Robin Williams was serious about a lot of issues in his personal life, whether campaigning for a new G.I. bill, or raising money for Hurricane Katrina victims. But even in his funny moments on the screen, the comedian managed to bring to the fore a lot of important societal issues. In fact, Williams’ characters evinced a progressivism that the actor didn’t necessarily bring offstage with him. Here are a look at some of the movies where Robin Williams put progressive issues into the spotlight:
1. Homelessness and mental health in ‘The Fisher King’
“There’s three things in this world that you need: Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer,” Williams says in his Oscar-nominated performance in The Fisher King. And while the second two may be humorous, Williams honed in on the first one in his performance as Parry, a homeless man suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder living on the streets. The National Alliance for Mental Illness named The Fisher King one of the top movies for mental illness, and while there’s been some debate over how accurate his portrayal of mental illness was, the movie clearly reflected Williams’ personal dedication to the issue. He was a vocal advocate for homelessness prevention and participated in the organization Comic Relief, which raises money for homeless services.
2. Gay and gender identity in ‘The Birdcage’
CREDIT: United Artists
In a time when it was still relatively controversial to be gay in America, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane played a loving gay couple who fought through stigma and showed their son why he shouldn’t be ashamed to be part of a gay family. It was just one of several Williams films that normalized cross-dressing, but more than that it normalized gay love and adoption writ large. “Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle-aged fag,” Williams says as Armand in the movie. “But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that.”
3. Press freedom in ‘Good Morning Vietnam’
War and censorship are rarely laughing matters, and in other hands the the 1985 film “Good Morning, Vietnam” could have been a maudlin flop. Instead, Robin Williams took on the role of Airman Second Class Adrian Cronauer and lead the cast with aplomb. While the actual Cronauer — who drafted the first version of the script — likely didn’t do impressions of the Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz during his radio sets, Williams’ performance in the DJ booth is done with such gusto and conviction that the movie rightly is remembered as one of Williams’ best. Not only did Cronauer bring levity, but he was also willing to disobey the top brass and lock himself in the studio to report the bombing of a local hang-out to the war-weary soldiers in Saigon. His performance as a soldier willing to actually learn from an understand the locals people he was deployed to protect also helped the film rise above the war-movie genre and become something special.
4. Addiction in ‘The Crazy Ones’
Williams returned to television last year on David E. Kelley’s sitcom “The Crazy Ones,” playing a character not far from himself. As Simon Roberts, a recovering addict who had struggled with mental health issues (“I prefer nutjob or psychologically interesting,” Roberts quipped), but built a successful advertising agency around his extraordinary energy and creativity. One of the main themes of the series was his character’s ongoing effort to rebuild his relationship with Sydney, the daughter he had neglected over years of substance abuse. The show and Williams took a comic but sincere approach to addiction and mental health — and in one episode he even staged an intervention into Sydney’s growing video game addiction:
5. Domestic abuse in ‘Good Will Hunting’
In 1997’s Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams and his co-star Matt Damon worked together to give heightened national attention — and a human face — to the struggles of those who endure domestic violence and abuse. As the complex but unyieldingly compassionate psychiatrist Dr. Sean Maguire, Williams engages in a series of initially combative — but increasingly poignant — therapy sessions with a cocky reluctant-boy-genius Will Hunting, played by Damon. After learning that Damon’s character has suffered horrific beatings at the hands of his foster father, Williams reveals that he, too, was a victim of abuse as a child. Williams and Damon then enact one of the more moving scenes in all of American cinema, with Williams helping Damon tearfully assuage the self-blame he harbors from the abuse by softly repeating the phrase: “It’s not your fault.” The role earned Williams an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
6. Deforestation in ‘FernGully’
CREDIT: 20th Century Fox
In the 1992 Australian-American film fully titled FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Robin Williams provided the voice to a fruit bat named Batty Koda, in his first role in an animated film. The plot revolves around a protagonist who leaves his rapacious team of loggers that threaten a magical rain forest, and joins the indigenous magical natives to save it. Williams provides colorful comic relief in the story, though not without a message against deforestation and unchecked development: “First thing, all these trees go,” he says, “Then come your highways, then come your shopping malls, and your parking lots, and your convenience stores…” The film was shown at the U.N. General Assembly on Earth Day, 1992.
7. Single parenting in ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’
The opening of Robin Williams’ Golden Globe winning performance of Mrs. Doubtfire follows a standard trope in American culture of the deadbeat dad who can’t figure out how to be a good father and husband. But it soon radically departs from that, and instead shows a caring father whose children come first and foremost in his life. Williams isn’t ducking out to buy a pack of cigarettes and never coming back, he’s trying his hardest to be with his kids, even if that means disguising himself as an old woman. In character as Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams addresses the stigmas of divorce and single-parenting, responding to a note from a little girl: “You know, some parents get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time and they can become better people. Much better mommies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t… don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other doesn’t mean that they don’t love you.”
Mrs. Doubtfire goes on: “There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. Some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. Some live in separate homes and neighborhoods, in different areas of the country. They may not see each other for days, weeks, months or even years at a time. But if there’s love, dear, those are the ties that bind. And you’ll have a family in your heart forever.”