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“You Have to Catch Up”: The Soaring, Sad Legacy of Robin Williams

A new documentary and a recent book each try to make sense of the comedian’s life and work

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Robin Williams loved toy soldiers. Born in Chicago and growing up an only child in the late ’50s and early ’60s, he was pampered but isolated, shuttled at one point to six different Midwestern schools in eight years by a stern Ford-executive father and a goofy free-spirit mother. So he amassed his own army of friends, and gave each soldier a personalized voice and backstory, and taught them all to love him back.

“He would tell me the conversations that were going on in each little section of the battlefield, like he could hear it,” a California high school classmate recalls in Dave Itzkoff’s massive new Williams biography, Robin, published in May. “For me, I’m just seeing these toy soldiers on a huge board. But for Robin, he was hearing the voices in his head and putting them into the minds of these soldiers on this really large battlefield board. I thought, ‘This guy is really interesting.’”

It’s so easy. It’s too easy. But it’s the key to everything. “How do you explain the mental reflexes you deploy—and are deploying tonight—with such awesome speed?” demands Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton, in a 2001 clip that opens the new HBO documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, premiering Monday. “Are you thinking faster than the rest of us? What the hell is going on?” For starters, Williams cackles so hard he almost keels over. I will not even attempt to transcribe his answer; I can barely summarize it. Suffice it to say that like always, all the toy soldiers come pouring back out of his mouth.

He pretends to pry his own head open with a cartoonish creaaak. He unleashes an avalanche of funny voices (from himself as a child to Sally Fields to Charles Darwin) and physical-comedy quirks (he leaps from his chair and prowls the stage as he acts out the words invertebrate and degenerate). He admits he just wanted his mother’s attention, then tries to laugh it off. And he uncorks a shouted speed-lecture on the human brain (“a three-and-a-half-pound gland that pumps neurons constantly!”) that slows down only toward the end: “I believe the human mind is adapting and evolving slowly but surely, but I’m trying not to speak that fast because, eventually, you have to catch up.” Standing ovation. Mission accomplished. We still love you, Robin, and always will. But we will never catch up.

The documentary’s famous talking heads are flush with both awe and pity. David Letterman: “In my head, my first sight of him was that he could fly.” Billy Crystal: “He needed that little extra hug you can only get from strangers.” Lewis Black: “He was like the light that never knew how to turn itself off.” Itzkoff’s book likewise radiates an uneasy reverence. A college friend: “I used to say I knew him for six months before I found out what his real voice was.” Christopher Reeve: “I’ve never seen so much energy contained in one person.” Dana Carvey: “He was very shy and quiet, until he wasn’t.” A mean Juilliard acting instructor, assessing a typical class performance: “You feel fabulous. We see nothing.” An early manager: “He was so fearless that you were afraid.” Robin Williams was a comedy megastar and a harrowing tragic hero, his artistic highs unreachable, his cavernous lows inexplicable. He was the Sad Clown incarnate, a bewildering cocktail of manic and maudlin. He ruled the comedy world for decades, and died by suicide in 2014, amid both personal and professional devastation. A 500-plus-page biography and a two-hour documentary can only begin to describe what was going on. But giving you way too much and still leaving you wanting more was Williams’s specialty.

Directed by Marina Zenovich, HBO’s Come Inside My Mind takes a familiar rise-and-fall shape, but fixates on the fall even during the rise. It’s moody and unsettling even at its cheeriest, like all the sad-music parts of all the other Hollywood documentaries chained together, like a full-length version of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” video. It proceeds chronologically but grows so enamored of Williams’s early years—his lonely Midwest-to-NorCal upbringing and the two half brothers he met later in life, his teacher-imitating comedy roots, his brief NYC dalliance with Serious Acting at Juilliard, his raucous barnstorming of the L.A. stand-up scene, his 1978 breakout on the cheeseball ABC sitcom Mork & Mindy—that it takes a full hour to get to his first blockbuster movie, 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam. His other blockbusters are dealt with tersely, via a brisk scroll of movie posters (Dead Poets Society! Hook! The Fisher King! Mrs. Doubtfire! Jumanji!) en route to an extended meditation on his troubled 1988 Broadway version of Waiting for Godot, opposite Steve Martin.

In terms of brightening Williams’s darkest corners, this is the right path, but it’s an awfully dispiriting one. (Steve Martin, on his addiction-plagued costar: “I think he was clean, and it was a very difficult clean.”) His voracious appetites for alcohol, drugs, and women destroyed two marriages—to L.A. dance instructor Valerie Velardi and nanny-turned-creative-confidante Marsha Garces—that produced three children, only one of whom appears as a Come Inside My Mind talking head. “His pathos was seeking to entertain and please,” says Williams’s oldest son, Zak. “And he felt when he wasn’t doing that, he was not succeeding as a person. And that was always hard to see, because in so many senses he was the most successful person I know.”

