in the present batch of new series being served up by Television New Zealand.

The beauty of Mork and Mindy, unlike its stablemate Laverne and Shirley, and the British series Agony, is that the zaniness and totally improbable situation allows biting humour without it sounding pretentious.

MASH also uses the same technique to telling effect, as does Norman Gunston.

In the weeks to come, Mork will no doubt make some fairly cruel and very funny observations that most situation comedies would never be able to get away with.

And along the way he is bound to become a cult figure and as popular here as he is in the United States. If only he and Gunston could get together some time.

- Colin Moore

Mrs Doubtfire (January 28, 1994)

The rapid-fire, random access wit of Robin Williams is - at last and for the first time, apart from his brilliant genie voiceover in Aladdin - perfectly at home in a feature film.

The in-your-face energy which made him a stand-up star has always seemed to overwhelm his big screen projects, undermining any plausible sense of character; that's why Good Morning Vietnam was never better than entertaining and Dead Poets Society mawkish and top-heavy, while in dramatic outings such as Awakenings he was uncomfortable and out of place.

Here, as Daniel Hillard, an actor struggling to land voiceover contracts and a devoted father who will do anything to be with kids, Williams is utterly convincing. And to add to the delight, there's plenty of scope for his brand of humour in the best screen drag act since Tootsie.

Divorced by a workaholic wife (Sally Field) after an outrageous kids birthday party and denied any meaningful access to the children he's devoted to. Hillard answers his wife's ad for a housekeeper - and impersonates a homely Scottish nanny in sensible shoes and of sensible wisdom to carry off the deception.

The set-up sounds laboured but is accomplished with some finesse, and once Hillard's back in his own home, the humour - seasoned with handfuls of dramatic irony and rich in the danger of discovery - just gets better and better.

The end result is not without flaws. In its inevitable focus on Williams, the film gives blurry cut out characters to Field and, worse, Pierce Brosnan as a doltish fall guy wooing her.

The slapstick is less assured than the machine gun verbal riffs, here all the more pungent for being cooed in a soothing Scots burr. And a late sub plot casting Mrs Doubtfire as a children's TV star is plain silly.

But by instructively refracting the family breakup through the lens of this new, bogus relationship, by refusing a tidy and sentimental ending and by foregrounding what Pauline Kael, writing about Smash Palace called "a chief malaise of our age" - the divorce of fathers from their children - Mrs Doubtfire avoids most of Hollywood's family film pitfalls and crafts a magnificent entertainment

- Peter Calder

Video

Good Will Hunting (March 5, 1998)

It's a shame that this tender coming-of-age drama will almost certainly be swamped in the bow wave as the unsinkable. Titanic steams to glory on Oscar night.

Because, as mainstream entertainment goes, it's twice the achievement of the movie which became the biggest money-earner in history.

It's named for its main character (Damon) a rebellious teen genius from South Boston who prowls the corridors at MIT, not with a satchel as a student but with a mop as a janitor.

He comes to the attention of a mathematics professor (Skarsgard) when he solves, almost in passing, an algebra problem which was posted on the noticeboard to puzzle an entire class for an entire semester. The desperate, nihilistic cynicism which consumes this devil-may-care youngster would be crippling enough. But his penchant for getting involved in brawls has him staring at jail time.

The academic intercedes, persuading the court to release Will into his care and finding psychological counseling for his new charge. But the obstructive teenager confounds the professionals and - as a last resort - is taken to Sean MacGuire (Williams) a teacher and therapist with his own dark, unresolved past.

The set-up - as old as To Sir with Love and as potentially mawkish as Dead Poets Society - sounds dire, but Good Will Hunting is a sure-footed and largely unsentimental rendering of a story which could so easily have been smothered to treacle. Most of the credit for that belongs to Damon and co-writer Ben Affleck (who co-stars as Will's best friend Chuckie), whose script rings with a sure sense of life on the wrong side of South Boston's tracks.

It has its moments of ponderous speechifying - Will's rejection of a job with Nasa is meant to be knowing but just sounds glib and conceited - and Williams, something of a specialist as an avuncular old teacher/healer, spends a few too many moments grimacing with the pain of his own humanity.

But a terrific ensemble (filled out by a radiant Minnie Driver as Will's romantic redemption), some delicious cameos (George Plimpton as a pompous therapist desperate to hide his homosexuality) and Van Sant's shy and unobtrusive direction make it all add up to a pungent cinematic treat.

- Peter Calder

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- NZ Herald

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