PARK CITY, Utah ― Robin Williams grew up as an only child to a fun-loving mother and businessman father far outside the Hollywood machine. But the moment he witnessed his stern dad laugh out loud at Jonathan Winters’ stick routine on “The Jack Paar Show,” Williams knew he wanted to be a performer.
Nearly four years after Williams’ death, HBO is set to release a new documentary on the beloved comedian’s life and one-of-a-kind career. “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” directed by Marina Zenovich and produced by Alex Gibney and Shirel Kozak, made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday night to a sold-out crowd. Audience members diligently followed the story of the award-winning actor from his childhood experiences at home and in school to his tragic suicide at age 63.
Featuring new interviews with Williams’ first wife, Valerie Velardi, “Mork & Mindy” co-star Pam Dawber, friends David Letterman and Billy Crystal, and his son Zak Williams, the film highlights the actor’s creative genius through some of his most beloved stage and screen performances, including “A Night at the Met,” “Happy Days,” Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Aladdin,” his USO tour, “Good Will Hunting” and “Dead Poets Society.”
It also shines a light on Williams’ personal life ― namely, his three marriages, his addiction to drugs and alcohol, and his friendships with the likes of John Belushi, Bobcat Goldthwait and Crystal.
The best bit of the film involves voicemails that Williams left for Crystal, which play over a montage of photos of the close duo. Williams would try out various character impressions, like “Sam from the Syphilis Society,” to get a rise out of his buddy. Crystal returned the favor when Williams underwent an aortic valve replacement in 2009, leaving him voicemails from “Vinny the Valve Guy” to help ease his recovery post-surgery.
Crystal reiterates that he wanted to be friends with Williams since the day he met the eccentric comedian in the 1980s. “I had no agenda,” Crystal says in the film, “I just liked him.”
One of the most profound moments revolves around Belushi’s overdose ― Williams was with the “SNL” star at his bungalow the night before he died. On the “Mork & Mindy” set the next day, Dawber informed Williams that Belushi had died, making a point to tell a cocaine-using Williams that she didn’t want him to end up like Belushi. And he promised he never would.
“It sobered the shit out of me,” Williams admitted in a soundbite from one of the many interviews Zenovich and her team dug up for the documentary.
Throughout his life, Williams used humor and performance as another way to get the “high” he craved in his day-to-day, according to many of the interviewees in the film. Zak Williams reveals that his father’s calling ― his desire to get from Hollywood what he needed ― took him away from Zak and his half-siblings, Zelda and Cody.
Although Williams was a standout entertainer, behind closed doors he was a mild-mannered introvert, as both behind-the-scenes archival footage and personal videos reveal. Performer Williams was electric, while Real-Life Williams was vulnerable and quiet.
“He was really comfortable onstage and less comfortable off,” his “Waiting for Godot” co-star Steve Martin said in the doc.
Yet for most, it was hard not to fall for Williams. Every person interviewed for “Come Inside My Mind” seemed eager to share heartfelt memories and stories about the actor’s craft, humor and personality.
“He could levitate,” Letterman said.
“The urge to be funny was so innate to him,” “One Hour Photo” filmmaker Mark Romanek added.
In 2006, Williams fell back into alcohol use to numb some of the pain he endured. Though he did get clean and continued to treat his addiction until the end of his life in 2014, the effort did not protect him from a misdiagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. In truth, he suffered from Lewy body dementia, which was almost surely a factor in his suicide, Goldthwait said.
Perhaps comedian Lewis Black described Williams best in the film, stating, “[He was] the light that never knew how to turn itself off.”
“Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” will air on HBO this fall and is now screening at Sundance.