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HBO Debuts 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind'
July 16, 2018  | By David Hinckley

HBO’s new documentary on the late Robin Williams may enhance our appreciation of his comic genius, not that it needs much enhancement. It does less to enhance our understanding of his conflicted private life.

That’s not to diminish Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, a two-hour documentary by Marina Zenovich that premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET.

It’s openly affectionate, it talks to important people from his life and it selects performance clips that nicely track his career.

It only provides glimpses, however, of who Robin Williams became when the cameras stopped rolling.  

David Letterman, who rhapsodizes about the bond among young comedians in the cowboy world of early-1970s Los Angeles, says that many years later he formed a deeper friendship with Williams over their new role as fathers.

Valerie Velardi (left), Williams’s first wife, recalls how they moved out of L.A. to northern California in the early 1980s so Williams could escape the drug-fueled craziness that had just led to the death of his friend John Belushi.

Williams wanted to decelerate and live a saner life, she says.

She then adds that as the ‘80s progressed, their marriage fell apart because Williams needed to move back into the action – not the drugs, necessarily, but the high-wire showbiz world where he had now become a movie star as well as a comedy icon.

Off-camera, Velardi says, Williams was quiet. That’s not an uncommon description of even the wildest comedians, but it’s notable in this documentary that not many other people who knew Williams say much of anything about his private demeanor.

Come Inside My Mind includes a number of Williams’s own words, from talk show appearances and other interviews, and they also don’t provide all that much illumination.

Williams was a master at answering a potentially serious question with a marvelous joke. He could turn the simplest sentence into a manic routine, which was part of the reason he became such a memorable comedian and also provided a handy mechanism for avoiding anything he didn’t really want to discuss.  

Williams’s childhood, Zenovich suggests, was comfortable and a little lonely.

Growing up without siblings, he learned to entertain himself, and became fascinated with comedians like Jonathan Winters. He spent time excelling in an all-boys prep school, a path that swiveled 180 degrees when the family moved to California and he discovered other options.  

He plunged into the exploding youth culture he found there, incorporating its rich panorama into his embryonic style of entertaining talk.

As Come Inside My Mind reminds us, he became a crazy man when he started talking, not telling jokes as much as spitting out a rapid-fire monologue for which he seemed to draw on a galaxy of references. He didn’t give audiences time to analyze anything  instead tossing them into a raft that went careening down his wild river. Hang on and enjoy the ride.

The documentary doesn’t delve into his creative process, or ruminate on whether that would even be possible. A couple of friends say that while he had a lightning-fast mind, he did a lot of prep work before he took those monologues on stage.

After he committed suicide in August 2014 at the age of 63, it was morbid but natural to ask whether he was finally overtaken by his crazed Robin Williams persona, that the careening raft finally just flipped and took him under.

Come Inside My Mind suggests he did carry around some demons that made his life more difficult than we outsiders think stardom must be.

That’s hardly uncommon among the famous, however, and the prelude to his death seems much less dramatic. He had diffuse Lewy Body Dementia, a Parkinsons-related affliction that triggers cruel malfunctions in the brain and body.

Susan Schneider, to whom he was married at the time of his death, has said the disease triggered the depression that precipitated his suicide. She isn’t interviewed here, but Williams’s friend Bobcat Goldthwait makes a similar point, saying Williams’s brain was sending misdirected signals to his body.

Zenovich works hard not to let the tragic end of Williams’s story overshadow either his earlier triumphs or his legacy. She also makes it clear that he paid a price – and that the details of that price were very likely scattered with his ashes over San Francisco Bay.

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