The last year of Robin Williams’ professional life was a microcosm of his larger career — a mix of independent drama, animated voice work, studio comedy and even a television sitcom.
Though these projects often lacked the ballyhoo of his earlier work, and several of the films remain unfinished, many of them were completed — notably “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” in which Williams reprised his role as Theodore Roosevelt.
“On-screen and off, this was a formidable, incredible guy,” “Museum” director Shawn Levy said shortly after Williams’ death. “I will never stop treasuring the phenomenal, enduring work he gave to us all.”
Williams’ death of an apparent suicide at age 63 sent shock waves through the entertainment industry, not least because he remained a highly active performer at an age when many of his stature have begun to slow down.
To be sure, Williams had seen his luster fade since his leading-man heyday of the 1980s and 1990s. From 1991 to 1993, Williams anchored a trio of blockbuster films (“Aladdin,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Hook”) that garnered a whopping $1.1 billion at the U.S. box office in inflation-adjusted dollars. His most recent roles were nowhere near as successful — in fact, Williams had not even had a leading role in a studio vehicle since the lightly regarded “Old Dogs” nearly five years ago.
But he continued a prolific pace that ensures his face won’t disappear from movie theaters any time soon.
The latest installment of the “Museum” franchise finds Williams reprising his role as Roosevelt. The movie’s marketing campaign has already showcased scenes in which Williams can be seen in full mustachioed get-up as the 26th president and demonstrating the comic timing for which he had become famous. When 20th Century Fox releases the film to U.S. theaters on Dec. 19, the film will now double as holiday romp and poignant homage.
A studio spokeswoman said there are no planned changes to the rollout in the wake of Williams’ death.
The actor either liked or needed to work, and in recent years he could be found on the sets of independent productions from Tennessee to Alaska, cranking out new movies. Though these shoots would last as little as a few weeks, they were often grueling affairs with slender paychecks.
These movies also had relatively little commercial upside once they were finished. They tended to play a few festivals and garner a niche release — if they were lucky. Many up-and-coming actors are eager for the chance to work even in little-seen exercises, but the sight of a former A-lister in productions of this size is far less common.
Thanks to his strong pedigree as a voice actor, Williams was also able to land work in animation. “Absolutely Anything,” an animated comedy directed by Monty Python veteran Terry Jones, was the last movie he shot. The film centers on a teacher who is unwittingly granted special powers by aliens. Williams stars as Dennis, the teacher’s dog and sidekick — in a part that can’t help but evoke thoughts of Williams’ landmark Genie from the 1992 smash “Aladdin.” The movie does not yet have U.S. distribution.
Williams recently completed shooting “Merry Friggin’ Christmas.” Directed by “Community” veteran Tristram Shapeero, the film is a road-trip comedy with a holiday spin. Williams (dad) and Joel McHale (son) hit the road to retrieve forgotten gifts in this dysfunctional-family take. It also lacks a U.S. distributor.
Williams’ death recalled the news of other actors who died unexpectedly, including James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Like them, Williams leaves behind a number of recently released films, even if it will not be his most enduring work. Williams’ recent marital drama “Boulevard,” by “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” director Dito Montiel, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and does not yet have a distributor in the U.S. Reached by email, the usually expressive Montiel said succinctly that Williams’ death was “just terribly heartbreaking.”
Meanwhile, “The Face of Love,” an equally melancholy affair in which Williams played a key supporting role of a neighbor touched by tragedy, was released to just a handful of theaters by the lower-budget IFC Films in March and took in barely $300,000 at the box office. “Love” could, however, see a surge in digital rentals in the wake of Williams’ death.
A similar dynamic was at play in “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn.” Though it received mixed reviews when it hit theaters in May, this drama takes on a new resonance in light of Monday’s news. Williams plays Henry Altmann, a cantankerous man who, upon learning (mistakenly) that he has just a few hours to live, seeks to right wrongs with his family and friends. Lionsgate released the film this spring, and it too could see an increase in interest as fans look to the film for comfort or clues about the real-life parallels.
Still up in the air at the time of Williams’ death was a prospective sequel to “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Given Hollywood’s interest for all manner of reboots that may not see the light of day — as well as the complicated nature of Hollywood development in general — a finished film was unlikely to hit theaters soon in any event. But a new draft of the script had recently been completed, and Williams and director Christopher Columbus were actively involved in development
Even as his independent films were largely niche plays, Williams remained a cultural bellwether. His work in “The Crazy Ones,” the recently canceled CBS sitcom, was the first series he undertook in the 31 years since “Mork & Mindy” went off the air — and a decisive sign to many in the television industry of how the winds had shifted.
“When you have Robin Williams saying he’s moving to television, you know the demarcation between film and television doesn’t exist anymore,” CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler said shortly before the show went on the air. “I mean, it’s Robin Williams.”