WASHINGTON - Robin Williams may be best remembered for the legion of fast-talking comedic roles which lit up both television and movies during his glittering show-business career.
Less well-known is the fact that the 63-year-old, who died from an apparent suicide on Monday, almost single-handedly began the trend of stars lending their voices to animated blockbusters when he signed on to Disney's 1992 hit "Aladdin." Williams' scene-stealing portrayal of the Genie in the hit children's classic was in many ways a match made in heaven, allowing the funnyman free rein to showcase his dazzling improvisational skills.
The film is widely regarded as the first animated production to build its marketing on the strength of having a major movie star providing one of its voices, something which has become the norm today.
Since Williams' trailblazing performance more than two decades ago, Hollywood's elite have flocked to animated movies.
Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen and Eddie Murphy are just a handful of the stars who have cashed in on the trend.
Before 1992, the occurrence of established actors' voices in animated films was not over-publicized, according to Jerry Beck, a film historian who specializes in animation.
But with "Aladdin," audiences headed to cinemas to see Williams' comic turn as the Genie in the lamp.
The wild vocal performance of the actor, who used the role to mimic the voices of Groucho Marx, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, amongst others, remains the stuff of legend.
In signing for the picture, Williams had stipulated a contract which stated that his voice could only be used in the movie and not in publicity, because he was working for "actor's scale" or minimum wage, primarily so his children could hear him in a Disney film, according to Disney historian Jim Korkis.
Disney inadvertently broke that agreement, triggering a feud with the actor which later led to Disney presenting Williams with a Picasso painting worth $1 million in an effort to smooth over the row.
Freedom to improvise
The movie was also significant for another innovation, according to animation expert Beck, in that Disney gave Williams free rein "to improvise, and they used the improvisation." "That's a practice that started right there and continues to today," Beck said. "When they bring in Jack Black or Eddie Murphy to do a voice, they allow them to run wild - that's something that started with Robin Williams," said Beck, editor in chief of the website Cartoon Research.
In all, Williams recorded some 16 hours of freewheeling improvisations for what was to be only a 90-minute movie.
"For instance, in the opening peddler scene (where Williams also does the voice of that character), Disney brought out a table of miscellaneous items, put a sheet over them and had Williams reach under and pull an item out blindly and then comment," Korkis revealed.
"He pulled out a bra, put it on his head and quipped 'A double yarmulke!' Obviously, most of those ad-libs could not be used," added Korkis, author of "The Revised Vault of Walt," chronicling the Disney empire.
Williams would later described his performance as the Genie as one of his three favourite roles in a career spanning dozens of films, which also included several other animated turns including the two "Happy Feet" films and "Robots." " Robin William was a living cartoon," said Beck. "He could assume many, many personas, many different identities in his voice and that makes him perfect for animation."