Film & TV

The Meaning of Robin Williams

Robin Williams (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
His manic style was unforgettable, but when he calmed down, he was even better.

When a famous person, especially a beloved one, commits suicide, we are so rattled that we reach for the shelf of clichés to explain the event. In the case of Robin Williams, who ended his life on August 11, 2014, all the usual answers were readily at hand: Williams had abused drugs. His career was in such decline that he had not only taken on a sitcom (The Crazy Ones) but seen it canceled after one season. He was a Sad Clown, a mirthmaker with a void at his center that he knew could never be filled.

There is truth to all of these characterizations, but it turned out that the most likely cause of Williams’s despair was something few had heard of: an advanced case of Lewy body dementia, a brain disorder that creates delusions. His widow, Susan Schneider Williams, dubbed it “the terrorist inside my husband’s brain.” In other words, Williams died of a brain disease, one of whose symptoms was suicide.

There is frustration, then, in watching Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, the HBO documentary that mentions the LBD only in passing, at the very end. Otherwise the film traffics in clichés. We’ve been here before: the pharmaceutically fixated Bob Woodward book Wired showed us that John Belushi took drugs but neglected to show us who the man was. There was more to Belushi’s life than substance abuse, and there was more to Williams than his always-on neediness, his laugh-hunger.

Williams’s widow, his third wife, is not interviewed (or even mentioned, merely seen in photos) in the HBO documentary, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film is built around fruitful interviews with many in his circle, but it’s hard not to notice those not present. Only one of Williams’s three wives (his first one, dancer Valerie Velardi) is interviewed on camera, and only one (Cody) of his three adult children. Bobcat Goldthwait, a close friend and the director of perhaps the blackest comedy Williams ever filmed, World’s Greatest Dad, also didn’t sit for an interview with Zenovich, though he is seen in clips.

The film contains plenty of revealing moments, though, and as a fan I was transfixed. Williams’s mother was the type who’d stick things up her nose to get a laugh. But his father, a Ford Motor Company executive, was physically as well as emotionally distant: Often on the road, he was chilly to his son when present. When the comic Jonathan Winters appeared on TV, though, a rare thing happened: The boy saw his dad laugh.

Twenty years later, Williams’s act was a coked-up Jonathan Winters: doing standup, he adopted Winters’s style of zipping from one strange character to another, only this time at 10x speed. “Here was a guy who could levitate,” marvels David Letterman, a fellow comic and admirer who also worked The Comedy Store. (Jay Leno, another colleague, was more attentive to Williams’s flaws: When the latter said he was cheating on his then-girlfriend Velardi with comedian Elayne Boosler because “I just want some balance,” Leno replied,“You’re using your d**k as a fulcrum.”)

At night he would take his best friend, cocaine, out for a roar through the comedy clubs, sometimes doing five or six sets before the sun rose.

Williams was becoming a name at the clubs when sitcom producer Garry Marshall’s son, aged eight, declared that, as he had seen Star Wars, he was no longer interested in Dad’s alien-free hit show Happy Days. Marshall stormed into the writers’ room and told the hacks, “Scotty wants a spaceman!” So arrived Mork from Ork, the nutty alien Williams played first in a particularly strange episode of Happy Days, then on his own spinoff show Mork and Mindy. Williams’s jazzy riffs became the show. At night he would take his best friend, cocaine, out for a roar through the comedy clubs, sometimes doing five or six sets before the sun rose. This required heavy fuel: Some clubs paid either in “white or green,” we learn. Eric Idle, a longtime friend, notes that “he would cease to be funny the later the evening went because of that drug.”

“Comic” and “genius” started to appear in close proximity in stories about Williams, but the documentary makes clear that his early act is fairly unwatchable today. It’s pure shtick. He got better as he gradually dropped the habit of racing through characters and sharpened his writing. “Cocaine,” he’d say, “is God’s way of telling you you’re making too much money.” This was around the time Belushi died of a drug overdose, hours after Williams had partied with him at the Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip.

It was as a dramatic actor that Williams did his most enduring work, first in The World According to Garp, later in Awakenings, One Hour Photo, and Insomnia. The trick he learned: “Whatever you think is acting — don’t do that anymore. If you just don’t interfere with yourself, you’re quite interesting. Don’t do anything, just talk.” It was a 180-degree turn from staged mania, one of the most agreeable transformations in any performer of his era. In these later roles Williams was thoughtful, measured, careful, fragile. As Mork, Williams had (somehow) turned “Nanoo-nanoo” and “Shazbot” into catchphrases. As John Keating in Dead Poets Society it was “Carpe Diem” and “O Captain! My Captain!” The agony of his final days won’t diminish that performance: In his best film, Robin Williams was inspiration itself.

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