Even the comedian’s biggest and brightest successes are mined for that pathos: When we finally get a clip from the loopy, big-hearted melodrama Mrs. Doubtfire, it’s his character somberly realizing that Sally Field’s character doesn’t love him anymore. Other than a litany of heavy hitters—including Crystal, Letterman, Eric Idle, and Whoopi Goldberg—praising his epochal stand-up, there’s little explanation for how Williams became such a multiplex superstar, probably because it was obvious to anyone who ever laid eyes on him. At the height of his powers, he could make utter silliness seem positively and sometimes literally Shakespearean, a motormouth virtuoso who told a joke a second and tried on a new accent every five seconds, who was comprehensible 60 percent of the time and actually funny 40 percent of the time and delightful 100 percent of the time regardless. It is, to the movie’s mind, a foregone conclusion that Robin Williams would find nearly unprecedented fame and fortune. It is likewise a foregone conclusion that his fame and fortune would help destroy him.

Itzkoff’s book, as thorough and as warm and as nonetheless unsparing a Great Comedian biography as you could ask for, is divided into three equal sections: Comet, Star, and Supernova. The Supernova section, which is tough sledding indeed, starts with Woody Allen’s 1997 film Deconstructing Harry, in which Williams plays a troubled actor named Mel who is literally out of focus: He registers as blurry both on-camera and to his bewildered family. “The punch line being that, while Mel’s family must all wear prescription glasses to see him correctly,” Itzkoff writes, “he is not required to adjust his life or behavior in any way.”

That’s Robin Williams, and that’s Robin. His talent for improvisation and mimicry and light-speed characterization had few worthy antecedents (though he did idolize Jonathan Winters, in part because that wryly trailblazing comic could even make young Robin’s father laugh) and inspired few worthy descendants. (Though Williams did fret about the dizzying rise of a young Jim Carrey.) His genius was sui generis; his bad behavior was sadly more pedestrian. A consensus among Williams’s family and friends seems to be that he was too pure, too childlike, to be truly guilty of any wrongdoing, whether it was credible L.A.-era accusations of joke stealing or his poorly aging litany of “ethnic” accents and jokes. “He’d look at you, really playful, like a puppy, all of a sudden,” Mork & Mindy costar Pam Dawber tells Itzkoff. “And then he’d grab your tits and then run away. And somehow he could get away with it. It was the seventies, after all.”

Dawber is a hugely effective presence, adoring and yet exasperated, in both Robin and Come Inside My Mind, the latter in which she chokes up while recounting the disturbing 1982 Zelig-like incident when Williams, by pure coincidence, visited and departed John Belushi’s Chateau Marmont bungalow early on the night of Belushi’s death. That close call was enough to largely steer Williams away from alcohol and drugs for two decades, but his 10-year marriage to Velardi imploded in 1988. And though his romantic relationship with Garces—whom Velardi herself had hired to be Zak’s nanny—started after the divorce, the tabloid optics weren’t great, even if People magazine nefariously fudged the timeline.

His 1989 marriage to Garces (who, like her two children with Williams, does not appear in the documentary) foundered in the late 2000s, following Williams’s well-publicized relapse, which began during a brutal Alaska shoot for the forgotten 2005 drama The Big White. By the accounts of his wives and his children, he was a doting, if often absent, father, but a theme of the book and the movie both is that his public life inevitably poisoned his private life. “Robin was a genius, and genius doesn’t produce normal men next door who are good family men and look after their wives and children,” The New Yorker writer and Williams confidante Lillian Ross tells Itzkoff. “Genius requires its own way of looking at and living in the world, and it isn’t always compatible with conventional ways of living.”

The dissolution of his second marriage coincided with the puzzlingly gargantuan downslide of his career. In 1998, after a solid decade of multiplex superstardom, Williams won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in Good Will Hunting, a soulful but mischievous part, the apex of the sentimental-cornball style he’d long ago mastered. (His fury in the “I will end you” scene, however, was apparently very real, or at least, Matt Damon still felt it in the morning.) The vast majority of the 30-plus movies he’d make from that point forward were either critical punching bags or commercial bombs, or both. In 1998 and 1999 came the mawkish afterlife dramedy What Dreams May Come, the disastrous doctor-as-clown tear-jerker Patch Adams, the wayward Holocaust fable Jakob the Liar, and the goopy sci-fi misfire Bicentennial Man. Suddenly, and seemingly permanently, the man who could do no wrong could do no right.

