‘Insomnia’: Robin Williams’ Hilarious Approach to Working with Al Pacino

The late Robin Williams might be best remembered for his comedy movies. But the actor did make a significant number of dramas and thrillers as well. The manic star of TV sitcom Mork & Mindy even went on to win an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting. However, just because Williams worked on serious movies doesn’t mean his funny bone took a break. In fact, his first day working with Al Pacino on Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia is proof of that.

Robin Williams rides a boat in 'Insomnia'
Robin Williams | Warner Brothers

Robin Williams brilliantly went back and forth between comedy and drama

Prior even to his TV fame, Williams was best known for his stand-up comedy. Yet, even early on in his movie career, the actor wasn’t content to simply lean into his comic persona. Sure, 1980’s Popeye — his first leading role — went big and broad by casting Williams literally as a living, breathing cartoon character. But his next movie, The World According to Garp, established a balance of both comedy and drama that came to define Williams’ career.

1987’s comedy-drama Good Morning, Vietnam earned him his first Academy Award nomination. Nods for Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King followed. But even when Williams went straight ahead into a full-on comedy, such as 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire, he often imbued his performance with dramatic weight. And as his career progressed, Williams took even darker, more layered roles, culminating in a game-changing 2002.

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Al Pacino encountered his comic energy on ‘Insomnia’

In the same calender year, Williams appeared in a trio of very different films. First he played a disgraced former children’s television host in the dark comedy Death to Smoochy. And he delivers a chilling turn as an obsessive photo technician in the psychological thriller One Hour Photo. Insomnia was the most successful of the bunch. Williams plays a serial killer who faced off with Pacino’s sleep-deprived cop, a collaboration Williams loved.

“My first day working with Al… he does this Method thing where before every take he would roar like a lion,” Williams once told journalist Owen Williams. “So my first day working with him, I bleated like a goat. ‘What was that?!’ ‘It’s me, Al. It’s Robin. I was just kidding.’ It was kind of nice to just go ‘I’m here. I understand. I’m just playing.'” As surprised as Pacino might have been, this playful behavior certainly feels in tune with the Williams fans know from his movies.

Robin Williams remains beloved years after his death

Williams, of course, died by suicide in 2014. But even though the actor is gone, he left a mountain of stellar work behind him. Fans have continued to revisit his movies, many of which came to define their childhoods. Films like Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Jumanji, all of which have inspired new projects in the past few years.

But for those who only know Williams’ more family-friendly work, there’s a whole other side of his acting they should unearth. Insomnia — which sees Williams share the screen with Pacino and fellow Oscar winner Hilary Swank — is top of the list. The movie is currently streaming on HBO Max.

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