The news of Robin Williams’ 2014 death at his own hands was emotionally devastating. Not just because it was the tragic loss of a great talent, but also because it seemed unfathomable that such a brilliant entertainer, one who had brought so much joy to millions, could have felt such despair. It was thus an ironic relief to hear months later that he had been unknowingly suffering not from depression nor addiction issues (both of which he had struggled with in the past) but rather the devastating neurological illness Lewy body dementia. The diagnosis came too late to help Williams, but it delivered some comfort to those who had been struggling with accepting the loss.
Tylor Norwood’s documentary provides further illumination and insight into the performer’s tragic condition. Chronicling the troubled last year of Williams’ life, during which he suffered from terrifying symptoms he couldn’t understand, Robin’s Wish proves both emotionally harrowing and cathartic.
A moving coda to a life ended much too soon.
“I just want to reboot my brain,” a desperate Williams told his wife, Susan Schneider Williams, the central figure in the documentary. For many months, he had been suffering from insomnia, paranoia, anxiety and visual hallucinations, all signs of the disease that would eventually undo him. After experiencing hand tremors, Williams was falsely diagnosed with a mild case of Parkinson’s disease, but he didn’t buy it.
Williams’ friends, neighbors and colleagues, several of whom are interviewed in the documentary, noticed that Williams was hurting. One neighbor confesses that, after hearing of Williams’ suicide, “I felt remorse and guilt. I could have done more. I should have done more.” David E. Kelley and Shawn Levy, who collaborated with the actor on the television series The Crazy Ones and the final Night at the Museum film, respectively, talk about how they could see that Williams was having trouble remembering his lines and maintaining his customary manic energy. “His mind was not firing at the same speed,” notes Levy, who says that he and everyone working on the film took pains to be discreet about Williams’ issues. In behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the Museum film, Williams is seen looking morose, his uncharacteristic insecurity clearly evident.
As the actor’s condition worsened, he became more desperate and frightened. Advised by doctors to sleep apart from his wife due to his insomnia issues, a confused Williams pathetically asked her, “Does this mean we’re separated?” On the final day of his life, he stopped by a neighbor’s home, saying “Boss, I really need a hug,” and broke out into tears. The account of Williams’ final days, juxtaposed with footage and photographs of earlier times spotlighting his happy domestic life and undiminished comic talents, proves almost unbearably moving. The film’s several detours into such subjects as Williams’ love for performing for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and his deep friendship with actor Christopher Reeve, are also powerful.
Robin’s Wish suffers at times from its lack of objectivity. Williams’ widow is clearly the project’s driving force, with much of the story told from her perspective (his children, on the other hand, are not heard from at all). Nonetheless, the film, which incorporates testimony from several medical experts, fully succeeds in its admirable goal of using Williams’ story to shed light on a disease with which many people were previously unfamiliar. The title, by the way, refers to an inscription that the actor wrote in a book of meditations: “I want to help people be less afraid.” There’s no doubt that he fulfilled that ambition.
Available on demand and in digital formats
Production company: Quotable Pictures
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Director/director of photography: Tylor Norwood
Producers: Tylor Norwood, Ben Sinclair
Executive producers: Shoshana Ungerleider, Mylea Charvat, Tylor Norwood, Jim Czarnecki
Editor: Scott Fitzloff
Composer: Aaron Drake