HBO documentary explores the fragile mind of comic genius Robin Williams

A new documentary on the late Robin Williams looks back at the story of his life, with moving interviews from famous friends who loved him, writes Greg Kennedy

Marina Zenovich gives us previously unseen glimpses into Robin Williams’s creative process. Courtesy HBO
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The world took a gut punch on August 11, 2014, the day the beloved comedian Robin Williams left the planet. His brilliant and inventive spark, a genius that had blazed across four decades of showbiz, was finally and forever extinguished, by his own hand.

Fans were left heartbroken by the suicide of the 63-year-old legend, whose nimble mind could fire off machine gun bursts of wit and instantly morph into reams of characters for his virtuoso comic riffs. In the end, we learnt that Williams had been suffering with Lewy body dementia, a degenerative neurological disease that disturbs brain chemistry and causes hallucinations, anxiety, hinders movement and erodes one’s thinking.

Until that day, millions of us dreamed about how cool it would be to hang out with him to hear first-hand more of his stories and observations on life. And now we can, at least for a couple of hours more, by watching Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, an intimate HBO documentary film that celebrates the comedian through his own words, in its debut on Sunday on OSN.

A lens into his 'beautiful mind'

American director Marina Zenovich, a double Emmy Award winner known for her previous projects – Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic and Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired – appears to have another winner on her hands, with a 97 per cent critics' approval score on Rotten Tomatoes and rave reviews hailing her work as "a lens into Robin Williams's beautiful mind" (Vogue) where "nothing is off limits" (Vanity Fair).

From his boyhood in the San Francisco Bay area, she traces with extraordinary elan what Williams brought to comedy and to global culture, from his classic Juilliard School training in New York City to his wild days in late 1970s Los Angeles to his suicide at home in Paradise Cay, California.

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Zenovich's favourite footage of his nascent talent dates from his Juilliard years (1973 to 1976), where his classmates included Christopher Reeve, William Hurt and Mandy Patinkin. "I love the Juilliard period," she says, "because for him, as an only child who really found his creativity in being alone and playing in his head, to have the luxury of going to Juilliard and kind of honing, of becoming an artist ... I love to see the moment in someone's life where there's hope. And at that time, it's like, the world was his oyster."

She also touches upon career highlights such as his overnight sitcom fame on TV's Mork & Mindy, his landmark comedy show at the Metropolitan Opera, his Broadway debut in Waiting for Godot, his Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting and his classic confessionals about his alcohol and drug issues and 2009 heart surgery.

'He was really comfortable onstage'

Through her skill as a picky curator of Williams’s interviews, his home movies and onstage footage, Zenovich gives previously unheard and unseen glimpses into his creative process as well as his fear of abandonment that shaped how he connected with others.

“Stand-up is survival; for me that’s jazz. That’s what I have to do,” Williams says in a confessional tone in a vintage clip. The stars who knew and loved him truly come out for this funny, amiable and heartbreaking documentary, with appearances by Billy Crystal, Eric Idle, Whoopi Goldberg, David Letterman, Steve Martin, Pam Dawber and Williams’s son, Zak, to name a few.

“He was really comfortable onstage,” Martin says. “Offstage, I just felt he was holding himself together.”

"It was a need to communicate and be funny," says Monty Python star Idle.

Zak says: “My father didn’t always feel he was succeeding – but he was the most successful person I know.”

Crystal fondly recalls how Williams would leave voice messages on his phone in various guises – in effect performing for his friend, an audience of one – as he plays a few. Unfortunately, beyond his impressive body of work, Williams’s tragic ending continues to haunt us, says Bob Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Centre for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

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“Robin Williams was one of the many examples of this mythology, this whole notion that the people who are best at making us laugh, are doing it from an incredibly troubled soul. That the energy required to do what comedians do, that the fuel for the engine of comedy is all of this dark, disturbing kind of thing.

“Now I don’t know that we necessarily want to buy into that, any more than a great novelist has to have tuberculosis, or be dying up in a garret, although that is a romantic notion. And we have plenty of comedians, like [talk-show host] Stephen Colbert, who have completely balanced lives.

“But Robin Williams was really one of those characters who made us think that comedians are mercenaries we pay to live highly disturbed lives that allows them to spill their id out – to make us laugh – and that is a really dangerous business.”

In Come Inside My Mind, however, Williams offers a more delicate, fragile perspective: "You're only given a little spark of madness. If you lose that, you're nothing."

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind airs at 11pm on Sunday on OSN First HD Home of HBO. Please see listings for more viewing times.