Inside the Final Days of Robin Williams
Through interviews with his wife Susan, the new documentary “Robin’s Wish” chronicles the final days of comedy legend Robin Williams, who took his own life at the age of 63.
Robin Williams’ self-inflicted death on Aug. 11, 2014, at the age of 63 shocked the world, not only because few knew that the acclaimed actor had been suffering in any way, but because despite his history of substance-abuse problems, his effusive, uninhibited, hyperactive spirit was so joyous and infectious that it simply didn’t gibe with suicide. With no concrete explanation for why he’d taken his own life, the media filled in the gaps with wild speculation about depression, drugs, and financial woes. None of those guesses, however, did anything to alleviate the sheer mystery of it all. It was simply incomprehensible—to fans, friends and family.
And, as Robin’s Wish makes clear, it also didn’t make sense to Williams himself.
Tylor Norwood’s documentary (premiering Sept. 1 on VOD) is an intimate look at the final days of the Hollywood star, whose success as both a comedian and a dramatic actor made him one of his era’s most beloved headliners. Considering that focus, it’s far from a comprehensive non-fiction biopic; those looking for copious movie clips, or a chronological timeline of his professional and personal ups and downs, will have to look elsewhere. Yet while that narrow perspective does much to hamper its impact, it nonetheless achieves its limited primary goal: bringing to light the fact that, rather than a man who killed himself simply out of unhappiness or addiction, Williams was a victim of a little-known condition that left him mentally and physically compromised, unsure of himself, and terrifyingly adrift.
As was revealed following his passing, Williams was afflicted with Lewy body dementia, a neurodegenerative disorder in which bad proteins affect neurons in the brain, leading to atypical moods, depression, fear, anxiety, hallucinations, sleep problems, paranoia, and delusions. There’s no cure for Lewy body dementia, nor any way to slow its spread; it expands until, as in Williams’ case—the worst ever seen by Bruce Miller, director of the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco—it corrupts the entire brain. These various symptoms are bad enough on their own. But worse still, they don’t necessarily hamper one’s ability to recognize that something is amiss, meaning stricken individuals are also tormented by the realization that they’re no longer as sharp or lucid or in control of themselves as before. And without a definitive diagnosis indicating what it is that’s changing them, they’re left to question themselves, and their very sanity.
Consequently, even when Williams was informed that he had Parkinson’s (a common semi-misdiagnosis, since they’re related), relief wasn’t forthcoming, because it didn’t fully address what he was experiencing. As recounted by his wife Susan, who serves as the backbone of Norwood’s documentary, the couple tried everything imaginable to remedy the situation, from daily therapist visits, to habitual cycling (Williams was a self-described “bike-sexual”), to meditation and hypnosis, to sleeping apart in the vain hope that it might aid Williams’ horribly restless nights. Alas, there was no fixing the unfixable, which is why the actor eventually chose to escape his agony.
That alone makes Robin’s Wish a terribly sad affair, and director Norwood further pulls on the heartstrings via Susan’s memories of the arduous ordeal of contending with an effervescent and loving husband and artist who was slowly disintegrating before her eyes, and being powerless to stop it. Countless photos of the happy couple accentuate the tragedy of Williams’ passing, and similar anecdotes from a collection of longtime friends and collaborators bolster Susan’s account, including from director Shawn Levy about Williams’ slipping faculties during the making of 2014’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, and producer David E. Kelly about production on CBS’ The Crazy Ones.
Robin’s Wish confirms that everyone was aware Williams was “off” but were clueless about why—or about how to help. As a result, Norwood’s film is designed to educate the public about Lewy body dementia, as well as to accurately restore Williams’ reputation after it was somewhat tarnished by appalling tabloid reports about his death. At the same time, it’s a tribute to the unrivaled improvisatory explosiveness of Williams’ creativity (seen, most thrillingly, in footage of him recording lines for Disney’s Aladdin), and to his renowned open-heartedness and generosity, which was epitomized by the many times he performed overseas for American troops.
It’s in this latter respect, however, that Robin’s Wish feels thin to the point of threadbare. Norwood’s portrait has plenty of heart and a few choice archival clips, such as of Williams riffing on stage with Rick Overton, whom he often joined at Mill Valley, California’s Throckmorton Theatre. Such moments, though, are relatively rare, and untethered to a larger and more cohesive overview of his career. Instead, we get snippets that make us crave additional information that never materializes—for example, about his longstanding friendship with Christopher Reeve, whom he met at Juilliard and admired for his strength after his 1995 horse-riding accident. There’s a frustrating lack of depth to the proceedings that undercuts its snapshot of how Lewy body dementia robbed Williams of himself. In the end, that loss resounds not because of what Robin’s Wish shows us, but because we all feel as if we knew him through his myriad TV and movie triumphs as well as his unforgettable stand-up shows.
That Susan is the only Williams family member to participate in Robin’s Wish only underscores the slightness of its scope, and stymies a grander sense of his artistic trajectory, his unique comedic gifts (rightly described as “like a superpower”), and what he was like once the cameras stopped rolling. Learning about his agony certainly serves a valuable public-service purpose, insofar as it brings greater attention to a condition that many may be suffering from, without knowing the source of their pain. Still, Williams’ story was about more than merely the disease that defined its concluding chapters, and fixating on it to this degree ultimately feels, good intentions aside, a bit reductive.
—If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741