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A New HBO Doc Goes Inside the Genius Mind of Robin Williams

Shedding light on the late Marin comic’s restless spirit.

Robin Williams in 1988, a year after Good Morning, Vietnam.

 

Protean. Manic. A force of nature. People have tried to understand Robin Williams’s improvisational genius ever since he first hit the stand-up stage at the Holy City Zoo in the Richmond in the mid-1970s. So it’s fitting that director Marina Zenovich opens her new documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (July 16, HBO), with a clip from Williams’s 2001 appearance on Inside the Actors Studio in which James Lipton asks him point-blank: “Are you thinking faster than the rest of us? What the hell is going on?”

By way of an answer, Williams launches into one of his signature improvisational rants: six and a half minutes of antic gestures and contortions, of disappearing into and out of characters and accents. “That was probably the best illustration we had of his genius in action,” says Zenovich, who previously directed Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008) and Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (2013).

The film tracks Williams’s meteoric ascent—from San Francisco’s stand-up club scene to his role as Mork from Ork to Hollywood celebrity with Good Morning, Vietnam and Good Will Hunting—and his spiraling descent, marked by rehab, depression, two failed marriages, and finally his 2014 suicide at his home in Tiburon, widely blamed on Lewy body dementia, which was misdiagnosed during his life as Parkinson’s disease.

In making the film, Zenovich calls herself “part psychologist, part detective.” She says she’s fascinated by “all the duality in Robin. He was an actor’s actor”—Williams studied under John Houseman at Juilliard—“but was also fluent in gibberish.” The documentary includes an audio clip of the very first time Williams performed stand-up: Impersonating his Redwood High School history teacher in front of the class, Williams was clearly hooked on his peers’ laughter. In a voice-over, he says, “It was like sex, without the guilt.”

Four years after his death, Williams is experiencing a moment of renewed critical fascination. The documentary airs on the heels of Dave Itzkoff’s bestselling biography, Robin; both are exhaustively researched attempts to peel back the layers of fame and restlessness and shed light on how performing fed Williams’s lifelong, desperate need for approval. The Bay Area itself looms large in Williams’s origin story: His family relocated from Michigan to Marin County in 1968, when Williams was 17. “I think he literally had his mind blown,” Zenovich says of the move. “He saw that there was so much more than the stuffy life he was used to. It allowed him to turn on his on button—to become who he was meant to become.”

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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