Robin Williams' greatest lesser-known roles

From black-hearted comedies to Christopher Nolan thrillers, Dazed pays tribute to the comedian's less-heralded characters

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Robin Williams in One Hour Photo (2002)

From his breakout performance in Mork and Mindy to his Oscar-winning performance in Good Will Hunting, the late, great Robin Williams had a long and varied filmography dating all the way back to 1977. But while he'll always be lovingly remembered for blockbuster roles in childhood favourites like Hook and Aladdin and big-hearted dramas like Mrs Doubtfire and Dead Poets Society, Williams also applied his prodigious talents to everything from black comedies to menacing Christopher Nolan thrillers. Here, we pay tribute to Williams' best lesser-known roles.

DR MALCOLM SAYERS IN AWAKENINGS (1990)

Directed by Big's Penny Marshall, this moving film is an adaptation of renowned psychologist Oliver Sacks's 1973 book, which recounts the lives of encephalitis patients awakened from decades of sleep thanks to a drug called L-DOPA. Once described as Williams' best "straight" performance, he plays a doctor determined to cure his bed-bound and catatonic patients.

SY PARRISH IN ONE HOUR PHOTO (2002)

Some of Williams' more dramatic roles haven't been too well-received, but he impressed critics with this portrayal of a lonely photo developer. Pale blond and blandly pleasant, Sy Parrish almost disappears into the fluorescent-lit surroundings of his giant discount store – only to exact a deeply macabre revenge on a family of customers that he becomes obsessed with. 

VLADIMIR IVANOFF IN MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON (1984)

This coming-to-America drama follows Williams as a Russian sax player who defects from the Soviet Union to the US, only to struggle with feelings of alienation and rejection from his new home country. Sure, it sounds schlocky as hell, but it's also a beautiful love letter to the great melting pot of New York City – as evidenced by this Fourth of July scene below:

ARMAND GOLDMAN IN THE BIRDCAGE (1996)

Williams is better known for family-friendly comedies like Mrs Doubtfire, but he shines in The Birdcage as an urbane owner of a gay cabaret. Adapted by The Graduate director Mike Nichols from the French comedy La Cage Aux Folles, it's crowd-pleasingly camp that features Williams doing his best impressions of Bob Fosse, Madonna and stage choreographers Michael Kidd and Martha Graham – all in the space of ten seconds. 

WALTER FINCH IN INSOMNIA (2002)

This chilly Christopher Nolan remake of a Norweigian murder mystery features Williams as a pulp crime novelist and Al Pacino as an LAPD detective investigating the murder of a teenage girl. The dark noir-ish feature is a slow burn, culminating in this terrifying telephone conversation where Williams dramatically reveals his true intentions. Warning: contains spoilers.

LANCE IN WORLD'S GREATEST DAD (2009)

This Bobcat Goldthwait film might have been marketed as your run-of-the-mill family comedy, but it's actually a daring and dark film that casts Williams as a timid high school teacher who transforms his nasty son's freak accident into his own chance to shine. Unashamedly vicious and bleak, World's Greatest Dad is black humour at its finest.  

PARRY IN THE FISHER KING (1991)

Williams was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in this Terry Gilliam film, which relocates the Holy Grail from Arthurian legend to 90s New York. He plays a homeless man who rescues a suicidal, down-and-out shock jock (Jeff Bridges) as they set off on a mission to rescue the Grail. Unabashedly sappy, but it's also Gilliam at his inventive, quasi-mythic best – and you're basically heartless if you don't tear up at the scene where Williams confesses his love to an uncertain Lydia (Amanda Plummer). 

RAINBOW RANDOLPH IN DEATH TO SMOOCHY (2002)

This hyperactive, black-hearted comedy from Danny DeVito was critically trashed when it came out, but it does feature Williams as a foul-mouthed children's entertainer who takes bribes and screams "I'm Rainbow fucking Randolph" while dressed as a purple rhino. I don't know what else you could want, honestly.  

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