The world was stunned when Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014 at age 63. But anyone who had ever seen Williams do stand-up–his ideas spiraling out in dazzling, free-association whirls–might have known that it couldn’t have been easy to live with that brain. The HBO documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind gives us some sense of how that magnificent chambered nautilus worked, what kept its gears whirring and what haunted it.
Director Marina Zenovich has gathered clips from every stage of Williams’ career, from footage of his early improv days in San Francisco to clips from his time as a fledgling comic in Los Angeles to snippets from movies like The Fisher King and Good Will Hunting. On-camera interviews with Williams’ first wife, Valerie Velardi, and close friends and colleagues like Billy Crystal, David Letterman and Steve Martin help flesh out this picture of an artist who tended to be extremely quiet in his off hours but who poured every drop of his soul into his performances.
There’s no way to tell this story without hitting some almost unbearably sad notes. Williams’ son Zachary points out that his father felt that if he wasn’t making people laugh, he wasn’t “succeeding as a person.” Williams had fought drug and alcohol problems. Near the end of his life he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, though an autopsy revealed he actually had Lewy body dementia; both conditions affect brain and motor function. But even if Come Inside My Mind faces the truth of Williams’ anguish, it’s mostly celebratory. Zenovich includes some commentary from Williams himself, recorded several years before he died, providing background on his early family life and his education at Juilliard. He speaks of studying with the revered and ultra-serious John Houseman, and of how he once came up with a little gag that tickled his teacher. “Buddha laughed,” Williams says. That spurred him on and, to our great delight, he just kept going.
This appears in the July 23, 2018 issue of TIME.
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