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Disney In Depth: Honoring Robin Williams’ Disney Legacy
Brett Nachman   |  @   |  

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“When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think.”

So true are the words of John Keating, the character from the movie Dead Poets Society portrayed by Robin Williams in an Oscar-nominated performance. The actor’s death, tragic in that a man who gave the world so much joy could never appear to possess joy himself, continues to startle Hollywood. There are few performers we could call “genius,” but Williams was one of them, an irrefutably gifted comic-turned-actor who was as much a poetic dramatic actor as he was a comedic revelation.

Robin Williams’ Disney legacy cannot be disputed. The Oh My Disney blog captured practically all of Williams’ connections with the company in its recent entry. Many other Disney bloggers have written about Williams’ impact in recent days. My colleague Eve shared with you animator Eric Goldberg’s tribute to the late great. I aim to do much the same, as through reflection we learn more about our own lives and can form new connections. Let us honor Robin Williams, a real Disney Legend.

Mork and Fonzie Robin Williams Mork and Mindy

Five years ago I attended the inaugural Disney D23 Expo. I was most anticipating the Disney Legends awards ceremony, the first time it would be open to the general public. Host Tom Bergeron and Disney’s CEO Bob Iger presented the accolades to several influential individuals who had made significant contributions to The Walt Disney Company. They saved the best for last.

Robin Williams was greeted by roaring applause and laughs seemingly every second. I watched one of my favorite performers delivering jokes in spades, at the top of his game, only months after his publicized heart surgery. I reveled in this experience to catch Williams in action and to see Disney honoring him for his delightful and poignant work, from film and television, to the theme parks. For those of you who have not seen his riotous speech, the video from Attractions Magazine on YouTube is posted below. I did not want these ten minutes to end.

As I watched the ceremony and was reminded of Williams’ truly diverse performances within various divisions of The Walt Disney Company, I thought of how few actors are capable of such range. Though I was not even alive during the late ’70s when he first arrived on mainstream television, I can remember seeing clips of ABC’s Happy Days and Mork & Mindy in syndication.

Williams’ odd behaviors, extremely quick timing, and variability in tone was a trifecta to be reckoned with. His career may have slumped during the mid 1980s, but The Walt Disney Company saw promise in the actor, who had almost become a character himself. Thanks to Oscar nominations in Touchstone’s Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, roles that cemented his place as a capable dramatic actor with comedic touches, Williams landed on the map again.

The early ’90s catapulted Williams to stardom due to opting for a mix of strong, heavier performances and also smart, yet zany characters. Awakenings, The Fisher King, and Mr. Doubtfire brought him the attention he deserved after years of being overlooked.

In the world of Disney, though, Williams experienced new highs in several venues. The then-named Disney-MGM Studios enlisted him to star alongside newsman Walter Cronkite in Back to Neverland, a short live-action/animated film that explained the process of animation. The film ran for 15 years at the park, now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Interestingly, Peter Pan encompassed much of the short film’s theme, as Williams’ character aimed to be a “lost boy.” Ironically, just a few years later he would play Pan in non-Disney film Hook. I always adored watching Williams in action, constantly changing voices and in imagery. “I’m a corporate symbol,” he said upon morphing into an animated Mickey Mouse.

Likewise, I knew I could count on Williams to share with me about technical innovations in The Timekeeper, an entertaining Circle-Vision film in Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland. The movie also played in Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland. As the voice of the wacky time-traveling Audio-Animatronic character, Williams let loose in his frenzied fun. Accompanied by Rhea Perlman as the voice of the 9-Eye robot and Jeremy Irons portraying H.G. Wells, Timekeeper acted as a love letter to the history of technology – and also a statement of popular early ’90s-era celebrities.

But one role, as a manic, mirthful, and always-morphing friend to a “street rat” would define his career. Enter Genie.

Aladdin characters

My adoration of Aladdin’s best friend has been evident since the debut of the Disney In Depth column more than two years ago. I have dedicated several articles strictly to the film, including one solely on why everyone loves Genie. Though he has not been the sole voice of the blue guy – props go to Dan Castellaneta for portraying him in the animated series and Return of Jafar – it is Robin Williams who made Genie the Genie we all are drawn to.

Improvisation was key to Williams’ success. He translated that sharp skill to the role of Aladdin’s buddy. If it was not for Williams’ brilliance as Genie, we may have never seen the likes of James Woods’ Hades in Hercules, Patrick Warburton’s Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove or Josh Gad’s Olaf in Frozen. That is no exaggeration. Williams set the bar of unstoppably fast and inventive voice acting in an animated comedy.

No matter what anybody says… you’ll always be a prince to me. – Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin

But not everything was magical with Williams’ relationship with Disney. A dispute over the Genie’s prominence in advertising materials led to a falling out between the two, resulting in several years of no Disney projects featuring Williams. Yet things turned around after Disney apologized for utilizing his likeness.

Come 1996, more Disney roles appeared for Williams, including reprising Genie in direct-to-video hit Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Touchstone Pictures’ Jack, Miramax’s Good Will Hunting, and Disney’s Flubber. As Professor Brainard in Disney’s remake of The Absent-Minded Professor, Williams reached new younger viewers as the wild inventor of Flubber. I was one of those viewers, a six-year-old soaking in the actor’s madness and mad talent.

Some of Williams’ later roles with Disney were met with derision, as his work in 2009’s Old Dogs was seen a way to obtain a paycheck. I could not even manage to check out the film, as the material from the trailer seemed a way to only showcase tired gags. However, the sadly overlooked Bicentennial Man, a moving and bold Touchstone film from 1999, gave Williams a powerhouse performance many individuals have not seen. His portrayal of Andrew, a robot servicing humans who yearns to become a human himself, is wry, deep, and startling, all at once. It’s a performance that carried with me from first catching it at age eight to more recently as a college student. Williams’ poignancy in demonstrating life and death, happiness, and sorrow, epitomized the class act he embodied in film.

Like many others, I thought I was distorting words when I discovered the news of his death. The first image I conjured upon reading those horrible words was Williams, in his late 30s, as John Keating, standing in a classroom and lecturing to his English students. In Dead Poets Society he offered a hopeful voice as an unorthodox teacher. Williams, like his Keats character, defied tradition with his humor, resonance, and indisputable heart. That’s why we all loved Robin Williams. All I know is that my “captain” is gone.

I rip a page out of my pad of paper in remorse and close the door. Class dismissed. But unlike a school, only limited to a certain time, the value of film and television exists in that they are mediums not constricted to any finite period. Robin Williams is already missed, but his legacy – his Disney legacy, especially – will delight audiences for generations to come.

What are your favorite memories of Williams? Share your thoughts.

This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.

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