Over the years he played doctors, American presidents, a genie, Peter Pan, Mork from Ork, an Army DJ, a widowed psychologist, the owner of a drag bar, a robot and a beloved English teacher—to name a few.
But of all the characters Williams brought to life prior to his shocking death in 2014, it may have been his role in Mrs. Doubtfire as a divorced dad so desperate to spend time with his kids that he poses as an old, British, female nanny that meant the most to an entire generation of families.
Because in this film—which was released 25 years ago this Saturday and was one of the biggest hits of Williams’ career—something pretty atypical for the times happened: The parents didn’t get back together in the end. Mrs. Doubtfire was no rom-com.
The 1993 comedy, directed by Chris Columbus, starts with Williams’ sporadically employed father of three, Daniel Hillard, ticking off his type-A wife Miranda (Sally Field), one too many times, prompting her to declare their marriage over.
Distraught over the idea of mere visitation rights, Daniel goes undercover as Euphegenia Doubtfire—with the help of his makeup artist brother Frank, played by a scene-stealing Harvey Fierstein—and convinces Miranda to hire “her” as a housekeeper. No one is the wiser until Mrs. Doubtfire’s mask literally comes off toward the end of the movie.
Meanwhile, the Hillard kids—Lydia (Lisa Jakub), Chris (Matthew Lawrence) and Natalie (Mara Wilson)—adore their dad and are pretty mad at Mom, particularly Lydia, but they admirably go with the flow and soon come to adore their “new” member of the family. “Mrs. Doubtfire” can’t offer a magical fix for their parents—and you can imagine how Miranda feels when she finds out what her ex has been up to—but, as Jakub tells E! News exclusively, what the movie did provide was “an alternate and more realistic happy ending.”
“I think that what I’m most proud of is the fact that we really dealt honestly with the issue of divorce,” says Jakub. “We were talking about something that not many people were talking about at that time. The movie was very much about acceptance, and sometimes things don’t really work out the way that we expect, but it doesn’t mean that it’s bad. There are all kinds of ways of being a family.”
And the fact that Mrs. Doubtfire depicted this all the way back in 1993 really resonated with young audiences. “People still come up to me,” says Jakub, now 39. “Here we are, 25 years later, and people still come up to me—and they will hug me, and they will cry, and they will talk about their parents’ divorce and how much the movie helped them.”
Mara Wilson has experienced the same thing. An apartment manager once didn’t charge her for a spare set of keys “because Mrs. Doubtfire got her through a difficult time in her life,” the now 31-year-old actress and writer tells E! News. “I was just in awe thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, something I did when I was 5 still has this amazing impact on people.'”
And not surprisingly, being part of Mrs. Doubtfire made a lasting impact on its stars. Wilson and Jakub recently reunited with Matthew Lawrence and Pierce Brosnan (who played Stu, the dashing hunk who woos their mom and is actually nice) on Today. Seeing each other again “was both as if years had passed but also like no time had passed at all,” says Wilson.
“We just all hugged and talked and felt so warm about each other,” she adds. “It felt like a family reunion with the best stepdad you could imagine, and seeing how well everybody was doing was so great.”
Brosnan Instagrammed a photo of the get-together, explaining that Field wasn’t there because she was on her book tour (on behalf of her memoir In Pieces). Robin Williams, the Irish actor added, “is in heaven making the angels laugh and was spoken of with the fondest of love and sweet memories.”
And there’s no shortage of those to go around. Wilson fondly recalls Williams “[making] his hands into hand puppets” and “[making] his carpet bag talk like a dog.” She also remembers “being a little intimidated” the first time she saw her movie dad transformed into Mrs. Doubtfire, “but he immediately said, you know, ‘Don’t be afraid’ in his gentle Scottish lilt, and I wasn’t anymore.”
Twentieth Century Fox
Convincingly transforming Williams into a woman was quite a feat, too. According to Ve Neill, a member of Mrs. Doubtfire‘s Academy Award-winning makeup team, the process took four hours—and they did it 54 times over!
“It was all overlapping latex pieces, and Robin was a sweater,” Neill tells E! News. “I mean he really perspired a lot, so I had to make sure that every single one of those pieces was completely overlapped, and his face was completely encased, because if it wasn’t…the perspiration would start popping out of those holes, and I’d be chasing it all day long, and it would start to come off.”
For Neill, who’s worked on Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Pirates of the Caribbean, X-Men, Hunger Games and countless other films, Mrs. Doubtfire remains “the most difficult” job she’s ever done. “It was a lot,” she says with a laugh, but it was well worth it.
The end result was iconic, and working with Williams remains one of the highlights of Neill’s career. “I adored Robin,” she says, “and I actually stayed friends with him for all the years he was alive after [Mrs. Doubtfire]…He was fantastic.”
For Jakub, too, Williams’ impact went beyond what we saw onscreen. “He was always very open with me in talking to me about some of the struggles that he had with addiction and with mental health issues,” she says, “and I was always really, really grateful for that, because I had always had anxiety, and so to have an adult be so honest and open with me about his own struggles was really meaningful.”
Now an author, speaker and mental wellness advocate herself, Jakub says Williams “definitely played a big part in my own openness about the things that I struggle with and my own feelings of wanting to be really honest about that, because it meant so much to me that he was honest about that.”
Wilson too is doing her part to end the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Through her writing—and particularly her newsletter—the former child star candidly shares her own experiences with anxiety, OCD and depression. The fact that Williams spoke publicly about his mental health struggles “has been an inspiration” for Wilson to do the same, she says.
The Mrs. Doubtfire sequel once in the works obviously won’t be happening without Williams. But in the fictional world of the Hillard family? “I think everybody would’ve ended up OK,” says Jakub.
Because as Mrs. Doubtfire told a dear little poppet at the end of the beloved movie, “There are all sorts of different families…But if there’s love, dear, those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever.”