The sublimely funny stand-up comedian and Oscar-winning actor Robin Williams left this earth four years ago this summer, but he hasn’t left the cultural conversation. A new biography by the Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff just hit bookstores this spring. And just last night, HBO debuted its compelling new documentary, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” from the director Marina Zenovich (“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”).
In telling Williams’s story, Zenovich excerpts many of the actor’s greatest hits and digs up some tantalizing outtakes and rarities. But keeping it manageable (117 minutes) meant she had to leave out quite a few of his film and TV credits — there were, after all, at least 108 of them, according to IMDB, most in leading or ensemble roles. Yet Williams was often most striking in his one-shots and cameos, in which he would float into a movie or television episode, make a brief bit of magic and then disappear. Some of the best are, unfortunately, not streaming (including his Emmy-nominated turn on “Homicide: Life on the Street” and his breakthrough guest appearance as Mork on “Happy Days,” which led to “Mork & Mindy”), but there are enough to put together a fine evening of hidden gems.
‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’
“Your old friend’s a lunatic.” So says Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), the young protagonist of this wild 1989 comic fantasy from director Terry Gilliam (who later directed Williams to an Oscar nomination for “The Fisher King”), and she’s not wrong. Williams goes from figuratively to literally out of this world in his brief appearance as “The King of the Moon,” a detached head who pops up to spout taunts and proclamations to young Sally and the good Baron, her guide through the world of the fantastical. Williams took on the brief role simply for the opportunity to work with Gilliam, a Monty Python alum — and he didn’t even take a credit for it, choosing instead to bill himself as Ray D. Tutto (a play on the character’s insistence that he is “re di tutto,” which translates as “king over all” in Italian).
‘Shakes the Clown’
Williams also took on a pseudonym (Marty Fromage) for his appearance in his pal Bobcat Goldthwait’s bizarre 1992 black comedy, in which Goldthwait stars as a children’s clown whose nonstop drinking and womanizing sinks him to rock bottom — specifically, to becoming a mime, under the tutelage of Williams’s character. But he wasn’t just poking fun; Itzkoff notes that Williams worked the streets and parks as a mime to make extra cash while studying at Juilliard, so his one-scene appearance as “Mime Jerry” fuses his lighting-fast verbal improvisational skills with an insider’s knowledge of mime technique and jargon.
Williams kept his name but declined billing in the trailers and advertisements for this wonderfully twisty 1991 mystery from Kenneth Branagh, which pays homage to the conventions of film noir and Hitchcock thrillers, but with a twist: The plot hinges on reincarnation (and, specifically, its function as karmic payback for the sins of past lives). Williams plays Dr. Cozy Carlisle, a disgraced psychologist, stripped of his license, who becomes the unlikely spiritual adviser to the private eye Mike Church (Branagh). Williams keeps his comic impulses in check and embraces the character’s darkness and intensity, wisely playing it as the kind of character role Peter Lorre often played in the classic mysteries that inspired the film.
‘The Larry Sanders Show’
A fair amount of time in the Zenovich documentary is spent on Williams’s considerable sense of insecurity — his feeling that, even when he was clearly getting laughs and winning an audience, he still wasn’t good or funny enough. Playing himself on “Hank’s Contract,” a first-season episode of “The Larry Sanders Show,” Garry Shandling’s innovative inside-showbiz HBO comedy, Williams begins from that point of truth. He looks to Shandling’s talk-show host for affirmation during a commercial break, before finding himself in the middle of an awkward situation between the host and his second banana (Jeffrey Tambor).
‘To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar’
In 1993, Williams had one of his biggest commercial successes with “Mrs. Doubtfire,” in which he plays a newly divorced actor who takes on the character of a proper Scottish nanny as a way to spend more time with his children. In 1996, he had another smash as half of the gay couple at the center of Mike Nichols’s “The Birdcage.” So his un-billed cameo in this 1995 comedy is something of a bridge between them, with Williams popping up as “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” a friend and fan of the film’s three of transgender performers (played by Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo and Wesley Snipes) who helps facilitate their cross-country journey, and adds a shot of adrenaline to the picture in the process.
One of the most engaging threads in “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” is the story of Williams’s relationship with his fellow comedian and actor Billy Crystal — a long, close friendship offstage and a killer collaboration on comedy-club stages and on HBO’s frequent “Comic Relief” telethons. They only attempted to do a full-on comedy feature as co-stars once, with “Father’s Day” in 1997, and it failed to capture their comic spontaneity or genuine affection. But the night before its release, in a bit of corporate synergy, the two appeared on “Friends,” a Warner Bros. Television production (“Father’s Day” was distributed by Warner Bros.). Their pre-title appearance on the Season 3 episode “The One With the Ultimate Fighting Champion” doesn’t quite work — Williams and Crystal were asked to come up with something on the spot, and the magic didn’t quite happen — but it’s still fun to see those two comic heavyweights pop up in the Central Perk.
‘Law & Order: SVU’
In 1994, Williams was nominated for an Emmy for his heartbreaking turn on “Homicide” as a man who blames himself for the tragic murder of his wife. Although his TV work was rare in this period, he took on the role as a favor to his “Good Morning, Vietnam” director Barry Levinson (the show’s executive producer), and in order to act with his friend Richard Belzer, who was a series regular. Fourteen years later, Belzer had moved his “Homicide” character, Detective John Munch, to “Law & Order: SVU,” and Williams asked Belzer about working together again. In the ninth-season episode “Authority,” Williams plays a coldblooded villain, the kind of role he excelled at in big-screen efforts like “One Hour Photo” and “Insomnia.” Chillingly effective, he plays as a disturbed man who initiates criminal acts over the phone by pretending to be a police officer (a story based on a real case, which also inspired the 2012 film “Compliance”).
Williams was pals with Tom Kenny, best known as the voice of Nickelodeon’s beloved undersea dweller, “SpongeBob SquarePants,” and a big fan of the show. “Robin dug SpongeBob,” Kenny told the Georgia Straight, of Vancouver, in 2015. “He’d be, like, ‘Hey, SpongeBob still going? Oh, that’s a great gig, man.’” Surprisingly, Williams, who lent his voice to starring roles in “Aladdin,” “Ferngully” and “Happy Feet,” never did voice work for “SpongeBob.” But he did make a live-action appearance on “Truth or Square,” the double-length sixth-season episode that celebrated the show’s 10th anniversary on the air, alongside other celebrity admirers like Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, LeBron James, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Rosario Dawson, Craig Ferguson, Pink and Ricky Gervais.
“Wilfred,” a four-season FX series about a suicidal young man who sees his neighbor’s dog as a man in a dog costume, was exactly the kind of twisted and surreal series that Williams would admire, so it was no surprise when he popped up on the Season 2 premiere, “Progress.” The appearance resulted from Williams and the series’s star, Elijah Wood, having worked together on the animated “Happy Feet” films, and Williams’s role on “Wilfred” found him slipping into a comfortable role: doctor to a troubled young man. The role is so similar to his Oscar-winning turn in “Good Will Hunting,” in fact, that the episode culminates with Williams telling Wood, over and over, “It’s not your fault” — to which Wood immediately responds: “Wait. That’s from ‘Good Will Hunting.’ You’re Robin Williams!”