When Robin Williams died in 2014 at the age of 63, the tabloids filled in the blanks. The front pages speculated on the return of his well-documented demons: Williams had a history of depression, alcohol addiction and cocaine use. Then came the postmortem, revealing that actually he’d been suffering from an undiagnosed degenerative brain disease, Lewy body dementia. Which explained his symptoms in last 18 or so months of life: Parkinson’s-like tremors, visual hallucinations, paranoid delusions and sleep disturbance. As a neurologist puts it, he must have been terrified.
In this sensitive, desperately sad documentary, Williams’s widow, Susan Schneider, along with friends and colleagues, describes his decline. For a while, things just hadn’t seemed right. There’s footage from the set of his final movie, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb; he looks blank and distracted – the alertness and anarchic wit gone. “He was just sort of off,” says a friend. He couldn’t remember his lines. He hadn’t slept for months. There were times he followed Susan around the house.
Robin’s Wish is not a wide-ranging documentary about Williams’s life. It only briefly sketches in his career, from early ambitions of serious acting at the Juilliard drama school in New York to standup stardom (“he drained every scintilla of laughter out of the crowd”) and Hollywood. In archive footage, he discusses his self-destructive streak (he got sober after his friend John Belushi died from a drug overdose), but there’s nothing on Williams’ two previous marriages or three children.
What’s never in doubt is his warmth and loyalty as a friend. He lived with Susan in a well-off north Californian suburb, friends with their ordinary middle-class neighbours, a few of them interviewed here (I’d hazard a guess that at least one is a retired dentist). In old footage, Superman actor Christopher Reeve says that Williams was there in a shot by his hospital bedside when he was paralysed in a horse riding accident. Another showbiz pal, the legendary comedian Mort Sahl, now very frail at 93, eyes damp with tremendous sincerity, says of his friend: “He understood the bigness of love.” What a way to be remembered.
• Released on 4 January on digital formats.