When Robin Williams died by his own hand four years ago, the world sucked in for air, shocked that a man with Williams’s gifts and seemingly inexhaustible energy could perform an act of such desperation.
In the months that followed, news trickled out that Williams had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease and a pernicious form of dementia. His body had been affected—and he felt, as his widow put it, that he was “losing his mind.”
And what a mind. His four-decade-long career saw him work as a madcap improv performer, a manically funny standup comedian, a wildly original TV weirdo, and an Oscar-winning actor in prestige films. His creativity popped and fizzed and overflowed; he could make lighting-speed references both subtle and stinging; he could leap with ease between the bawdy and the urbane. Through his impressions and his on-the-spot fictional characters, he could create tiny, short-lived universes seemingly with the ease of a child blowing bubbles.
Williams’s mind—that strange and wondrous mind—is the subject of HBO’s recent biographical documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. Directed by Marina Zenovich and drawing on rare footage, many never-before-seen photographs, and new interviews with family members and friends, the film tells the story of Williams’s life while trying to understand his psyche and genius.
Robin McLaurin Williams was born in July 1951 to Robert and Laurie Williams. According to Robin, his father was a sweet but stoic corporate ladder-climber at Ford Motor Company. His mother, by contrast, had an outgoing personality and delighted in charming dinner guests with practical jokes. The Williams family was always on the move because of Robert’s work, and Robin’s perpetual status as “the new kid” meant he was mostly left to his own devices. Still, he developed into a serious student and multisport athlete who seemed to be on a conventional path to success—truly his father’s son. That is, until Robin’s senior year of high school, when the family moved to San Francisco. There he quickly embraced hippie culture and his mother’s lightheartedness.
After high school, Williams briefly studied political science at Claremont College, but when his lack of interest in the subject became evident in his failing grades, his father pulled him out. He spent the next three years studying theater in community college before he was accepted into Juilliard’s advanced program for acting. There he met Christopher Reeve, who would become a lifelong friend, and studied under John Houseman. But after three years, Williams and Julliard mutually parted ways. Three schools and zero degrees later, Williams found himself back in San Francisco, where he quickly earned a reputation as an exciting and unpredictable talent. Eventually, he moved to Hollywood to pursue show business more earnestly. “In my head, my first sight of him was that he could fly, because of the energy,” David Letterman recalls in the documentary. “All I could do was hang on to the microphone for dear life, and here was a guy who could levitate.”
A dynamic guest appearance as an alien on Happy Days in early 1978 led later that year to Williams’s own TV vehicle, Mork and Mindy, built around the same character. That year he also married his first wife, Valerie Velardi; their son, Zak, who was born in 1983, appears repeatedly in the documentary.
Beginning with Mork and Mindy, Williams’s career took off. His standup tours sold out across the country. And though he didn’t immediately find his footing in film—the critical flop of his first feature, Popeye in 1980, sure didn’t help—Williams went on to star in hits that put front and center his improvisatory comedic gifts (like Good Morning, Vietnam and Aladdin) as well as his dramatic chops (like Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, The Fisher King, and Good Will Hunting). He racked up six Golden Globes and one Oscar.
Along the way, Williams struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse. He divorced Velardi in 1988 and his second wife, Marsha Garces (mother of his children Zelda and Cody), in 2010. He also battled myriad health problems, including heart trouble—he underwent major heart surgery in 2009. As his body slowed, so did his career. Williams’s last major project, the CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones, was canceled after its first season, on May 10, 2014. Later that month came his Parkinson’s diagnosis. Williams hanged himself in August 2014; signs of Lewy body dementia, which likely explained his symptoms of mental deterioration beyond what would have been typical for a Parkinson’s patient, were discovered only during his autopsy.
The approach that Marina Zenovich takes in directing Come Inside My Mind—she prefers to show rather than tell—works quite well. Her storytelling skill, and that of her editors Greg Finton and Poppy Das, is most readily apparent in the tiny moments, like a sequence of just a few seconds following a brief description of Williams’s solitary childhood. The screen flashes to stock black-and-white footage of battalions of toy soldiers while an adult Williams narrates the action, changing voices with the enthusiasm of a 6-year-old on a sugar high. You can’t help but envision Williams as a boy amusing himself, not because he wanted to but because he had to.
Zenovich is deft in depicting her subject’s insecurities, especially in using clips from Williams’s own standup routines. In discussing alcoholism and recovery, Williams, on stage, grips a cup of water and shakes it wildly, remarking through gritted teeth how “I feel so much better about myself, God damn it! I feel really healthy now! No, go ahead, have your cocktail, I’ll be over in the corner hurting the cat.” Zenovich uses many other such illustrative, and often uncomfortable, bits from Williams’s comedy to offer insight into his character and his struggles, but not so many that it feels heavy-handed or warps our understanding of the man.
The music selected for the documentary generally complements the on-screen action well, although the songs are sometimes a little too on the nose, as when we hear “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds during Williams’s move to San Francisco or Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” during a depiction of the physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing nature of Williams’s routines.
No two-hour documentary could suffice to cover all of the minute details of a life as rich as that of Robin Williams. But for all its strengths, Come Inside My Mind glosses over, fudges, and omits some key particulars of Williams’s life story. This may have been an unavoidable result of the cooperation of some of his family members with the filmmakers, but whatever the reason, it is worth some examination.
The most egregious example is the documentary’s handling of Williams’s first marriage. The film touches on Williams’s philandering throughout his relationship with Velardi, and Velardi herself offers on camera an excuse for his behavior: “He loved women, and I got it and I understood it and I wanted him to have that.” But it is clear that Williams’s womanizing played an enormous role in destabilizing their marriage. As David Itzkoff notes in his new biography of Williams, Robin, Velardi’s feuds with Williams’s mistresses provided frequent fodder for the tabloids. Mork and Mindy director Howard Storm recalled having to hide Williams’s girlfriend du jour whenever Velardi came on set. In exonerating Williams through Velardi, Come Inside My Mind disserves its viewers—and since examining Williams’s behavior a little more candidly would provide more context for the feelings of inadequacy that plagued him throughout his life, not doing so undermines the film’s stated goal of exploring his mind.
That goal also seems ill served by other omissions. Robert Williams’s disapproval of his son’s career path and Robin’s financial and emotional struggles at Julliard are ignored. His divorce from Marsha Garces, his second wife of 21 years, is mentioned and moved on from in a mere 10 seconds. Especially strangely, his third wife and widow, Susan Schneider, whom he married in 2011, is not even named in the film.
Notwithstanding these narrative issues, Come Inside My Mind is immensely engaging and enjoyable. Despite the necessarily heavy themes, the sheer volume of movie clips, comedy routines, photos, and home videos incorporated into the documentary makes it a joy to watch. Viewers will walk away grateful for the life and the overflowing creativity of Robin Williams.