Itzkoff’s book is invaluable at both tracing this decline and at least trying to explain it. Robin couldn’t keep his laugh-a-second antics up forever; he had a fundamental humanity and sentimentality that he was committed to exploring even as his options dwindled and his possible scripts got worse. (“Maybe it’s because I want to help people that I play so many doctors,” he mused shortly before the release of Patch Adams, his fifth role as a physician in eight years. “And I like to put on rubber gloves.”) But he also wanted to delve into gray areas and dark sides, playing the villain in eerie thrillers like Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, both from 2002. Even his comedies turned pitch black, from 2002’s kid-show satire Death to Smoochy to Bobcat Goldthwait’s admired but hard to stomach 2009 provocation World’s Greatest Dad.

Few of these movies are, in the classic sense, watchable. But the public schadenfreude of this era, in terms of both his vicious no-star reviews and his box-office washout, is plainly outsized in retrospect. Come Inside My Mind peaks, grimly, with the scene at the 2003 Critics Choice Awards, in which Williams was nominated for Best Actor for One Hour Photo, along with Daniel Day-Lewis (for Gangs of New York) and Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt). Salma Hayek, as the presenter, announces that the winner is a tie ... between Nicholson and Day-Lewis.

Somewhere in the 10 minutes of unbearable onstage chaos that follows, Nicholson summons Williams to the stage, a lovely humanitarian gesture that doubles, in an inadvertently less heartwarming way, as a request for the Sad Clown to do the whole motormouth-genius shtick to help smooth things over. Which Williams does, dutifully: “It’s been a wonderful evening for me, to walk away with nothing. Coming here with no expectations. Leaving here with no expectations. It’s pretty much been a Buddhist evening for me.” He is graceful in needlessly cruel defeat, but the whole scene leaves you shaking with fury on his behalf.

The documentary has its flashes of artistic insight, too, especially in regard to the 1990 drama Awakenings, in which Williams played a fictional version of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, the most poignant of his myriad doctor roles. In behind-the-scenes footage, we see Williams meeting with a real-life patient with Tourette syndrome and expressing something close to awe: “Here’s a disease that basically makes you do, physically, things you have no control over. Along with it comes this incredible mental exhilaration that you think faster than most people.” You get a sense of the terrible burden that accompanied the immaculate gift, that his vaunted “awesome speed” could hurtle him both upward and downward.

To that end, the movie struggles, as the whole world has struggled, to make sense, or at least make peace, with Williams’s death. In 2014 he was still struggling with sobriety, still recovering from a 2009 heart surgery, and twice divorced and remarried to Susan Schneider, an artist he met at an Apple Store. (They bonded over the ineffectiveness of his camouflage outfit.) His work, including the lifeless 2013 CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones, had not improved; his health, both physically and mentally, was abruptly deteriorating. In May 2014, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; on the morning of August 11, he was found dead in his home in Tiburon, California, of an apparent suicide. In both Robin and Come Inside My Head, his friends and families struggle to reconcile the voracious joy of his life with his decision to end it; an autopsy revealed that he was suffering from Lewy body dementia, a neurological disease with a high risk of suicide. As Goldthwait tells an interviewer in the documentary, “His brain was giving him misinformation.”

Come Inside My Mind attempts an uplifting ending, first by replaying the famous Carpe Diem scene from 1989’s Dead Poets Society, in which Williams’s superstar teacher encourages his charges to seize the day by reminding them that they’re doomed. “Because you see, gentlemen,” he purrs, as the camera pans over black-and-white photos of fresh-faced students of yore, “these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.” As pure sentimentality goes, this works beautifully, but don’t push it. The documentary ends with an old, oft-quoted Williams stand-up bit that in 2018 sounds a little too much like a mawkish Instagram caption: “You’re only given a little spark of madness. And if you lose that, you’re nothing.”

Itzkoff writes that the news of Williams’s death “cloaked the planet in a shadow of sadness.” But for me, the sadness peaked a few chapters earlier, when he returns to Tiburon alone after his divorce from Graces, and buys a new house, and, as his friend Lisa Birnbach explains it, indulges in an old pastime: “He had a huge room that was like a safe room—a bunker, no windows—with the most meticulously kept collections of soldiers from every war that soldiers were made … I don’t think he let people in that room much. And it was spotless. I think if you moved a soldier at all, he would know it. People wondered, why is he collecting them, still? But I think they were his friends.”

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.